Debut YA novels by little-known Black former rappers rarely start eight-way bidding wars among publishers, but Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give, soon to be a movie starring The Hunger Games alum and teenaged icon of “wokeness,” 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.
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. Chris is apparently so wealthy that his bedroom holds a California king-sized bed, yet he has memorized NWA, wears the “right” basketball shoes, is an expert on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and never steps on any racial landmines with Starr or the other Black characters. The only slightly questionable thing that comes out of his mouth is when he asks about his friends' “unusual” names, Devante and Seven (the latter of which is, let's face it, rather uncommon), in response to merciless teasing about the stereotypical things White people do, like splitting up when there's trouble, bungee jumping, and treating their pets like family. Chris is promptly shut down, and asks nothing further. Aside from a fondness for macaroni and cheese with breadcrumbs on top, he embraces Black urban culture so completely, Starr's Black friends say he isn't White, just “light-skinned.”
I know that was meant as a compliment, but I found myself wondering why Chris didn't have any sense of his own cultural identity. Was his family from England? Or even New England? If so, it didn't seem to matter to him. And would it have been so wrong if he preferred Aerosmith to NWA? Maybe his interests make 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.
Complex characters explore complex issues
In an era where White privilege is finally being acknowledged and examined, or at least mentioned publicly, the urban Black experience needs validation, particularly as it applies to the young men and women whose killings are often justified, in retrospect, by the messy details of their lives, none of which are punishable by the death penalty. Still, I couldn't help wishing Angie Thomas had taken even a small risk in writing the character of Chris, because everyone else is believable and/or complex, including Starr's siblings, parents, relatives, 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 whose activities are less than squeaky clean, but there is a good explanation for his choices. I could go on; suffice it to say that the multifaceted people in this book allow Thomas to explore the question of racial prejudices and stereotypes from many different angles. As a result, Chris stands out even more for being one-dimensional.
That said, Chris is my only problem with the book, and—believe it or not—my objection is minor. There are a few rather unlikely reconciliations in this hopeful, inspiring novel, but I'm nevertheless glad they're there. 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; some may not, and it's worth learning about. There are many other teachable moments in this book (including the explanation of the title), most of them presented with a nod to other ways of looking at things. One example comes when Thomas expertly illuminates the impulse to express long-simmering anger over injustices by taking to the streets, humanizing the images we often see on TV while also making the case for restraint. In an increasingly polarized America, any book that assists us in seeing all people as truly human is an important one.
I finished reading The Hate U Give just before Jordan Edwards, a Black teenager, was killed by a White police officer. The details are eerily similar to those in the book: a shooting at a party caused Jordan and his companions to flee in their car, a police officer took notice of them, and in the end, bullets ripped through an innocent, unarmed teenager while the traumatized witnesses, in this case his brothers, watched in horror. Last week, Betty Shelby, a White police officer, was acquitted of killing Terence Crutcher, one of the unarmed Black men listed in the final chapter of Thomas's book. I look forward to the day when The Hate U Gives becomes anachronistic, but I'm not holding my breath. Still, if enough people absorb the lessons Thomas presents, maybe?