I open my mouth to respond. A sob comes out. Daddy is moved aside and Mama wraps her arms around me. She rubs my back and speaks in hushed tones that tell lies. “It’s alright, baby. It’s alright.”
The Hate U Give explores the aftermath to a girl, a family, and a community after one of their own—a black teenage boy named Khalil—is brutally murdered by a white cop. The novel follows sixteen-year old Starr, a witness and passenger in the car the night of the murder, as she struggles to find her voice and what it means for her to be a black teenager living in 2017.
Not For Me
I hesitated in writing this review—The Hate U Give isn’t about me and it isn’t for me. Even if I hated this book (which I absolutely don’t), it wouldn’t really be my place to say that anymore than it’s my place to critique “Lemonade.”
They. Weren’t. Made. For. Me.
In fact, I decided early on that if I were going to give this book any less than five stars, that I would simply refrain from rating it at all. Turns out, that wasn’t a problem.
The Hate U Give sucked me in quickly with a fast-paced narrative and a likeable main character who was easy to identify with, even as a white person who did not grow up in anything like Starr’s neighborhood. Starr is studious, funny, and athletic—she has universal appeal and it is easy for most readers to see something of themselves in her. I didn’t identify whatsoever with her love of basketball, but her studiousness and teenage worries over friends hit home for me.
There are, however, many things in the book that will likely make a white audience uncomfortable—the foremost example to me being Starr’s father’s lauding of the Nation of Islam. It is to Thomas’s credit that she wrote a book that can be so universally read; but at the end of the day this is a book for black readers. It should make you squirm a little if you’re white. That squirming can be good for you—why does this make you uncomfortable? Is the reason you’re uncomfortable about you or is what’s happening here actually wrong? (Spoiler alert: the answer is probably the former).
I do think this is a book everyone should read so (obviously, since you’re here) I went ahead with my planned review, with the recognition that there is probably a lot that went over my head and that I didn’t understand that would resonate with a black audience. It felt like the lesser of two evils to review the book and hopefully bring it more attention than to refrain. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.)
The title “The Hate U Give” comes from a Tupac reference to “Thug Life”—The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. The hate, the vitriol, even the malignant neglect the vast majority of white society gives to African Americans starting when they are very young ultimately comes back to effect everyone. It isn’t just the black community that is hurt by Khalil’s death in this book. Through Starr and her siblings, the effects of the murder reach into their predominantly white school. Parts of the city literally burn as riots break out.
To be sure—my point here is not “treat black people nicer so that you can have nicer things yourself, dear white person.” However, it is shockingly easy for white America to look at the problems coming from predominantly black and poor neighborhoods and blame the people that live there without ever thinking about white America’s systemic racist policies and decisions that resulted in the ghettoization of black Americans. White people are not innocent of the problems that created black ghettos; therefore, white people are not innocent of the resulting poverty and crime.
It is hard to ignore the larger societal issues at play when Thomas gives you the back story of why Khalil may have been selling drugs before his murder and why another character named DeVonte joined a gang. It’s not so easy as their making bad decisions or being bad people. Thomas doesn’t completely exculpate them, but by putting specific, likeable faces on issues like drug dealing and gang-banging, she invites her reader to question their biases to see that good people can make bad decisions for good reasons. And that these same people are far more than what a single bad decision defines them as.
Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland.
Through the experiences of Starr, Thomas puts a face on those left behind when black people are murdered by those who are sworn to serve and protect. To be sure—each of the more than one thousand African Americans killed by cops each year has a story, a name, and people who love them. Unfortunately, with talking heads screaming at each other in the media, the story the reader gets here with Khalil is not one we get to see for the vast majority of those murdered, at least not without a lot of effort to dig and cut through the crap. We don’t see Michael Brown’s struggle to provide for his family, even though he isn’t yet a man himself. We don’t see the agony the witnesses in the Eric Garner case went through to decide whether to testify or not—and the danger of any decision to “snitch” that might result. We don’t see the impact, months later, on the family of Sandra Bland. Not like this. Not in this detail.
Through fictional Khalil, Thomas brings home every name that crossed the headlines over the last few years and reminds us that each black boy and each black woman was, at the end of the day, human and loved. That it is a tragedy when any life is taken at the hands of the police.
Time Capsule Book
Because of its timeliness it is easy to see why some critics are referring to The Hate U Give as a new classic and a book with staying power. I’m not sure I agree it is a classic, largely because there are many references to things like Tumblr that are quickly going to become dated. To me, the book read like a “Time Capsule” book. By that, I mean The Hate U Give is a snapshot in time of 2017 where this real, pervasive injustice is happening far too often in modern society. This book will stand through time as representative of where we are as a country and a people now. I could certainly be wrong (and would not be disappointed if I am!); it is just difficult for me with the speed at which technology changes to see many modern books as “classics” if the technology and references in them are going to become dated and lost in a few years. I loved the Jessica Darling books as a teen myself, but they don’t hold the same appeal to the YA audience today because so many of the little situations that arise wouldn’t happen nearly the same way today with the advances in technology we’ve made since the ‘90s. Because of this, I see The Hate U Give as less likely to be studied the way we study Jane Austen now in 2217, though it absolutely deserves attention and should (and, I hope, will) stand the test of time as a powerful snapshot of society in 2017.
Things Black People Deal With But Shouldn’t Have To 101
Though this book certainly wasn’t written with a white audience in mind, Thomas is masterful at explaining things like code-switching to the audience—
I should be used to my two worlds colliding, but I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang. Some attitude but not too much attitude, so I’m not a sassy black girl. I have to watch what I say and how I say it. But I can’t sound “white.” Shit is exhausting.
—without sounding heavy-handed to those who already know what things like code-switching are. If I did not have mixed-race friends who consciously moderate their accent based on their audience, I don’t know that I would know what code-switching is, and I certainly didn’t know what it was when I was in high school.
As a black student at a predominantly white school, Starr has to be aware of how she comes across—because black children are seen as more culpable and less innocent than white ones, because she is one of a handful of black kids in her school and therefore her actions will be imputed to all black people (but only her negative actions, of course), because she doesn’t want to affirm stereotypes. Starr thinks more about her state of being on a daily basis than most white folks likely do in a month.
This short explanation plus the extended examples of code-switching in The Hate U Give are but one example of Thomas making the book accessible to readers of all ages so that maybe those who aren’t familiar with these ideas can begin to see all of the little ways people of color experience life differently, through no fault of their own. (Thomas also expertly explores the harm of microaggressions through one of Starr’s friendships).
While we (white folks) should be doing more hard work to root out our biases and discover our blind spots, I do think books like The Hate U Give can be a good non-threatening way to begin to recognize issues like microaggressions. Regardless of whether you are beginning because you are actually a young adult for whom this book was written or whether, like me, you grew up sheltered in a predominantly white town, it is often less threatening to be confronted with something you are wrong in through narrative fiction. This doesn’t mean you get to stay in your safe fictional world forever; however, it is better to begin with something like The Hate U Give than to never begin. Reading books like The Hate U Give teaches readers empathy and I defy you to read this book and not feel for Starr, Khalil’s family, and their community, regardless of where you stand on Black Lives Matter.
Fangirling hard for Bahni Turpin
I listened to The Hate U Give on audio. I would be remiss if I did not rave about the excellent choice of narrator for Thomas’s work. Even before listening to this book, I had an audiobook voice crush on Bahni Turpin, the narrator here. I would listen to her read food ingredient labels. She also read A Piece of Cake, a memoir I read earlier in the year by Cupcake Brown, a woman who grew up in the foster system and was a heavy drug user for years before getting clean and becoming an attorney. Admittedly going from the voice of drugged-out, screaming Cupcake to having that voice also be Starr threw me a little for a loop. I had to remind myself for the first few minutes that Starr was a good girl in this story. (Case in point for my undying love of Bahni Turpin—the fact that Bahni is one of the readers is what pushed me to use my most recent audiobook credit on Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.) Bahni is genius as Starr and makes the audiobook for The Hate U Give a real standout. She is breathtaking in her voice acting as teenage Starr and moved me to tears several times.
If this weren’t already abundantly clear, I think this is a book everyone should read. Because of some language and violence, the book skews a little older YA than most of its genre-mates but still has a strong appeal and well-developed narrative for adult readers.
Author: Angie Thomas (@angiethomas)
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray) (imprint of HarperCollins @harpercollinsus)
Audiobook narrator: Bahni Turpin (@prospertunia)
Date Published: February 28, 2017
Date Read: July 9, 2017
Rating: 5 stars