by Karen Sands-O’Connor, SUNY Buffalo State
[On the full festival day, Saturday, Sept. 22, join Karen Sands-O’Connor for a book discussion of The Hate U Give at 2:30pm in Rockwell Hall 306. Click here to view the full schedule and details.]
This past year, Angie Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, was awarded the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Amnesty Honor book prize. This prize is given at the same time as Britian’s Carnegie and Greenaway medals for the best children’s books published that year. This is the second year Amnesty International has given the prize, which looks at books that celebrate human rights, and particularly the rights found in the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Although The Hate U Give has been called “the Black Lives Matter novel” by the press, the organization is not mentioned in the novel. Angie Thomas says she was inspired by the movement, but isn’t affiliated with it (http://www.mtv.com/news/2991910/qa-angie-thomas-on-the-hate-u-give-black-lives-matter-and-writing-an-unapologetic-black-girl-book/). Her distance from the movement is nonetheless not distancing; it allows Thomas to depict a variety of complex characters with equally complex motivations and increasing investment in human rights.
This is most obvious in her main character, 16-year-old Starr Carter, who starts the novel living two separate Black lives: one in Garden Heights, a drug- and gang-plagued African-American neighborhood, and one at the posh prep school, Williamson High, she attends across town, where she is one of two African-Americans in her grade. She thinks of “Williamson Starr” as “normal Starr” (71): “Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the ‘angry black girl.’ Williamson Starr is approachable” (71)—by which she means, approachable to white people who, Thomas subtly infers, even Starr sees as the “norm”. She sacrifices her own rights as an individual to serve the perceived needs of a larger (and whiter) group. Early on in the book, she is able to “flip a switch” in her brain to become the appropriate Starr for the appropriate setting. But her ability to do this begins to fail as the order of the world around her also falls apart. Her former best friend Khalil is killed in front of her (not a spoiler, as this is on the blurb describing the book); Starr has dealt with shooting deaths before, but her friend Natasha, also killed in front of her, did not die a second death at the hands of the police and the press. Khalil, on the other hand, is turned into “a drug dealer and a gangbanger,” as one white character puts it, “Somebody was gonna kill him eventually” (341). It is at this point that Starr realizes that not only is “being two different people . . . so exhausting” (301), it’s wrong. Wrong for herself, and wrong for the people she loves. Starr realizes that she has to fight for Khalil’s right to have a name, and her own right to be treated as a human by police—a right she realizes her expensive private education cannot buy her.
The person she thinks she has to be to fight for these rights is “angry black girl,” but Angie Thomas does not let her character off the hook so easily. Being the opposite of Williamson Starr means pushing away people who want to help, including her white boyfriend Chris. Chris is a figure of fun at times, especially for Starr’s brother and father, but Thomas gives him a stubborn will to help, even participating in a protest that turns into a riot, that convinces Starr that white people are not the enemy. Neither are the cops, at least not in a body; Starr is at first angry at them all, including her Uncle Carlos, but he stands up for her to the point of taking a beating and being suspended. Thomas argues through her depictions that it isn’t how you look or what you wear, but the actions that you take or don’t take that make you a good person or an enemy.
And acting out of love is something in Thomas’s book that happens, not just between individuals, but between an individual and the community. Here again, the message is complex but ultimately places human rights at the forefront. Starr’s mother wants to, and eventually convinces Starr’s father that they should, move out of Garden Heights for the safety of Starr and her siblings. Starr’s father initially thinks this is a betrayal of the Black community, but the conclusion of the book—which I won’t give away—has him realizing that betrayal can happen within the community, and “We ain’t gotta live there to change things, baby. We just gotta give a damn” (436). Starr—now neither Williamson Starr nor Garden Heights Starr—gains both the ability to act out of love and use a “weapon” (410); her weapon is not a gun, or tear gas, but the “biggest weapon” of all: her voice. Thomas’s book indicts no group wholesale (not police, and not all drug dealers either), but does argue that young people have a choice to make between love and hate. In order to honor the dead, and help the living, the love you give through visible, audible action is needed. The love you give matters.
Karen Sands-O’Connor teaches children’s and contemporary British literature at Buffalo State College. She has been a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Newcastle, England, and has recently won a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. She has provided consulting for several British literacy and children’s charities on issues of race, including Amnesty International UK, and her most recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015, is available from Palgrave Macmillan.