Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last four years, you’ll have heard about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that began in the United States. This book gets inside it. Read it to understand what the movement is about, how it started, and why phrases like “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter” entirely miss the point of BLM.
This is not a history book, though. If you want dates and events and the names of actual African-Americans who have died as a result of police violence, Wikipedia would be a better place to start.
The Hate U Give is fiction inspired by fact; it’s a window on the everyday reality of being black in America; its words evoke real emotions and flesh-and-blood lives.
The book’s title refers to Thug Life, an act fronted by the late rapper Tupac Shakur. According to Shakur, the words are an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F****s Everyone”. Thomas’s novel illustrates this belief by portraying how love has positive results for individuals within the story, and how violence begets more brutality.
However, some of Thomas’s characters rise above the pain and suffering they experience, highlighting the importance of self-determination and free will without dismissing the significant role played by poverty and lack of education in communities.
The protagonist is 16-year-old Starr, named for being the “light in the darkness” when her father, reformed gang member Maverick, was servng a three-year prison sentence. When Starr is 10, her best friend becomes collateral damage in a drive-by shooting, and it is this incident that prompts her parents to enrol Starr and her siblings in a private school in middle-class, predominantly white Williamson.
But Starr’s family still lives in Garden Heights, an impoverished black neighbourhood ruled by rival gangs, and by the end of the novel’s second chapter, Starr’s life has been touched by violence and death again.
This time, Khalil, another childhood friend, is shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. Though rumoured to have joined a gang, Khalil is unarmed, and Starr is the incident’s only witness.
Starr is already struggling to cope with navigating two worlds and two identities created by the differences in her home and school settings; and with her family and friends in Garden Heights, and her best friends and (white) boyfriend at Williamson; add to all that the trauma and stress of losing her friend, and the pressure put on her to seek justice for his death and it’s almost too much for the teen to bear.
Luckily, she has a strong and loving support network, although it is not totally without its own complications and tensions: Her parents can’t agree on whether or not to stay in Garden Heights; her Uncle Carlos, who helped raise Starr when Maverick was in prison, is a cop and knows the officer who killed Khalil; one of her best friends at school is beginning to show signs of being racist; and Starr, unable to tell her boyfriend about Khalil, copes by holding him at arm’s length.
The story, told from Starr’s point of view, is an honest and forthright account of the life of a black American teenager living in a city. Starr’s voice is strong and warm, uncompromising yet loving.
There are uncomfortable details, but they are a necessary part of a whole that is a complex, layered tapestry of social history, race politics, human suffering and triumph, and cause-and-effect both predictably tragic and defiantly inspirational.
Remember The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air from the 1990s? The TV series is Starr’s favourite as she can relate to Will Smith’s character and how he must reconcile his working class roots with his new middle class life.
Will stays true to his background, but that’s a TV show, and Starr finds life a lot more complicated than a sitcom. But while the details of her existence are unique to Starr’s reality as a black, inner-city adolescent, the challenges she faces are, ultimately, typical of what all teens face.
Starr must figure out who she is; she has to decide which of her friends are loyal and true and which ones will bring her down; she has to battle raging hormones and temptations; she has to worry about image, identity and fitting in.
Just like most teenagers, Starr finds it easier to ignore problems than confront them. Keeping silent takes less effort and seems a lot safer.
But when Khalil’s death forces her to make the most difficult decision of her life, Starr realises that facing up to reality and speaking the truth is something she owes herself, all those she loves, and, most of all, the memory of her friend.
This book made me cry, but it also made me laugh.
It contained unimaginably painful scenes, but also the sweetest, warmest ones. It made me grateful for what I have, but also ashamed of my ignorance and complacency.
Reading it has been an education. If you have time for just one book this year, read this one.
The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer+Bray, contemporary young adult fiction