Tuesday, March 28, 2017
I preordered The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas pretty soon after hearing about it. There are a few reasons I bought it. First, I think it is so so important to support writers of color, especially when they are writing about the black experience. I always thought #ownvoices was important, but after reading a book, written by a white author, that didn’t take into consideration what people of color experience, I’ve felt it's more important than I realized. Second, I wanted to support a book that delved into the very real world of how black communities deal with the fallout of police shooting of unarmed black people. The premise of the story sounded great, and the writing was getting praise well before the book was released; I couldn’t resist.
Let me offer some background on a few things. I don’t normally review books here that aren’t more focused on the romance in the story. While there is some romance, it is not the focal point of the story. But this story is too important not to review. There are lots of books that deal with what it means to grow up black in America, but this is the first contemporary novel I’ve read dealing with this experience. Some other suggestions of books to read if you’re interested in reading about experiences then read You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson and Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates. Listen to NPR’s Code Switch podcast, and read their articles (which delve into the experiences of minorities in general, not just the black community). In other words, get woke. There is so much out there about different communities, and it would do the world some good if people learned about people other than themselves.
I’m also going to offer some personal background, because I think my feelings about this book are informed by experiences. I’m mixed, half black and half white. I grew up in Virginia with a black dad who was a law enforcement officer, and a white mother who often felt the need to deny the fact that I was black (she said I was white on all my school forms even though no one who sees me would ever say I was white). While my dad was a law enforcement officer, he was/is not a good person. As a kid, I knew lots of other police officers (many of them good people), and I was never scared of them. I think my parents never really wanted me to see the reality of why so many people were afraid of police officers. And it wasn’t until I was older that I not only understood why people would be afraid of police/law enforcement, but that I started to see that people who, not really look like me, but look like my family would be afraid would be afraid. And subsequently, I have some fear regarding them myself. Now, even though I grew up with someone who is a bad person and a law enforcement officer, I know that all law enforcement officers aren’t bad. I know many of them want to make a difference in their communities; I know that many of them really do want to serve and protect. And I know that it is the bad ones who get most of the coverage in the media. But I also know the reason the bad ones get the attention is because people are literally being murdered by the bad ones. And when you can’t tell just by looking at them if your life is worthy of being protected or if they want to kill you, it’s easier just to be scared of them all; you’re life is on the line if you make the wrong decision with your trust. I try my best to think that police officers are here to protect me, but I also have the luxury of living somewhere with few incidents of police brutality issues. I have the luxury of being black, but also not. People look at me, and they don’t know what I am. I get a lot of questions about where I’m from, my background, and a lot of wrong assumptions. I code switch, often without realizing it. I spend time living in two worlds and wondering about my place in the world as a whole. So, that’s where I’m coming from reading this book.
So, back the book.
The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr, a black girl, who witnesses one of her friends, Khalil, who is also black, get shot by a white police officer. Khalil is unarmed when he is murdered. Starr deals with the aftermath of the murder and being a witness. We also see her deal with the experiences of so many people who are living in two different worlds. She’s black, living in the the bad part of town. Starr attends a mostly white, private school, where she often feels she has to change who she is and how she speaks (code switching) so she doesn’t get pegged as “ghetto” or as the “angry black girl.” We get to see so much of everything that Starr lives with on a regular basis.
I’m not sure anyone could have written this book better than Angie Thomas. For some people, the book gives insight to what black communities go through when one of their own is unjustifiably killed by the people who are supposed to protect them. For me, all the code switching and living in two worlds felt so relatable, and I enjoyed reading something that I felt I had experienced. And I hope it will help people understand that a broken tail light, speeding, selling illegal cigarettes, and playing with toy guns do not carry a death sentence in court, and they shouldn’t carry a death sentence by the people who enforce the law.
The book was beautifully written. All the characters feel like people I have met in real life. There’s just something about them; if you were to tell me these were all real people, I would believe it. The characters, side characters included, are so well rounded. The dialogue sounds like things people say. The depiction of everything just jumps off the page.
This book was inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and I’m not sure it could have come at a better time. I hope this book inspires people to get involved in their communities. Over the past few years, in particular, we have seen police officers kill unarmed black men and women without facing any punishment in court. The victims’ lives end up on trial more so than the person who actually murdered someone. The Hate U Give sheds light on why that is so problematic.
“A hairbrush is not a gun.”
I’m not sure what the answer is on how to fix what is obviously a systemic problem. I have lots of ideas, but some of it comes down to people realizing that people are trying to survive within the confines of the community they were born in to. There’s a lack of empathy when seeing black bodies gunned down by society’s protectors, and in the words of Ta Nehisi Coates, the people in the black community are expected to be “twice as good” if we want to see justice. Even Tamir Rice, a little boy playing with a toy gun. I saw people saying he should not have been playing with a toy gun. But I also see my white nephew playing with them in public. No one is gunning him down. No one is saying he can’t play. Tamir Rice was a child, and still, there was a lack of empathy. I hope this book will help those who don’t understand what it’s like living in these communities. I hope it will help people gain some empathy. Black lives matter, too. And I hope this book helps people see that.
P.S. to the editors who say books about POCs don’t sell, you might want to check yourself on that. I hope this book will show publishers that people want to hear our voices.