March’s Big Picture
The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
When gunshots break out at a party, Starr accepts a ride home from her old friend Khalil. That means Starr is in the car when a cop stops it for a broken taillight and ends up needlessly shooting Khalil dead. In the aftermath, there are riots in Starr’s African-American neighborhood and upheaval that touches every aspect of her life.
That’s a story that’s becoming depressingly familiar from recurring headlines, but Thomas does a superb job not only of fleshing out that story but of expanding her protagonist and her world beyond a single incident. Starr is an accomplished code-switcher as she travels between her gang-ridden inner-city home and Williamson, the majority white private school she attends; there she gets automatic cred for being black but must strategically avoid anything that seems stereotypically “urban” (“Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto”). The implications of those codes, however, are thrown into harsh relief after Khalil’s death. To her white classmates he’s an easy hashtag and a pretext to get out of class on a drummed-up protest; her white best friend’s clueless at best response to the situation makes Starr realize that she’s been deliberately letting some offensive behavior slide (“We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay for them and normal for us”); she wonders if she’s betraying Khalil and her family by dating a white boy. Throughout, Thomas gives Starr a perceptive voice that speaks important truths, while its direct accessibility keeps her compellingly readable.
Secondary cast members are vivid as well. Starr’s father, Big Mav, is an ex-felon turned neighborhood and family anchor, who taught his kids Malcolm X quotes in the cradle, balks at leaving his neighborhood behind for a safer location, and also knows that there are some lines you don’t cross. Hailey, Starr’s difficult friend, is belligerent in way that’s charming when it’s loyalty to Starr and reductive when it’s not, and her defensive reactions are plausible. Even Khalil appears as a full and memorable person to readers before his inarguably unfair death, making for a sharp contrast with the symbol he becomes.
In this book inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas effectively marries the legitimate rage at injustice with real-world complexity: Starr’s uncle the cop is a colleague of the guy who shot Khalil; Khalil may not have had drugs in the car but he did deal; Starr’s family finally, ambivalently, moves out of the old neighborhood that houses so much of their history. The title comes from Tupac’s acronymic expansion of “Thug Life”—“The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” and it’s clear that the shock waves of that hate run deep as riots destroy lives of the already victimized (“We all did that stuff last night because we were pissed, and it fucked all of us”). Fear is the main reason Starr is reluctant to speak up as a witness, but she’s also weary from generational despair (“Huey Newton died a crackhead, and . . . By any means necessary didn’t keep Brother Malcolm from dying,” she thinks in response to her father’s invocation of the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program). Yet speak she does, though not out of expectation but slender hope: “I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”
That hope seems slim indeed these days, but ultimately the book emphasizes the need to speak up about injustice, to have injustice be known even if not punished. That’s a message that will resonate with all young people concerned with fairness, and Starr’s experience will speak to readers who know Starr’s life like their own and provide perspective for others.
Deborah Stevenson, Editor