Tag: Race

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


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

Review: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham


It was probably quieter a hundred years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better. I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again.
– Rowan, “Dreamland Burning”

Awakening on the first day of summer—and her only day off before her boring internship starts—Rowan Chase quickly finds herself plunged into a mystery—whose body is buried in her backyard and how did it get there? As Rowan and her best friend James investigate, real life intervenes and Rowan’s internship plans fall through. Rowan finds herself working at a medical clinic in a rougher part of town, having to face prejudice she’s largely been sheltered from and that (white) Tulsa has largely tried to forget and pretend isn’t there.

Alternating with Rowan’s story is that of Will Tillman, a half-white, half-Osage (First Nation) teenager in racially segregated Tulsa in the days before and during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots where whites brutally and without provocation destroyed the prosperous African American community of Greenwood, terrorized an entire community, and killed hundreds of innocent African Americans. Will gets to know an African American brother and sister named Joseph and Ruby Goodhope and, on the night of the riots, has to make choices about what he really believes about their worth as people

Told in alternating chapters, “Dreamland Burning” explores how choices can separate “good” people into both the best and worst of humanity

Expectations and Reality

I came to Dreamland Burning with some trepidation. From reading the summary I really wanted this book to be good. I know embarrassingly little (ok—pretty much nothing) about the Tulsa Race Riots besides vaguely that something happened where white Tulsa destroyed the black part of Tulsa in the 1920s.* In the last few years I have learned more about my own privileges and prejudices and have tried to make an effort to read more diversely—both non-fiction and fiction. Dreamland Burning provided another opportunity to grow and learn more while getting to enjoy a young adult fiction book that came highly recommended by Anne Bogel in her Modern Mrs. Darcy (“MMD”) book club.

Latham did not disappoint. Dreamland Burning raises questions of race relations both in 1921 as well as now. Interestingly, in a recent discussion with the MMD book club, she indicated that she originally envisioned the book as being solely set in 1921 with Will but the more she wrote, the more she saw history repeating itself. Just as white Tulsa saw African Americans die in 1921 and do nothing, so do white citizens today see innocent African Americans being killed in the streets and, largely, do nothing.

With that in mind, she added Rowan into her narrative. While Rowan herself is mixed race, her family’s relative wealth has insulated her from quite a bit until she finds herself unexpectedly working at a medical clinic in a poor part of town and comes dramatically face-to-face with a situation that sets off debates recently seen around Mike Brown, Philando Castile, and Sandra Brown. In her story Rowan is beautifully human—she makes mistakes, she avoids the spotlight when the reader might want her to just say something already. Latham treats her gently, makes her relatable, and the story is better for it.

What Latham did best

Latham’s choice to not make Rowan and her BFF’s James’s relationship into a romantic one was smart and welcome. The seriousness of the book wasn’t distracted by tension of will-he-won’t-he-kiss-me-please-oh-please (which, frankly, would have been off-tone in a book this serious and there’s enough tension in this book without it). It also enabled Latham to add another note of diversity. As you would expect from a book exploring the Tulsa Race Riots, the characters are racially diverse, but with the inclusion of James, an almost-adult who identifies as asexual, Latham was able to reflect sexual diversity in a way that felt authentic, eliminated very early any question of whether there would be romantic tension between Rowan and James, and mirrors the sexual diversity of most of us these days (whether we realize it or not). Latham didn’t set off fireworks with the announcement of James’s asexuality, but folded it neatly in an early description of him that also served to explain some of James’s own background and semi-estrangement from his father. This choice was skillfully made and even more skillfully executed.

Latham’s choices in Will’s story had similar nuance. Without spoiling the end of the book, Latham places “good” characters into situations where they have to choose who they’ll be and what they believe. She lulls the reader into thinking that she/he knows who is “good” and who is “bad”…until they aren’t. In telling this story, Latham shows the harm in being just a “little” prejudiced and how “good” people can very swiftly make choices that set them far on the other side of that line. Though set in 1921, these themes still resonate.

I also greatly appreciated Latham’s attention to detail. While the story is told in alternating chapters, there is more that connects Rowan’s and Will’s stories than just the body in Rowan’s backyard. Latham sprinkles her book with little gems that tie Rowan’s half even more tightly to Will’s. If you miss the little connections, you don’t miss the story but where the reader can catch them, they sparkle and highlight Latham’s skill as a storyteller. In addition, while I did not pick up on this, native Tulsans will apparently recognize many of the places she mentions—her effort at a little inside “nod” to her local readers.

But wait? A white author is writing about race?

Because her picture is not in the jacket of the book, I didn’t see a picture of Latham until I was about halfway through. I assumed that anyone who would be writing such an on-point book about race was herself a person of color—I was wrong. I am not myself a person of color so my judgment on this comes from my own limited perspective; however, the book did not seem to suffer from many of the cringe-worthy pitfalls found when other white writers attempt to bring to life the voices and experiences of people of color. With that said, no book is perfect. The main character is herself part white and wealthy, having grown up somewhat sheltered until she takes the job at the medical clinic. Similarly, Will is part white—while he suffers some prejudice for being part Osage (First Nation), it is nothing compared to how the black community suffers. From the interview, I was impressed with how aware she was of this tension and how seriously she took the duty she had to make Rowan and Will accurate as mixed-race White/Black and White/Osage. She indicated she had both African American and First Nation beta readers as well as having an outside consultant read a final draft from her publisher.

I was still left with a lingering question of whether people of color who read this book would see Will’s part of the story as another white savior story. It wasn’t as neatly wrapped up as other White Savior endings and I have not found criticism for Latham in this but I do not know how widely this book has been read since it is only recently published. Joseph and Ruby (the main characters of color in Will’s story) are presented with strength, dignity, and agency even in the midst of the riots and, because of this, the book did not read to me as problematic in that regard.

Who should read this book?

While this book addresses serious and weighty themes, Latham presents the material in a way that feels age appropriate for young adult readers. She strikes a balance in the violence of the Riots—they are not sugarcoated nor is it vague what is happening—however, her descriptions are never gory. For authenticity, she does use the N-word in dialogue. In a recent interview, she indicated that she had her eleven year-old read the draft and, as a parent, felt comfortable with eleven and twelve year-olds reading the book as long as they have parents who read with them and can process the serious themes in this book.

Rating and Recommendations

I gave this one four stars though a bigger YA fan would likely rate higher. The side-story of Will’s mother as an Osage who had to have a guardian to “manage” her wealth inspired me to go ahead and start Killers of the Flower Moon next from my TBR pile. That review should be up next Tuesday. For readers interested in “book flights,” I recently finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and would recommend that book (another YA) with this one. While I am just starting it, Latham herself recommended The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas as well as American Street as other excellent (older) YA books to pair with books on these themes if you want to read more.

*A note about language—while the incidents of the nights in 1921 are called the “Race Riots,” that language is accurate only so far as it describes what white Tulsa did. The African American community of Greenwood did not riot and largely fled or hid in terror from the rampaging and rioting white community bent on destruction. I refer to the events as the Race Riots, only because that’s the most common name, though it does not fully reflect reality. Latham explains this in more detail in her Author’s Note in Dreamland Burning. To put faces on the youths who lived this story, the yearbook of the 1921 Senior Class from Booker T. Washington High School–the school that should have been having their prom the night of the massacre–is available online.

Published February 21, 2017 by Little, Brown (Instagram @littlebrown)
Author: Jennifer Latham (Instagram & Twitter @jenandapen)
Date read: June 16, 2017
Rating: 4 Stars