TW: police brutality, murder, violence, racism
Tyler Johnson Was Here was on my TBR before it ever even got released. When I saw the cover and read the blurb, I knew this was yet another very important read. It’s not the first time I am tackling the issue of police brutality through fiction on my blog. The thing is, those reads are never easy (and they’re not supposed to be), but that’s not the reason I hadn’t gotten to Tyler Johnson Was Here earlier. I don’t know why it slipped through my fingers, but the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed in the US and all over the world were a terrible reminder of how this is still very much the reality for Black people and people of color out there. So, I felt more compelled than ever to finally get to this book.
Jay Coles does not shy away from making it very clear that police brutality is a constant companion in some people’s lives. I hate the thought that children who should be carefree and playing with friends have to be educated by their parents about how to behave when the police stops them. How they could have done not even the slightest thing wrong, but everything they say or do could be construed as dangerous at the whim of some stranger. While most of the novels I have read before focus on one specific event of police brutality, Coles shows several incidents, each one shaking you to the core alongside the characters. So, while the main turning point that is mentioned in the blurb “only” occurs at the half-way point, you get this build-up of this constant companion of fear.
The cop yells, “Everybody shut the fuck up.” He looks at the three of us. “You three better get out of here before you’re next.” And now I’m wondering: What does next mean? Next to be treated like a punching bag or an animal? Next to lose my life?
I found myself very quickly attached to Marvin, the main protagonist. He is gentle, kind and smart and has a voice I loved to read about. Tyler is different and similar to him, two sides of the same coin. They were on the verge of growing apart a little bit, but still had that unbreakable bond. Marvin’s sadness was palpable on every single page while reading and I was close to shedding tears more than once. I never doubted that he was stronger than he thought himself capable of (albeit sad he had to be), but he was so incredibly brave towards the end. It was great to see his development throughout the story and see him stand up for what he believes in.
Yes, I’m willing to die for this cause, but the fact that there’s even a chance that I’ll die, become a hashtag, be remembered briefly, and then be completely forgotten and marked as a statistic fucking terrifies me.
I only wish I would have learned as much or at least a bit more about his friends and love interest. I understand that his mind was very much occupied by a traumatic event and I could see how much he cared for and appreciated the people in his life. But still, they fell a bit flat for me in comparison to Marvin, who we got a great feel for! Nonetheless, I enjoyed the focus on community and how it can be a source of strength in such trying times.
Some days, when I do, I just stare at the blackness I see in the mirror hanging on my closet door. I tell myself that I love this skin, that I’ve always loved my blackness, that if the world doesn’t love me, I will love myself for the both of us. After reminding myself that I matter, that I’ve always mattered, that Tyler mattered and still does, I make a promise to myself. I promise to never be silent about things that matter.
I don’t think the story needed a stronger focus on the trial, because the outcome wasn’t what was most important to Marvin in the end. He found his meaning of freedom and what mattered most to him through other means and in honoring his brother in his own way. Still, I’d like to say something: Video evidence should not be necessary to get people heard or to get a conviction or even as much as an arrest. People should not have to be excellent in order to not get killed by the people who were supposed to protect them. It all makes me so very angry, but I’m not surprised anymore. If you are still surprised by any of this, you haven’t been paying attention, because this has been happening for a while now.
Fazit: 4.5/5 stars! Another very important read!
If you want to engage with this topic through fiction some more, here are a couple books I have read and can recommend (as I am sure there are many more that I have not yet read that are really great):
Having said all that, I also encourage you to check out some non-fiction books. I have to work harder on that myself, but I found Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (part memoir, part essay) very insightful. I have also heard great things abut Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad.
More resources: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/
Have you read Tyler Johnson Was Here? Do you plan on picking it up? Let’s chat!