Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give accomplishes what fiction does best: create a world recognizably our own and takes us to places, physical and otherwise, we couldn’t otherwise go. Through the life of Starr Carter, we travel back and forth between the ‘hood, Garden Heights, and the ‘burbs, her Uncle Carlos’s gated community and her posh (white) private school, Williamson. Witnessing the death of her oldest friend, Khalil, at the hands of a policeman, Starr embarks on a journey of self-discovery that is by turns poignant and frustrating, tender and enraging.
Starr tells us early on that her life is a balancing act, knowing when and how to be the Garden Heights Starr and the Williamson Starr. Being black at Williamson can bring cachet. Rap and related culture is cool. Acting too black is a no-no. (“Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.”) Stank eyes and a certain lax intonation will mark her as being “ghetto.” Getting political will mark her as an “angry black.” Thomas makes her character an adept assimilator as she shifts between her too drastically different worlds. Only as the book progresses does the exhaustion of the balancing act catch up with her. She learns to speak up both for herself and for a political cause. Thomas carries off the transformation skillfully.
Secondary characters abound in this book, all of significant interest, but three male characters ( for this reader) do the most to Thomas extend her artistic vision: Starr’s father, Big Maverick; her boyfriend, Chris, and her half-brother, Seven.
While Starr’s mother is a source of stability and moderation, Big Maverick, as his name suggests, models self-advocacy, social activism, and even a little rabble-rousing for Starr. It is her father who teaches her of Emmett Till and the Black Panthers. Starr can cite Panther codes verbatim. She knows as much about Huey Newton as she does about Martin Luther King Jr. Big Mav embodies the strong father, who looks out for his family above all else, but he doesn’t live apart from the history and sociology of the black father in the United States. Thomas makes incarceration, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and police brutality all part of his life, the first two, offstage, before the book’s narrative begins. Big Mav fathered Starr’s older half-brother, Seven, with a woman of-ill-repute while married to her mother. He was imprisoned for three years and missed out on Starr’s earliest school years. Thomas deftly makes these experiences central yet not defining or limiting. She makes Maverick rise above them and turn them into positives. After all, Seven is a source of love and happiness in all their lives.
After establishing Maverick’s strength, making the reader as much as Starr believe that he will not let anything hurt her, Thomas allows him to be emasculated by a brutalizing cop. That the policeman is also black does nothing to mitigate his abuse. The system, Thomas seems to say, cannot abide a strong, black man. He must be brought down to size, humiliated, even (especially?) in front of his own children. “Seeing” Big Mav face down on the sidewalk, “hearing” him taunted by the officer, the reader gets a sense of the indignation that such treatment, so common, so long-borne, must create.
At the other end of the sociological spectrum we find Chris, Starr’s white boyfriend. The two share a love of rap music and an appreciation for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, whose story Starr’s mirrors. Of course, she never tells Big Mav about Chris. Her father wouldn’t understand, or accept, his daughter dating a white boy, not after all he had tried to teach her about her history and her identity. Maverick proves true to form when the truth is revealed, inadvertently. But the interest that Chris provides is in the refrain that Thomas puts in his mouth whenever racial tension rears its ugly head. “Now that was awkward,” he says, kind of unflappably. It feels like a lesson for the rest of us. Expressions of frustration or anger, embarrassment or offense are not the only ones available to us in fraught racial situations. A mild, “Now that was awkward,” can acknowledge an unpleasant reality while allowing for a way to ease forward, feelings of everyone involved still intact.
Seven is the big brother whose protectiveness and big-brotherliness sometimes annoys Starr. But when Seven’s sister from his mother calls him “my brother,” and not “our brother,” Starr is irked, over and over throughout the book. I did not pay Seven sufficient attention until a powerful scene just before the climax. His mother, the one of-ill-repute that Maverick impetuously bedded, shows up at Uncle Carlos’s middle class neighborhood in stiletto heels and tight-fitting mini-skirt, stepping from an expensive pink car paid for by her gangbanging man, and proceeds to make a scene. Seven cracks. And all this time I had been so focused on Starr’s troubles I had ignored Seven’s own stressful balancing act: looking out for a mother that failed to look out for him, caring for siblings he did not live with and felt guilty about abandoning. Seven let spill the emotions that had been building up like steam in a pressure-cooker. I choked up in response to his pain in a way I did in no other scene in the book. Interestingly, Thomas finds a way to redeem Seven’s mother before the book ends, not cheaply, but in a surprising, subtle, and convincing way.
Of course, the policeman who murdered Khalil is acquitted by the grand jury. Of course. Verisimilitude required it. In the final climactic sequence, the residents of Garden Heights, the militant ones, take to the streets demanding justice for Khalil. Starr can hold back no longer. Gone her prudence and concern for self-preservation. She joins the protest and come what may. Chris insists on accompanying her. There is a narrative equity in this. Starr has navigated between the two worlds. It is only fair that Chris travel in the other direction. He remains game throughout but, understandably, cautions Starr about approaching the violence. Starr suddenly snaps at him, “Chris, I don’t need you to agree.” Starr’s words rise above her own story. Speaking for Black America, Thomas tells White America what she thinks they need to hear. It is powerful stuff.
It’s satisfying that Starr’s awakening, her ability to speak up for herself, does not threaten Chris, does not destroy the relationship. Yet the book does not end with kisses but with Starr’s resolution to work for justice and with her invocation, breaking a kind of fourth wall out of her fictional world into ours, of real life victims of police lethality. This story is not just about Khalil, she says. “It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia, Michael, Eric. Tamir. John, Ezell. Sandra, Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first–Emmett.”