Rating: 3 stars
Angie Thomas’s teen drama The Hate U Give hadn’t crossed my radar until it was included in the Reader’s Room March Madness Reading Challenge. When we were voting on which books we thought we’d be likely to read, I scored it low because I’m not big on reading Young Adult literature. A couple of bookish friends recommended it, though, after I finished Sing, Unburied, Sing.
I feel a little mean, only rating it 3 stars. It’s a good book, but there were things about it that annoyed me, because I’m not a teenager and no longer care about the things that matter to teenagers. I’m glad that I read it, though.
I think I got more out of it having recently gone to see Jesmyn Ward in conversation with Anita Sethi at a Manchester Literature Festival event. Ward talked about the book of essays she has edited that respond to the killing of young black men, men of sixteen and seventeen who in reality are still boys, in particular Trayvon Martin, by white police officers. Each time I read about or see a news report on TV about the latest killing of an unarmed black man in the US, I am disgusted by the killing and by the efforts to put the blame onto the dead man. The thing that shocked me about what Ward was saying, because I’m white, because I don’t know or don’t pay attention to all the detail, was how young Trayvon Martin was. I’d assumed he was an adult. Sixteen and seventeen year old black boys might physically look like adults, they might have lived the kind of sixteen or seventeen years that make them behave like adults, but they’re not. Not really.
The Hate U Give is a story that deals with the killing of black children. It is rooted in the Black Lives Matter movement. The main character, Starr, already lost a friend to a drive by shooting when she was ten years old. Six years later, she loses another friend when he is shot in the back by a police officer for leaning into the car to ask Starr if she is okay when the officer has told him not to move. From that point on, Starr enters a world of closed ranks, protection for the officer, and attempts to make her friend the cause of his own killing.
Thomas is honest about what life is like for black teenagers. Starr’s parents try to protect her from the dangers of the place she calls home. They send their three children to a private school, where they are among a handful of black students. They discourage them from hanging out with their peers at home. They prepare them for the reality of police engagement with their community by instructing them on what to do if they are travelling in a car that gets pulled over. This leaves Starr an outsider among her school peers and among her peers at home. It reminded me of Negroland.
Starr’s is a family whose members are living the best lives they can. Her mother is a nurse, her father is a reformed drug dealer who has escaped gang culture and now runs the local grocery store. Her mother’s brother is a police detective. This isn’t enough to protect Starr from racism, though. At school she has to develop a persona that isn’t too black. When her friend is killed and she is called to make a statement to the police, her education and family background aren’t enough to cancel out the colour of her skin.
Thinking about what Jesmyn Ward said during her interview, about not finding girls like her in literature when she was growing up, Thomas’s book is an important one. At least, it seems that way to me, but I’m wary of making assumptions. I tried to find reviews of the book by African-American girls and women to see whether what I think is correct, but didn’t find many. This one is good, written by an educator and parent, and there’s advice about age range suitability and subject matter on this site. Both give an indication that this is a timely book, relevant to the lives of black teens in America, and useful for parents and teens from any background to talk about racism and how it is portrayed in the media.
I had to keep reminding myself that Thomas’s book is written for a Young Adult audience, and that hyperbole trumps nuance when you’re learning that the whole of life is political. I can never understand the reality of growing up black in the US, I can only ever view it as an outsider, and I’m not qualified to comment on the issues faced by black teenagers. That said, as a white middle aged woman reading this book, I occasionally found the sense of drama a bit corny, a bit preachy, a bit OTT.
Obviously, I’m sensitive about the subject matter, because what happens in the book is the direct result of centuries of white people subjugating people of colour and I feel guilty on behalf of my race. It’s a sensitivity that includes defensiveness. I get that, when you feel ignored you also feel that you need to shout loudly and inflate your anger in order to be heard and to force a debate to happen. I get it because I’m a working class woman in a middle class male world. I get it because I’m a socialist at odds with 21st century capitalism. But I also believe that the noise you make has to be truthful and evidenced to a degree that’s not expected of the prevailing culture.
As I read, some of the passages seemed, to me, exaggerated for dramatic effect. Yes, it’s a novel and, yes, novels should employ dramatic effect to get a point across. Despite knowing what Thomas’s aim is with this book, despite having sympathy with her, the over-egging of the argument made me feel patronising towards the book. That’s my white privilege talking, but it’s because I wanted the book to challenge the prevailing culture better, I guess, without any room for that culture to dismiss it as being disingenuous – something that the prevailing culture is all the fucking time. It frustrates me. And I know, writers of colour have to make their own case their own way. It’s not my truth to tell. I’m not the target audience for this particular novel.
Thomas’s use of hyperbole made me think about Labour MP David Lammy’s recent tweets about the Home Office hostile environment policy on illegal immigration that has caused unquantifiable harm to race relations in the UK with the way children who came from the Caribbean to Britain with their invited parents in the 60s and 70s have been treated as illegal immigrants and not as citizens. Those tweets got across Lammy’s anger very well, but he ended up playing into the hands of people who like to dismiss people of colour when they show their anger by referring to the 1948 British Nationality Act but not acknowledging that rights were amended when Commonwealth countries gained independence or that changes have been made to Indefinite Leave to Remain conditions over the years. It’s nit picking on his opponents’ part, because it ignores the soundness of his central argument, but Lammy’s a former barrister. He should have known better.
It also made me think about an opinion piece the writer Nikesh Shukla wrote about colonialism that relied on broad strokes to get his anger across and ended up reading, to me, a white person, like he’d knocked the column out for the sake of saying something, anything, inflammatory. It’s an awful reaction to have, I know. The comments from people of colour all thanked him for writing the piece, because the root of it is sound reason to be angry, and it needs to be said that colonialism might have had some benefits for the colonised nations, but the costs were far greater. The comments from white people all ignored the core argument and focused on factual inaccuracies in the piece and expressed the belief that Britain wasn’t as bad as other colonial countries, using strawmen of their own to challenge what they saw as Shukla’s strawmen in the article. It’s not fair, but the thing is, the playing field isn’t level. When we’re fighting injustice and prejudice of whatever stripe, we have to be on top of our argument. We can’t just be angry.
Anyway. Enough about my hang ups. Back to the book. There’s a paragraph that made me want to write it out on a postcard and send it to Kanye West.
Daddy once told me there’s a rage passed down to every black man from his ancestors, born the moment they couldn’t stop the slave masters from hurting their families. Daddy also said there’s nothing more dangerous than when that rage is activated.
I want to send it to Kanye and ask him where his rage is. I’ve recently read three pieces in response to Kanye’s bizarre assertion that 400 years of slavery seems like a choice to him. One is by Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, and it’s a funny but serious piece about whether white people have the right to talk to Kanye about his misguided opinions. The second is by British historian David Olusoga, and it addresses West’s membership of an elite, if not the elite that Trump and the alt-right are keen to protect against people like West while using him to make their case for them, and the belief in America that anyone can harness self-belief and self-motivation to become free from poverty and disadvantage. It made me wonder whether Kanye has seen the interview with Dr Martin Luther King Jr addressing the notion that the black man should pull himself up by his bootstraps. It made me wonder what Kanye’s parents would think of their son. His dad was a Black Panther and one of the first photojournalists to work in the American media. His mum was a Professor of English, and sounds like someone Margo Jefferson might have grown up with. Kanye grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Oak Lawn that seems a pretty privileged place. Maybe that’s why Kanye doesn’t have access to his rage. Maybe the logical conclusion of his upbringing is to believe himself an equal to white people in a society that is built on the enslavement of his ancestors. Maybe he doesn’t believe that slavery is relevant to his existence in the elite.
My impression of people in The Elite, that weird place that is part shameful and part aspirational depending on what mood the media is in, those people who cite self-belief and self-motivation as the reasons they are there, is that they’re also self-centred. The wider struggle isn’t relevant to them, only their own. Bringing others with them would only dilute their own rewards. #notallmembersoftheelite for sure. But Kanye? Probably. And that brings me to the third article, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who likens West’s notion of freedom to white freedom, which for Coates is freedom without consequence or criticism, a conqueror’s freedom. Coates calls Kanye out for not thinking about bringing other African-Americans with him.
I’ve gone off piste again. Had a little rant, there.
There was a lull in the book for me, after Starr meets with the DA and agrees to give evidence before a grand jury. It came across as filler, as Starr and her family waited for the jury to reach a verdict. Thomas describes this hiatus in the action as the Carter family getting on with living. If I’d been her editor, I’d have recommended cutting the waiting around. There wasn’t enough justification for its use as exposition.
Even the final section, in which Starr decides to use her true voice, lacked oomph. It should have been tense and exciting. Instead, I found it reticent. Compared with the first three hundred or so pages, I found the final hundred disappointing.
So that’s why it’s a 3 star read for me. If you’re interested in finding out more about the black experience in the USA, and journalism or memoir doesn’t float your boat, The Hate U Give is a decent primer. Sing, Unburied, Sing was more my cup of tea.