Source of book: Audiobook from the library
I had this book on our list, but wasn’t sure exactly when all the kids would be old enough for it. In light of the recent protests around the world over the murder of George Floyd, and the ubiquitous videos of police assaulting peaceful protesters, using chemical weapons, and recreating the knee on the neck, I figured it was time.
Just a caution: this is a really sweary book. It is intended for young adults, not children, for a number of reasons. It isn’t just the language, but the somewhat graphic (and realistic) descriptions of police violence, gun violence, drug dealing, and poverty. Personally, I believe the language is appropriate and accurate. I grew up in a mostly minority, working class neighborhood, with plenty of gang activity. It wasn’t the ghetto, but it was kind of the old suburban version of the ‘hood, if that makes any sense. So I can attest to the accuracy of the language. In general, I heard plenty of cussing as a kid, and don’t consider that to be a big deal. More concerning is the central incident, which is the murder of a black teenager by a cop. It is meant to be disturbing and is. Some kids might have nightmares. For my kids, I decided it was more important that they understand the world they live in.
The Hate U Give draws its title form Tupac, who explained that “Thug Life” was a backronym for this statement:
The idea is that the hate - personal and institutional - that our society gives African Americans blows up and causes damage throughout society. And that is one damn freaking true statement. Pretty much every counterproductive and harmful political policy in our country can be traced back to racism - an attempt to keep black and brown skinned people in their place at the bottom of society.
The story is quite timely: Starr Carter, a 16 year old girl, attends a party in the ‘hood she lives in (the fictional Garden Heights, located in essentially Everycity, USA), and meets a childhood friend she hasn’t seen in a while, Khalil. The two rival gangs crash the party, shots ring out, and Starr and Khalil flee in his car. Well, they drive away, and are stopped by a cop, allegedly for a broken taillight. After dragging Khalil out of the car, the cop sees Khalil’s hairbrush, thinks it is a gun, and shoots and kills Khalil.
The aftermath of this is the subject of most of the book.
Starr has a complicated life. Her dad spent time in prison taking the rap for a local gang lord. He has since left the gang and runs a store. Her mom works as a nurse. Before her parents married, her dad had a fling with the now-girlfriend of the gang lord, and her half-brother Seven was born as a result. Khalil’s grandmother watched Starr and Seven when their dad was in prison, so Starr’s mom could finish college. As a result of their now middle-class(ish) status, the siblings go to a private school in the white area of town, even though the family continues to live in Garden Heights.
Because of the different worlds she lives in, Starr has to “code switch,” speaking and acting differently around different people. The book portrays this brilliantly. Starr has her private school friends, and her “ghetto” friends and family. She has her white boyfriend (who her dad doesn’t know about, because he is suspicious of interracial relationships), her Chinese-american friend with the doctor parents, her step-sister Kenya who accuses her of selling out, and Khalil, and...well, it gets complicated.
The book is full of wonderfully complex and human characters. Starr’s parents are flawed but thoroughly decent people. Her brothers are believable for their combination of love and rivalry. Uncle Carlos, who is a cop wrestling with the conflicting demands of his job and his family, is also wonderfully nuanced. I loved the delightfully profane Nana as well.
While a bit uncomfortable for a white guy to hear, I appreciated the spot-on deconstruction of a number of “types” in the book, from the female District Attorney with an agenda, to the insincere do-gooders. (Also, the question of why white folks always seem to want to “split up” when in danger, which was a humorous moment in an otherwise tense scene.) Thomas most definitely is not painting white folks as all bad, by any stretch. Many of those that get a bit of skewering are actually trying to do the right thing, but have massive blind spots. And that is both true of most of us and important to call out. We have the privilege of being blind to the meaning of race, while those who lack that privilege are unable to escape that meaning.
Starr’s classmates offer an interesting contrast in responses to white discomfort. First, there is Starr’s friend Hailey, who is a very familiar type. Used to being the ringleader and getting her way, she is able to turn any argument around on her. So when she cracks a “fried chicken” joke at Starr, she whines that it isn’t fair she is told she said something racist. Kind of like the “cat for thanksgiving” joke she used on Maya Yang. Hailey goes way too far, however, when she calls Khalil a drug dealer and says that maybe the cop did everyone a favor by killing him.
Honestly, there are days when I feel like a lot of my extended family are a bunch of Haileys. (The Trump Era has been really hard on family relationships, and forget about talking politics anymore…) I blogged about one incident a couple of years ago. I got unfriended over calling out a family member on a pretty nasty racist statement. And I have walked out on a number of discussions after making it clear that such shit was unacceptable. And, of course, it was always turned around on me: it was MY fault for not being nicer, for not giving them the benefit of the doubt, etc. It is never the racist’s fault, naturally.
In contrast to Hailey is Chris, Starr’s boyfriend. We don’t get a very good introduction to him. Starr is pissed at him for ignoring her expressed desire to postpone sex, and showed her a condom as his request to do it. He is also annoyingly rich, like most of the other kids at the school. But Chris isn’t a bad guy, just a bit clueless and clumsy in navigating both relationships and racial issues. After Starr tells him off, he backs down, and apologizes - he is not even close to a rapist or entitled prick. In fact, in one of the truly great scenes in the book, near the end, his actions and words demonstrate that he has a pretty deep understanding of consent. Basically, after the Grand Jury refuses to indict the cop, Starr is a mess. Over at Chris’ house, she first tells him they can’t be together because they are too different, then outright propositions him. Chris responds that even though he really badly wants to have sex with her, he doesn’t want it to happen that way, when she is not in a good place emotionally. Instead, he holds her and lets her cry. I was worried earlier in the book that he would turn out to be disappointing, but at that moment it was clear that he really was sincere in his desire to understand her - all of her. Chris is someone all us white guys should aspire to be.
There is so much more in this book too. Thomas takes a hard look at the way drugs are a tool of the wealthy to destroy low income neighborhoods. (Seriously, look at the history of the War on Drugs. Also related is James McBride’s book, Deacon King Kong.) At the lower levels, it is the young and black that tend to pay the price, while the kingpins remain safely out of sight and danger of prosecution. The book also examines the reality of policing in minority neighborhoods. Khalil’s death wasn’t just the result of a single decision to pull the trigger. It started with the widespread harassment of young minority men by the cops. It is never really in doubt that Khalil and Starr did nothing wrong, and the taillight may well have been a pretence. (See below for my own story…) In our discussion of our broken policing, this has to be the starting point. “Stop and Frisk” laws are aimed at harassment of minorities. (And, as it turns out, while they were stopped far more frequently, minorities were less likely to have contraband than whites.) From there, we have to talk about the differences in treatment, often stemming from implicit bias that assumes black people are more of a threat than white people. By the way, this is well documented - it’s not even close to made up. At the anecdotal level, once I started looking closely at my own reactions, I found that I do indeed make snap judgments that show bias. I hate that about myself, but now that I am aware of it, I can fight against that weakness: I can consciously choose to override my bias and work with the rational part of my brain.
The book also is nuanced and poignant when it comes to trauma. Starr has a double trauma: when she was ten, her best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting right in front of her. So she has watched two friends bleed out and die. In neither case was justice done. Natasha’s killer was never identified or found, and the cop who murders Khalil never faces consequences. So yeah, Starr has a lot of trauma, and the white counsellor at her school doesn’t really know how to actually help.
I feel like there are a lot of other things I wanted to say about this book, but since we listened while I was driving, I didn’t get to take notes. It’s not a short book, although it isn’t that long either, and it is packed with so many well written scenes and insightful lines.
really wish that I could make everyone in my parents’ generation listen to
this. If I could, I would wish that they could take a step outside the
ideological bubbles so many of them have, and actually listen with empathy and
try to understand the reality that other people live. It is particularly hard
in this case because I have so many cops in my extended family. They are
generally “good,” in the one sense, but the system (and particularly the “no
snitching” culture that perfectly mirrors street gang culture) has deep
problems that they are unable or unwilling to see. That’s how one of them could
say with a straight face that Black Lives Matter was just a media creation.
Sigh. Of course, the other problem is that they would hear the first “fuck” and
get their panties in a wad over that. As Starr often says, “That’s
Oh, one more before I forget. The best line in the book comes during Starr's television interview, where she decides to go rogue a bit at hit back. Asked what she would say to the cop who murdered her friend if she could meet him, she responds:
"I would ask him if he wishes he had shot me too."
Damn. Mike drop.
Whatever else I failed to mention about this book, I really want to say that it is stunning, a profoundly moving book. It will devastate you, make you angry, and, if you have been actually paying attention lately, it will read as fictional only in the details. This is the lived reality of racialized police brutality which is increasingly being recorded on our handheld computerphones. It isn’t new, but it is finally being brought into the light. (Starting with the Rodney King beating, which occurred a few miles from my house…see the footnote to this post for more about that...)
It is unsurprising that the book has been “challenged” quite a bit. After all, “fuck” is abundant. But it is interesting that it has drawn the wrath of police groups. One complained about its use at a high school, saying it is "almost indoctrination of distrust of police" and asserted that "we've got to put a stop to that."
Subsequent events have...not been kind to this interpretation. The biggest and best argument for defunding the police has come, not from books like this, but from the actions and words of the police themselves, as they continue to brutalize protesters (even when they know the cameras are on them), threaten to resign when even the most out of line among them is held accountable, and refuse to ask why a majority of the American public believes they have a serious problem. Probably the epiphany will not come until we actually do start the process of defunding, which is long overdue. (Police budgets increasingly dominate municipal budgets, mass incarceration has exploded, and police appear to feel entitled to be immune from budget cuts - a local prosecutor literally said every library should be shuttered before she lost a dollar from her budget…)
The times are a-changin’ though. Public opinion is shifting. (Probably in part because Trump has revealed just how racist the American Right actually is.) I have hope that things can in fact change for the better.
In any case, I am glad I had my kids listen to this book. My goal for them is that they grow up informed, with a range of skills, and with a sense of empathy and an ethical way of thinking. Books like these (just like books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry my mom read to me as a kid) are a huge part of that process. By entering the worlds of others, we learn to see other perspectives.
Note on the audiobook:
First, my complaint. The tracks on the book are inconsistent in how they split. Worst was when a track ended in mid-sentence - and then you had to change disks. That’s stupid and avoidable. I am used to better from Harper Audio.
That complaint aside, the narration by Bahni Turpin is a work of art. I have listened to a number of outstanding audiobook narrators, and she belongs in the pantheon. As I have noted before, a truly great narrator can change voices so that you never wonder who is speaking. Turpin starts with Starr, who is vulnerable and strong, introspective and forceful, and so very human. That performance alone was amazing. But all the other characters are unique and distinctive, each with their own voice, and recognizable for race, gender, and class. Turpin “code switches” perfectly too, and not just with Starr. Maya too is different with her family. As is Carlos in his “family” voice versus his “cop” voice. Turpin creates an entire world with her performance, and I got the the end of the book amazed by how she carried it.
I’m a pretty straight-up guy. In fact, even my violin teacher called me a square. Despite living in a neighborhood with drugs and gangs, I wasn’t offered any until my mid-30s, and that was by a white hippie friend. I’m not making that up.
Anyway, here is my little story about a run-in with the cops. When I was 19 or 20, I had an ‘84 Camaro. Eventually, I got it repainted, so it looked pretty good. (Loved that car, kind of regret selling it, but car seats didn’t work with it…) But at the time, it was still a charcoal grey and peeling. My brother had a chess tournament up in Modesto, and I drove him up. I didn’t really want to sit around in the lobby, so I parked my car in the structure, and studied while he played. The female security guard drove around several times, and apparently decided I was some sort of a threat. Rather than, I don’t know, check me out, she called the cops on me.
They come to my door looking ready to rumble. Fortunately for me, I am white and, well, freaking square. They relaxed a bit, looked at my ID, and saw my schoolbooks, and left. (And shot the guard a bit of a stink eye.)
I recognized even then, however, that things could have gone down differently, particularly if I hadn’t been white.