The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a debut novel that serves as a compelling commentary on the cycle of systemic oppression and ongoing prejudice that black Americans are facing today, told through the narration of 16-year old Starr Carter.
While you are likely to find this book in the young-adult section of your local bookstore, this 2018 Reading Across Rhode Island selection is a must-read for both youth and adults alike.
While the protagonist Starr surely would love to be doing all of the things a typical 16-year-old likes to do, she is instead faced with trauma and tragedy after witnessing a police officer shoot her unarmed best friend during a traffic stop. The story follows Starr on her unsteady journey to find her strength, her voice and her inner activist as the only witness of an unjustified police shooting.
Starr’s path is complicated by the fact the she is constantly code-switching in order to fit into two very different worlds. Starr lives in the socioeconomically deprived, predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights, but attends a predominantly white upper class, private school Williamson. She essentially has to come to terms with her trauma as if she is two different people. Her friends at school make clear assumptions that the victim of the shooting had to be a drug dealer and gang member. The author makes a strong case for recognizing that implicit bias is widespread, and it results in assumption, and those assumptions are in turn dehumanizing. It becomes a glaringly obvious that many of the people in Starr’s life have not come to terms with, or at a minimum, recognized their privilege and Starr has to decide which relationships are worthy of her energy.
Though protective at times, Starr finds much of her strength in her supportive family, especially her father, Big Mav, who owns a small market in her neighborhood. Big Mav provides Starr with insight about the shooting and the cycle of oppression that face their family and neighbors, and she discovers her bravery with his words always at the back of her mind.
At one point in the book, Big Mav and Starr are talking about the meaning of Thug Life and the meaning that it holds for their community.
“You know ‘bout that?”
“Yeah. Khalil told me what he thought it means. We were listening to Tupac right before…you know.”
“A’ight, so what do you think it means”
“You don’t know?” I ask.
“I know. I wanna hear what you think.”
Here he goes. Picking my brain. “Khalil said it’s about what society feeds us as youth and how it comes back and bites them later,” I say. “I think it’s about more than youth though. I think it’s about us, period.”
“Us who?” he asks.
“Black people, minorities, poor people. Everybody at the bottom in society.”
“The oppressed,” says Daddy.
The Hate U Give echos many stories that have been portrayed on the news, in the papers and on social media feeds about black men and women being subject to extreme police violence, racial profiling and implicit and explicit bias on a daily bias. The story of Starr Carter, though fictional, provides context, depth and perspective to the struggles of those who are not white and are not wealthy. At times, the story is difficult to read because it brings to life the horrific trauma of witnessing extreme violence, but in that same right, the way Thomas is able to bring her characters to life is exactly why you won’t be able to stop reading. The reader is right alongside Starr in her journey, and you will desperately want closure just as much as Starr and her family do. No promises about whether you will get the end you hope for, but it’s a guarantee that you will be hard-pressed to put The Hate U Give down.
Thomas said she was moved to write this novel in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, all unarmed black youth who have been the victims of gun violence, most at the hands of police or in the case of Michael Brown, a neighborhood vigilante. Since childhood, Thomas has been inspired by other stories as well. At a recent talk at Savoy Books in Westerly, she spoke of three men whose tragic murders served as motivation to write The Hate U Give. Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader and former leader of the NAACP in Thomas’ home state of Mississippi who was gunned down in his driveway in 1963; Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after a white woman said he whistled at her (the woman who named him recently recanted her statement); and rapper Tupac Shakur, from whom the title of her book was derived. Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, was a Black Panther and was acquitted of more than 100 counts of conspiracy against the United States government just before Tupac was born. Tupac, who was an activist in his own right, brought the Thug Life movement into the spotlight. For readers who didn’t already know, Thug Life is an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.
Thomas’s words challenge many false-narratives that have dominated culture for too long, such as the beliefs that racism ended with the Civil Rights movement or that people who work hard have money and power and people who don’t have those things don’t work hard enough. It should be read widely and across all groups.
Pick up a copy at The Collective in Peace Dale, Rhode Island. Patrons can also participate in donating books to local classrooms by visiting www.TheCollective401.com.