The Hate U Give: Book review and commentary
As we mourn the death of George Floyd and so many of our Black siblings at the hands of police and other white supremacist people and systems, I want to share a resource that helped me have greater empathy, love, and understanding for Black folks as they manage the daily struggles of existing in a racist system.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, is the story of a sixteen year-old girl named Starr whose close friend, Khalil, is shot by a cop during an unjustified traffic stop. The officer asks him to get out of the car, and when the boy tries to turn away from the cop to speak to Starr, the officer shoots him in the back. Starr watches Khalil bleed on the pavement. She watches him die. Nobody comes to cover his eyes or close them.
The story follows the aftermath of this event, how she copes at her mostly white private school, how her uncle, a police officer himself, responds. How the community holds protests, demonstrations, and riots. How trauma fueled by hate leads inevitably to anger.
Aside from the gorgeous writing that pulled me in from the first page, and the wholly relatable characters, the book is rich with themes surrounding racism, justice, Black power, the struggle many Black folks face between wanting to improve the neighborhoods they come from and wanting to protect their children from the violence brought on by intergenerational poverty and trauma. Most compelling to me, and most relevant as I’ve watched the rage of the oppressed erupt in literal fires all over the country, is the phrase the title alludes to, which was coined by Tupac: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE).
Starr learns this phrase from her friend Khalil just before he is shot, and as she goes through the process of being interviewed by the police, dealing with the media, and taking in the responses of both her school and neighborhood communities, Starr’s understanding of the phrase shifts and deepens. She discusses the idea with her father again toward the end of the story, which gives us a window into how her experiences have changed her.
As discussions around current events mount about rioting and looting, about the “right way” and the “wrong way” to protest, this phrase runs on a loop through my head. The hate you give little infants fucks everybody. Whether or not this response is right is a moot point, because whether it is right or wrong, it is inevitable. The desire to yell and scream and rage against an oppressor is a normal human response to being constantly repressed and oppressed. Right or wrong, this is the human body’s response to living in constant fear of being harmed by the people who are supposed to keep you safe.
The trauma of oppression harms the oppressed in infinite ways, but oppressors are fools to believe it does not harm them too. We can all agree that what is happening in our streets is not ideal. We want folks to be safe, to not be subjected to murder at the hands of police, or to beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets, and being run down by those who profess to want to protect them. We want folks to be able to provide for their families with their businesses intact, but we are reaping what we have sown. We are seeing the results of the ways white supremacy and white power structures have harmed every single one of us, most especially Black people and communities. The hate we have given little infants is fucking everybody. White folks who have built and continue sustaining these systems might sit in their arm chairs writing Facebook posts about whether or not these riots are right, but in so doing they are at least complicit in sustaining these systems that, in the end, fuck everybody. In all of their tears and cries of “all lives matter” they will ultimately be on the wrong side of history, fighting against the best interest of Black folks and all of us.
Black rage and Black tears are holy. They are an important signal that things are not right, and humans are wired to find ways to meet their needs. We are endowed by our creators with powerful emotions that, when felt and honored, can affect big and small changes in the hearts of others, in our social contracts, in the ways governments function, and in the way laws are applied and enforced. We are witnessing the holy power of human emotion on a large scale.
The Hate U Give zooms in close on these larger truths. It shows them to us in the way Starr grapples with racism among her friendships at school, as she stands up to privileged white kids who profane the name of Khalil by using his death as an excuse to cut class, as she finds out who her truest friends are, whether they be white, Black, or other races.
I fell in love with Starr and her family almost instantly. The way her parents love and support their children healed both parent and child parts of me. They are by no means perfect, and Starr pushes back against them often, but it is a powerful example of how parents can lead their children through even the most horrifying challenges as gentle guides helping children find their way, rather than dictators trying to mold them into something they are not.
This novel contains graphic violence and discusses things like drug trafficking, gang activity, and teen sex (though there are no explicit sex scenes). It also contains some light swearing including the F word. While my own children aren’t old enough for this book yet, it would be a wonderful novel to read with older teens, maybe fourteen or fifteen and older, and discuss the ideas they find there. There is nothing more powerful than modeling our own thought processes. Having a child witness and participate in discussions wherein either we challenge our previously held ideas and center the experiences of others who are not like us (for non-Black parents & children in this case), or use texts to help us process our & their experiences (for Black parents & children) is a powerful way to teach them how to grapple with these difficult subjects themselves. This could potentially be a powerful way to help Black teens process feelings about the ways they are treated and the struggles they face in our current climate. This will come with a big trigger warning for any teens who have dealt with the death of a close friend, witnessed gun violence first hand, or lives with the trauma of having dark skin in a world built to keep them down.
I read the audiobook read by Bahni Turpin, and the voice work is as artful as the writing. There is a movie made in 2018 based on the film, which I have not seen. Watching it together might be a good way to finish off a reading of the novel with a book club or your teen/young adult children.
This book is a timely reminder of the sacred nature of rage against oppressive systems and forces. Non-Black folks need to be armed with all of the knowledge and empathy we can muster as we stand with the Black community to push for needed change moving forward.