‘What society gives us as youth, it bites them it bites them in the ass when we wild out’.
Sixteen-year-old Starr has carefully managed to balance the two worlds she inhabits – the poor neighbourhood she grew up in and the posh, suburban high school she attends. Until one night, on her way back from a party with her best friend Khalil, they are stopped by a police officer, and Khalil who is unarmed, is fatally shot.
What follows is an all too familiar sequence of events where Khalil is portrayed as ‘just another young, black thug’ threatening a lone police officer who was just trying to do his job. And as the only witness, Starr now has to decide how she is to get justice for Khalil, while at the same time protecting her family, and the things she holds dear.
The Hate U Give is a powerful written YA novel about a young teenager’s burgeoning activism and fight for what she truly believes in. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, hip-hop fans may also recognise that the novel’s title, The Hate U Give, is taken from Tupac Shakur’s concept THUG LIFE (meaning The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody) in that when the daily pressures and injustices of growing up Black and poor reach their limit everybody suffers.
I was absolutely mesmerised by this novel in a way that I haven’t been by a story in a long time. It had me laughing, shaking my head in disbelief or anger and feeling sad, because for someone this is their actual experience. I think this is one of the main strengths of the book, that you can easily forget that it is fiction because of the emotive subject matter and because the events that take place are all too real and the main characters are very believable.
Starr is an ordinary teenager, irritated by her overprotective older brother and her cheeky younger brother. She has a boyfriend, Chris (her father doesn’t know about), who like her has a deep love for the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She does all she can to fit into the spaces allocated to her, especially at school where she is one of the few Black kids attending, presenting a ‘positive’ side of her Blackness at school (never showing anger or any other type of strong emotion) so as not to fall prey to the stereotypes presumed of young Black kids as being aggressive or ‘volatile’. But when Khalil dies, she struggles to preserve her memory of who he really was in the face of the her school friend’s perceptions of him. They see him as a thug and a drug dealer, not realising Starr’s connection to him. The media headlines report him as: ‘Khalil Harris, a Suspected Drug Dealer’, and fail to mention he was unarmed when he was shot leading people to assume he somehow deserved his death. To which Starr responds ‘So what if people end up thinking he was a thug and never care? We care’, summing up what so many people who have gone through similar situations experience when the memory of their loved one is reduced to a false but sadly typical stereotype.
In fact breaking down stereotypes is a key feature of the novel. Angie Thomas goes to lengths to depict the complexities of people’s lives showing nothing is ever as it seems at face value, and inviting the reader to look a little deeper and throwing a challenge and reminder to the media, the police and others to the same. The novel sums up the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement by letting it be known that those young people, the Trayvon Martins, Sandra Blands, Eric Garners, Philando Castiles and others, sadly too many to mention, are just that: people. And whether or not you knew them personally their lives mattered.