By Katy Goodwin-Bates
When I suggested a review of The Hate U Give to my esteemed editor at Fourth and Sycamore, it was an eagerly anticipated and much-discussed YA novel; as I sit down to write the review, it’s been top of the New York Times Bestseller list for several weeks, and its author, Angie Thomas, has spent the last few days on a victorious tour of the UK, appearing not just in book stores but on national news. The Hate U Give, or THUG as it is being more commonly named, is a big deal, not just in YA publishing but in the sociopolitical climate.
Thomas was inspired to write The Hate U Give as a student, when the killing of Oscar Grant by a police officer exposed her to the views of her privileged, white peers, who seemed all too happy to accept that Grant’s death was justified; THUG emerged out of the short story she wrote in response to the event. The novel begins at a party, with narrator Starr instantly feeling uncomfortable; living in a poor, black neighbourhood but attending a predominantly white, private school across town, Starr never feels that she’s being true to her own identity, and the party is no exception. Respite appears in the form of old friend Khalil, from whom she’s drifted apart a little; the pair are catching up when a shooting forces them to flee the house. But the danger doesn’t end there; driving away from the party, Khalil is pulled over by a police officer and fatally shot at the side of his car while Starr looks on in horror.
I’ve seen it happen over and over again; a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.
Thomas’ novel follows a familiar trajectory, as Khalil is either vilified or mourned, depending on the perspective; as the media perpetuates a sadly predictable narrative of a teen drug dealer suffering his inevitable and justified fate, and riots break out on the streets, Starr struggles to come to terms with the death of her friend and the role she has to play in seeking justice. Such events seem to have dominated the news in recent years, but Starr’s first person narrative offers a more personal and incisive perspective than a reporter can manage; as she endures questioning by the police and the misguided opinions of her schoolmates, the reader sits alongside her, feeling her outrage and frustration. During an interview with the BBC, Thomas stated that, “empathy is more powerful than sympathy,” anyone who can read Starr’s story and fail to experience intense empathy should just give up on being a human right now.
Bubbling under the main plot of the investigation into Khalil’s death and its impact on the streets are a number of fascinating additional tensions. Starr’s father is a former gangbanger, who missed years of her childhood serving time in order to pay off his debt to the gang; during that time, her police officer uncle filled in as a surrogate father, and this juxtaposition between two contrasting men and lives is echoed throughout THUG. Starr’s boyfriend is white, and she begins to wonder if she can have a relationship with someone who seems so representative of the system that oppresses her and killed her friend. Starr’s white, affluent school friends protest against Khalil’s death just to get out of lessons, leading her to question her connection to them. At the center of all these conflicts is Starr herself, struggling to do what’s right, for herself, for Khalil and for her family and community.
The novel’s title, as explained early on, comes from a Tupac Shakur quote: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” As Khalil elaborates before his violent murder, it means “what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out.” The word “thug” has its own incendiary connotations, with Khalil and his real-life counterparts dismissed using it, perpetuating harmful stereotypes. What The Hate U Give suggests, as Starr begins to discover, is that it’s not just in a vengeful way that Tupac’s maxim is true; the hate of white people and the system espoused by some in Starr’s community feeds into the seemingly never-ending problems faced by those in “the hood.” Ideologically, THUG is a fascinating study of group mentalities and the role of protest, reflecting the real-life events that inspired it.
Although ostensibly a YA novel, The Hate U Give is a work which should be read by everyone. Thomas has set out to write a novel which educates and changes opinions, and her success in this is imperative; her story is a familiar one but not one which can ever be told enough. The Hate U Give is a novel that needs to be bought, discussed, taught and celebrated.