Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Hardcover, 464 pgs. Pub February 28th 2017 by Balzer + Bray, isbn13: 9780062498533

What do people talk about when we talk about race? This remarkable debut YA novel reflects the mindset and confusion of a sixteen-year-old African American girl, Starr, who witnesses up-close-and-personal a police shooting one of her childhood friends, Khalil. Starr lives in a black neighborhood, Garden Heights, but attends a private mostly-white high school an hour away from her home. Her relationship with her white schoolmates becomes a feature of the story.

The clever way Thomas sets up her character list allows us to experience Starr’s own disappointment and dislocation when Khalil is described as a drug dealer gang member to make the cop look less guilty in the eyes of the community. Thomas is especially good at describing a case that is not so completely clear that we can do without the officer’s testimony, but it soon emerges that his explanation, that he thought he was in danger, may have been because he saw a[n unarmed] black man and was afraid.

The YA nature of the material is useful to Thomas’ purpose because young people are not as close-lipped and cautious as adults and haven’t completely formed their worldview. Starr is still learning how the world works and she can be a little na├»ve and verbalize her learning experiences, and talk them over with her family and friends. We hear the things she is thinking, the things that bother her, the things she ultimately believes.

We can hear her discuss in an utterly realistic way one’s first impressions when confronted with her father’s own prison time, Khalil’s drug sales, Devante’s consideration of gang membership. Extenuating circumstances in each of these situations completely change our view of events and make readers realize how important perspective is when considering lifestyle and crime. Starr’s mother wants to leave the neighborhood for the suburbs to escape the drama and death of Garden Heights but Starr’s father refuses. This particular argument I have been waiting years to hear reasonably articulated, and Thomas does it well.

A new film, Get Out , was just released this month, directed by Jason Peele, a comedian who made his name as one of the Comedy Central duo Key & Peele. The work of these two bi-racial comedians focuses on how white folks are perceived by black folks, and black culture. Their work is funny, not mean, and meant to educate through humor. Thomas does something similar, with Starr articulating those micro aggressions she sustained at school, and with the police…but she is also able to articulate the assumptions, jealousy, and misunderstanding of Starr’s black friends about her opportunities outside of the neighborhood. This is all very well done: pointed but inoffensive.

Thomas says “I want to write the way Tupac Shakur raps”, her title coming from one of Tupac’s torso tattoos. She manages to include an enormous amount of nuance and expression into this novel without making it seem overdone. She throws a lot at us in a short time, giving our emotions a workout. She’d give TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes a run for her money. Thomas’ characters are realistic if not completely developed, certainly not mere stereotypes. Thomas is helped in her portrayals by an extremely talented narrator for the audiobook, Bahni Turpin, whose proficiency with voices and accents goes far beyond the ordinary. The audiobook is an excellent choice for this material, produced by HarperAudio. Below find an excerpt.

I am not a fan of the more talky aspects of YA novels, and I was horrified with the school fight Starr was involved in, and Seven’s tendency to think first of throwing his black body physically against the forces that subjugate him, whether they be a gang leader or a white cop. This is definitely not in my experience and I’m not sad about that. Unfortunately I suspect it was an accurate depiction of how things get resolved in Garden Heights, though Starr's fight happened in the private school. This can’t be a useful habit to carry forward, but these incidents were not adequately editorialized in the novel.

I will, however, admit to being completely impressed with the skill with which Thomas composed her story. She packed in a great deal of human experience on both sides of the color divide and helps readers come to terms with a very difficult and important topic: police intimidation, excessive force, and shootings of unarmed black males. At the same time, she invites us to look at her life, the culture in the neighborhood, and the thought processes of folks who make choices different from white folks in the suburbs.

With literature like this, we get clues to how we can get to know each other better, considering the historic segregation of schools and neighborhoods. Racism, conscious or unconscious, is no longer acceptable to the majority of Americans. It should have ended long ago—by law it had, in practice it has not. Everyone who hasn’t studied up on what this means, can use books like these to make inroads into a greater awareness. Study up. Society is moving ahead. Many artists of color are going out of their way to light the road and explain these issues clearly from their point of view.

The book has been optioned for a film, purportedly with “The Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg to star.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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