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 picture on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I’ve 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.
I loved The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This is one of those books that’s gotten a lot of “buzz,”and sometimes that makes a reader not want to pick something up. Sometimes the buzz is just too much to live up to. I can only speak for myself when I say that, for me, it lived up to the hype.
I don’t typically read a lot of YA/Teen books, and I don’t think this book was really written with someone like me in mind, a 40 year-old white woman in Tennessee. I really do think this was intended for young people, and I think that it would be particularly mind-blowing for young white people. I know that if I’d read something like this when I was 14 or 15, it would have exploded my brain in the best of ways. That said, I think it still has much to offer us “old folks.”
A brief set-up for those who haven’t come across it: it centers on Starr Carter, a 16 year-old African American girl living in contemporary times in a poor black neighborhood called Garden Heights. She’s attending a predominantly white private high school called Williamson that’s 45 minutes away. Navigating relationships and friendships between the two worlds isn’t easy. Her sense of self and how she feels she can talk and act shifts depending on where she is. Her dad owns a store in the neighborhood, and his sense of duty to provide services and positive energy to the people in Garden Heights keeps him from moving their family away somewhere safer, despite Starr’s mother’s desire to move. When Starr was ten years old, one of her best friends, Natasha, was killed before her eyes in a gang-related drive-by shooting. Six years later, driving home from a party with another good childhood friend, Khalil, they get stopped by the police.
When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.
One was the usual birds and bees…
The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. 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.”
I knew it must’ve been serious. Daddy has the biggest mouth of anybody I know, and if he said to be quiet, I needed to be quiet.
I hope somebody had the talk with Khalil.
This book is sad, no doubt, and made even more so for all the real young black men and women over the past few years that have been killed by police in the US in high-profile cases. Starr’s beloved uncle is a police officer, so Thomas isn’t painting all the police with the same brush. But this is definitely written from the perspective of a scared, hurting young black woman, filled with sadness and rage at the horror that’s happened right in front of her eyes. It’s about a young women finding her voice, finding out who her friends really are, realizing just how much her family loves and supports her. We go on an emotional journey with Starr, navigating her two worlds and trying to find a way to bring them together, while also trying to stay true to the memory of her childhood friend and the fight for justice.
What I appreciated most about the book was Starr’s family. Her mom, dad, and brothers felt so real to me; the dialogue rang true, the references to hip-hop, both current and “old” (Tupac) placed this story in a recognizable cultural area for me, a hip-hop fan, even if I am the age of her parents! Her mom and dad in particular are well-drawn, showing fierce love and protectiveness for their kids and a nuanced, realistic relationship with one another. In reading about the warring gang members of Garden Heights I also felt like I got an education of sorts in the kinds of situations that might lead a young person to join a gang and maybe sell drugs, something that I think a lot of us white people who haven’t been in that situation would question. Thomas really made me empathize with the lack of family support and lack of opportunities to get out of a hopeless situation by other methods. I know it’s not her job, nor the job of any other black author to educate white people like me, but I do feel like my mind and my heart was opened more to something that I previously thought I already knew something about.
I do highly recommend this novel even if you don’t normally read YA, because I think that it’s among the best YA I’ve read. It’s moving, compelling, thought-provoking. There’s a vibrant momentum carrying the narrative forward, and even though it’s got some terribly sad scenes, there are moments of humor sprinkled throughout. (One of my favorite scenes was when Starr’s dad explains his theory about Harry Potter being about gangs! It’s classic.) I’m excited to read anything Angie Thomas comes up with next. Her refreshing, powerful voice is just the kind of voice we need more of in fiction, for readers of all ages.