The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Starr Carter is living a double life “at Williamson I don’t have to “play it cool”—I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden heights, and that’s more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day. Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.”
Starr Carter’s story is told in the first person in Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give. She lives a relatively stable family life in Garden Heights with her mother Lisa, a nurse, brothers Sekani and Seven and father Mav, a former gang member who served time and now runs a neighborhood shop, who wants to see his neighborhood become a safe place for family. But Starr and her siblings attend a predominantly white prep school forty-five minutes away, Williamson, and the two worlds rarely cross paths.
Starr’s ability to code-switch between these worlds becomes increasingly difficult after she witnesses death of her childhood friend Khalil, who is unarmed, at the hands of a police officer. It’s something she wants to keep secret, from her own neighborhood and the world of her school friends Hailey (white) and Maya (Chinese American) and her white boyfriend Chris, as she has the drive-by shooting of her other childhood friend, Natasha, at the age of 10.
In this dazzling debut Angie Thomas has written a book that is marketed as a Young Adult book but is a gripping and insightful read for any age. It’s sometimes hard to remember that the shootings of so many black men in the last few years have included many teenagers, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice among them. So as difficult a subject as this is, it’s right that there should be a novel that looks at this issue through the eyes of a 16-year old black teen.
Starr is smart, thoughtful and observant but she is still a teenager. She’s grappling with the issues that are fodder for so many YA books – mean girls, the meaning of friendship, and of course, first love. As if that isn’t enough, she is under pressure by her uncle Carlos, a cop, to give testimony in the shooting case.
Her fear is explored beautifully by Thomas, it’s not just that she feels that her life at Williamson, where she already feels like an imposter, will be upended, it’s also about the futility she and many in the community feel about the prospects of seeing justice served. In addition, she doesn’t want to be the subject of attention by local gangs. She is scared. “I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person and I’m too afraid to speak.”
Like so many young African-Americans in this country Starr was “the talk” by her father at the tender age of 12, how to act in front of the cops. “He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot. “Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,” he said. “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves, only speak when they speak to you.” Her father taught her to make sure she remembered the badge number of the officer and what he looked like. For her, the officer is one-fifteen, she never names him but always refers to him by his badge number.
As the story becomes public it follows the rituals that we are so familiar with media treatment of real-life stories; the demonization of the victim, a possible drug dealer, perhaps an imperfect past, an officer scared for his life; the saintly depiction of the officer, family man who just wanted to help people, his life now ruined, always acting in self-defense. As a witness to the events Starr is appalled and confused by the picture being painted of her childhood friend, and embarrassed at her own initial reactions to the things being said about him and her unwillingness to set that record straight.
Thomas brings such sensitivity and understanding of the challenges Starr must go through, not just reliving the nightmare of the shooting and what might have happened to her but also interacting with the police and prosecutors as the case winds its way through the investigation and grand jury hearing.
Thomas also doesn’t forget to focus on universal stress of being a 16-year old kid which is compounded by her presence at her school and everything it represents and her need to confound expectations.
“I get out the car. For at least seven hours I don’t have to talk about One-Fifteen. I don’t have to think about Khalil. I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson and have a normal day. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto. I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.”
There is both a clarity and an urgency to Thomas’ writing. The reader is immersed completely in a world that many Americans probably have unfounded assumptions by. Such is the coverage of the stories of communities of color, particularly around police shootings, it is easy to forget that we are talking about real life people, and real life situations that are having a profound effect, particularly on young people. Thomas’ title hails from the late rapper Tupac Shakur who had the words THUG LIFE tattooed on his body, standing for “The Hate U—the letter U---Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” It is a reminder that for every story of an unarmed black person murdered by the police, there is a lasting effect on every person in that community, especially the young.
I urge you to read this book and then pass it along to a friend or acquaintance, particularly a teen, who will have their eyes opened by a novel that focuses on a world that gets short shrift in our news coverage. Angie Thomas has written not just a great novel, but a great novel for the times we live in, in the era of black lives matter, and deteriorating race relations, this is one book that everyone in the country, not just law enforcement and lawmakers, could benefit from reading.
BEFORE YOU READ:
Length: 444 pages
Genre: YA Fiction, Crime fiction
Themes: police shootings, race, high school relationships, family, finding your voice
Commitment: Don’t be put off by the length, you will race through this thoroughly absorbing and important book.