THE HATE U GIVE
Why do we Americans travel the world looking for engagement with other cultures when we have one right here, different from ours, exotic even, and instead of engaging, we put a police barricade around it? I just finished reading, The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, a YA novel about an African-American high school girl, Starr Carter. Her daddy, Big Mav, is a store owner but used to be a gang member who served three years in prison for not snitching on the “boss”. Her momma, Lisa is a nurse at the local clinic and the bedrock of the family who manages the house like a drill sergeant. Her family is blended in a way that most mothers would not tolerate, but Lisa does it for the kids.
Starr goes to Williamson Prep, a mostly white, upper crust school because her parents want their children to be safe and get a good education. Starr lives in Garden Heights, a mostly black, lower socio-economic neighborhood where gangs rule and shootings aren’t accidental. Even though her parents could move, her dad thinks that not giving up on the neighborhood is the right thing to do. Starr loves The Fresh Prince, dates a white boy from school, and plays basketball like a pro. Since she’s been at Williamson, her two best friends are white, but they never come to her house. She’s moved away, emotionally, from her Garden Heights friends and struggles with keeping the two sides of her life separate. When Starr was 10, she witnessed her friend, Natasha, killed in a drive-by shooting, an incident that left indelible ink on her psyche.
One night Starr’s at a party in Garden Heights with her friend, Kenya, with whom she shares a brother, Seven. Her parents don’t allow her to go to Garden Heights’ parties so this outing is on the DL. While there she meets up with Kahlil, her childhood BFF and first crush. A short time into their re-acquaintance convo, shots ring out and the party disperses mad fast in all directions. Kahlil grabs Starr’s hand and since she doesn’t see Kenya anywhere, Starr leaves in Kahlil’s car. The kids are rattled, but manage to get away from the party intact. They resume their catch up conversation: Starr asks if Kahlil is selling drugs (he denies it); they talk about their families; they remember how they used to be such good friends; and all is well until they get pulled over by a cop. When Starr was 12 she got two talks from her parents: one about sex and the other about what to do when interacting with the police — “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” slow movements, do what the cop says or end up dead, and on. As a result, Starr instinctively knows what to do.
Either Kahlil never got this talk from his family or he just can’t stick to the script because instead of handing over his license and registration as the cop asked, Kahlil asks the cop why they’ve been pulled over. The annoyed officer — 11-15 as Starr will later refer to him — instructs Kahlil to stand still next to the car. While 11-15 checks out Kahlil’s license, Kahlil opens the car door to ask Starr if she’s okay. And that’s all it takes to end a life. Three shots to the back — pop, pop, pop — and Kahlil’s dead. Starr screams and rushes to Kahlil but there’s no help for him. The cop freaks out and points his gun at Starr where it stays until backup arrives. Later the cop will say he thought the hairbrush in the side of the door was a gun, but that doesn’t change Kahlil’s fate. If you think I just gave the book away, well, that’s only the first two chapters.
What Thomas does with the remaining 24 chapters is nothing short of poetry. If you want to understand racism in America from the African-American perspective then read, The Hate U Give. The book sizzles with excitement and emotion, and despite the YA moniker, it’s not just a teen read. I repeatedly thought about my own kids’ experiences growing up white in America and what I would do as a parent if I had to give that second talk, the one African-American parents are forced to give, and what it would sound like. The feeling of helplessness, of being unable to protect your child out in the world, must be overwhelming, but the lack of vision from the white community is what would anger me the most.
The title of The Hate U Give comes from Tupac Shakur. Thug Life, Volume 1 (1994), is the name of an album, but THUG LIFE is also the name of an idea: The Hate U Give Little Infants F@$%s Everyone.
Thug Life refers, obviously, to how white America treats black America from infancy through adulthood, how children grow up to marginalized by society with fewer opportunities for advancement (recent studies show black males will always make less, even if they come from high income families), how the marginalization turns kids to gangs, how gang violence hurts everyone, and over and over in a cyclical loop. I don’t know the answer to solving this century-and-a-half old problem for which there’s no today solution, and you won’t find it in the book, but understanding and awareness on both sides of the aisle is a good place to start. Sadly, Tupac didn’t live long enough to see his work have much impact in the world. He died on September 13, 1996 at the age of 25, the victim of a drive-by shooting.
The fear and anger that fuels such systemic violence will never be abated unless we all stop and take stock of how we are complicit in this never-ending racial drama. Want to change the future? Then start with the present otherwise the future will look exactly the same only the alienation and altercations between the races will have only worsened. As Angie Thomas says in the acknowledgements section of the book, “be roses that grow in the concrete.” The Hate U Give is an endearing and clear-eyed look at growing up African-American in this country, a look at both the roses and thorns.