Ever so often, a book’s hype will precede itself in a way that makes it impossible to ignore, no matter how oblivious I am. The first I’d heard about The Hate U Give was when news of its film adaptation came out. That Amandla Stendberg would play the protagonist piqued my interest. But it wasn’t until everyone around me – book lover or not — started buzzing about it that I picked it up.
My bad. I’ve since learned my lesson.
The Hate U Give is centered on Starr, a 16-year-old black teen who straddles the line between two worlds: Garden Heights Starr is the daughter of a former gang member who struggles to find her place in her urban neighborhood and Williamson Starr is a popular scholar-athlete at a prestigious private school across town where nobody knows her family backstory or home zip code. She has to constantly balance being black enough to navigate her neighborhood in the shadow of her dad’s past while being palatable enough for her suburban peers to accept her as one of the “good ones.” It’s a precarious balance, but one she manages until she witnesses her best friend Khalil murdered at the hands of police.
This is a story ripped straight from the headlines of any U.S. newspaper. Its details are intimately familiar to those who worry about their son, brother, husband, or father being the next hashtag name. The reader is able to see the investigation unfold, both for police, the community, the media, and court of public opinion. However, Starr’s unique perspective and reflection are what make this book so compelling. It is through her eyes that the reader understands the full impact that Khalil’s death has for those who knew him and those who don’t.
It’s impossible to ignore Thomas’ use of Tupac Shakur’s THUG Life acronym as the inspiration for the title as well as a lens through which to read the book. “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody” is a sweeping critique of society’s tendency to teach and feed hate into its youth, only to have to reckon with that nihilism when they grow up. This also provides a backdrop for Starr’s experiences in the aftermath of Khalil’s death. Her cognizance of social inequality, respectability politics, and race heighten throughout the book and are formed as a direct result of her interactions with those around her. It’s almost overwhelming because Thomas uses Starr to highlight the various ways society responds to chronic police brutality while also navigating code-switching, activism, and more.
The Hate U Give is the book my spirit needs now, but also the book 16 year old me should have had to help process the complicated relationship the black community has with law enforcement (and really society at large). So much of Starr’s experiences mirrored my own at her age, but her reflections broadcast the anguish I experience as an adult. This is without a question a key book to read for anyone who wants to better understand movements like Black Lives Matter. Although it’s fiction, it’s still real.