Debut YA novels by little-known black former rappers rarely start eight-way bidding wars among publishers, but Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, soon to be a movie starring The Hunger Games alum and current it-girl Amandla Stenberg, is an understandable exception. This smart, funny YA novel’s plot centers around how 16 year-old Starr Carter copes with being the sole witness to the shooting, by a white police officer, of her unarmed childhood best friend, Kahlil. The book springs from the headlines, but the story it tells engages the reader on a level far deeper than any news report can.
Starr lives in a community that seems similar to Ferguson, from this outsider’s point of view, but she and her brothers are driven every day to a predominantly white school, a commute that began after Starr witnessed the death of another of her childhood friends, Natasha, the victim of a drive-by. I was impressed with the way the author conveyed the mixed emotions and multiple selves that result from Starr’s internalized traumas and attempts to straddle two worlds by code-switching. She has a deep love for her neighborhood, but also feels genuine affection for her interracial friendships, especially the one with her white boyfriend, Chris. Starr wonders repeatedly if she’s selling out herself, her family, and/or the black race by having a white boyfriend, whose skin color is mentioned directly (as in, to his face) several times. That said, Chris never takes offense. He blushes, but otherwise, he’s Saint Christopher, whose only imperfection is a fondness for macaroni and cheese with breadcrumbs on top. Not only that, but despite coming from a family wealthy enough that his bedroom comfortably holds a California king-sized bed, Chris embraces black urban culture so completely, Starr’s black friends say he isn’t white, just “light-skinned.” I wondered why he didn’t have any sense of his own cultural identity. Was his family from England? Or even New England? If so, it didn’t matter to him. Maybe that makes him an acceptable white boyfriend for black readers who might balk otherwise, but it kept him from seeming like a real person, at least to me.
This is a shame, because in every other case, Angie Thomas does a fantastic job creating well-rounded characters, including Starr’s siblings, parents, uncle, friends, and even the people down the street. Starr is the daughter of a reformed gangbanger, and her uncle, a police officer who grew up in her neighborhood but has moved to the suburbs, helped to raise her during her father’s incarceration for gang-related activity. Both men are portrayed as excellent male role models. Khalil is a charming, caring friend, but his record is less than squeaky clean, though there is a good explanation for his choices. I could go on; suffice it to say that creating characters that are multifaceted allows Angie Thomas to explore the question of racial prejudices and stereotypes from many different angles, in a great degree of complexity, which is why Chris stands out all the more for being one-dimensional.
That said, Chris is my only problem with the book, and my objection is minor. If I’m being very picky, I can mention a conversation between Starr and her father that comes across as didactic, but then again, I already know that aspect of black history; many who read the book may not, and it’s worth learning about. Every position Angie Thomas seems to take also acknowledges the other side, often sympathetically. One example of her approach comes when she expertly allows her characters to illuminate both sides of the impulse to express long-simmering anger over injustices by taking to the streets. There are many other scenes in which she humanizes the images we often see on TV. In a country that is increasingly polarized, any book that assists us in seeing all people as truly human is an important one.
In the end, this is a very hopeful, inspiring novel, where conflicts are often balanced with scenes of reconciliation. Some of them struck me as unlikely, but I’m nevertheless glad they’re there. I picked up The Hate U Give because the lowest rating on Goodreads was four stars. Now I understand why.