Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.
“Listen! The Hate U – the letter U – Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G L-I-F-E. Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?”
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is the book we all needed about an experience of blackness in America (and the UK, even though over here we like to pretend that racism is an American problem, like obesity and not knowing how to spell aluminium). Thomas’ raw and authentic story of the murder of an unarmed black teenager by a policeman and the ripple effect his death has on the lives of the protagonist and witness to the murder, Starr, her family (the Carters AKA my new favourite fictional family) and their community is hard not to fall in love with.
Starr is straddling two worlds. At home, she lives in a poor, majority black neighbourhood. Half the time the streets around her house are the centre of a gang war, and she spends a lot of evenings at home listening to the sound of nearby gunfire. At the private school she attends, she is one of the only black students. Surrounded by wealthy white people every day, Starr never feels she can truly be herself.
Seeing Starr exist in these two polar opposite environments shines a spotlight on the insidious and institutional racism that people of colour face every day. In Starr’s high school – as in much of society – whiteness is the norm. Starr, a black girl is ‘other’ and constantly preoccupied with being less so, with appearing agreeable, avoiding the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ and not speaking in a way her white peers might interpret as ‘ghetto’. To try to go outside of these social parameters is to be excluded from them. On one level, this is demonstrated by social exclusion – Starr’s friend Hailey, stops following her on tumblr after Starr starts posting material about black history and Black Lives Matter. At its most severe this exclusion is demonstrated by Khalil’s murder. Power is in the hands of the white people, and it is enforced by means from micro-aggression to murder.
The Hate U Give is a complex study of what it is to be black and poor. Through Khalil’s life and death, Starr sees how people in her community get trapped in cycles of poverty and violence. One of the aspects of Khalil’s life that the news pick up on after his death is that he was a drug dealer. As if this fact somehow justifies his death (it does not). Luckily for Starr, her father Big Mav is an advocate for Black Lives Matter and a passionate change maker within the community, so through a conversation with him – one of my favourite scenes in the book honestly. I adore Starr’s father – Starr looks at the aspects of Khalil’s life that forced him down the path that he took – “he got tired of choosing between lights and food.”
The wider reaction to Khalil’s murder is familiar and heart breaking. The news paint a picture of a drug dealer who had it coming, as the officer (murderer) in question as the true victim that night. The opinion of so many is shown again in Starr’s ‘friend’, Hailey who, rather than being concerned with the unarmed boy who was murdered can only say of the police officer, his killer “His life matters too, you know?” No, Starr replies, that’s the problem: “his life matters more.”
All the pain and the violence forces Starr to find her voice. It makes her speak out, even when to do so is to put herself at risk of harm from the police and from the gangs in her neighbourhood. It is in equal parts inspiring and heart wrenching watching Starr’s anger transform into action.
“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending.”
Believe the hype. The Hate U Give is an extraordinary book. It’s raw, emotional and vital to our current political discourse. It also has some of the most wonderful characters you’re likely to read for a while. Starr’s family have shot right to the top of my favourite fictional families list. Her parents are complex and passionate individuals, and the strength of their relationship is Starr’s foundation. Seven is the big brother we all wish we had and Sekani is just adorable. I loved spending time with these people.
The Hate U Give is an emotional and political ride. Starr is a complex, funny, and smart character of the kind young black girls have needed for so long. The book dissects privilege and oppression, and why #alllivesmatter is not actually a thing in the face of a world where some lives are treated like they matter less.
You must read The Hate U Give. I can’t think of a more relevant novel right now.