Tupac Shakur famously had a tattoo across his abdomen that read “THUG LIFE.” It’s easy to dismiss as something that was just part of his image (I always did), but it was much more than that.
Moments before Starr Carter’s closest childhood friend, Khalil, is gunned down by a cop, he explains what “THUG LIFE” stands for—a phrase that captures the essence of Angie Thomas‘s gorgeous, heartbreaking book, the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, systemic racism, and the endless lies we tell ourselves about a post-racial America: “The Hate U Give Little Children Fucks Everybody.”
Like a pressure cooker. When you funnel prejudice and drugs into poor communities, gangs spring up as a form of protection and the unrelenting carceral state we live in spins on and on as a consequence. It’s a tale as old as time, and we see what we want to see. We pass judgment on what goes on in “the ghetto” and assume that the cops are just doing what they must to maintain order. It’s a vicious cycle that builds and builds, where no one on the outside understands the conscious decisions our country has made since its inception: condemning certain parts of the country. When no one listens to the people in those places, they cling to the only thing they have—rage.
There is a moment in the middle of The Hate U Give when Starr must decide whether or not she’s going to testify in front of a grand jury. She realizes that this is something bigger than her or Khalil. “This is about Us,” she says, “with a capital U; everybody who looks like us, and is experiencing this pain with us despite not knowing me or Khalil. My silence isn’t helping us.”
But the silence was all she could rely on up until that point. Starr, Khalil, and their friend Natasha had been “tighter than Voldemort’s nose” when they were kids. Then Natasha got killed in a drive-by shooting when they were 10. From then on, Starr has had to live a double life. After the shooting, her parents sent her and her two brothers—Seven and Sekani—to a predominantly white prep school 45 minutes away from their home.
At school, she has to make sure she’s not too loud or too argumentative; she has to let things slide for the sake of not coming across as the “angry black girl.” The double life is exhausting. No one at school really seems to understand.
Right before Khalil’s death, Starr provides an aside for readers, telling them that black parents have two important conversations with their children when they reach a certain age. The first, of course, is the birds and the bees. The second is how to deal with cops. Questioning the cop who pulled them over and opening the car door to check on Starr was enough to get Khalil killed. Surprise, surprise.
When the police interview Starr for the first time about what happened, they push her to give details about Khalil being in a gang and selling drugs. Because if he did, his murder would be okay in the public’s eye. As if he had it coming. As if he never had a life. As if his murder was the alpha and omega of his existence.
Everyone in the news and on social media goes back and forth about whose at fault when unarmed black men get killed by cops. Some people will say, once again, that cops have to do what’s necessary. Others will throw out statistics that say white men are shot and killed more frequently than black men and women. Even if that’s true, it is fundamentally true that people of color get pulled over/detained/stopped and frisked at an alarmingly higher rate than everyone else. That’s the “hate” Thomas is talking about.
Starr’s Uncle Carlos makes a simple observation while the family is waiting for the grand jury to release their verdict, saying that a cop who shoots someone for opening his or her car door should not be a cop. And that’s the end of it. The reader finds out later that it was Khalil’s hairbrush that made the cop believe it was a gun.
Obviously, this novel will resonate with people who already sympathize with and understand the plight of police brutality and systemic racism, but for those who dismiss those concepts (or actively rage about them), this book will teach you a little something.
Thomas brilliantly takes every perspective into account, from Uncle Carlos—the police detective, to Starr’s formerly incarcerated father, to Starr’s white classmates. Each of the novel’s characters contributes to a multi-faceted story that shows the underlying context behind so many deaths at the hands of police. It challenges readers to look beyond themselves into spaces that are right in front of us but are the spaces we refuse to see.
Thomas’ writing is flawless, with a perfectly rendered dialect that makes the reader feel as though they are bearing witness to conversations in the flesh. Her story contains the deepest wells of love, respect, and justice for those who have died like Khalil and those who are left behind to sift through the rubble after they’re gone.
There is a moment before Starr’s grand jury testimony when she almost backs out because of Garden Heights’ most powerful gang leader—King—tells the Carter family that he will retaliate if Starr reveals anything about his drug dealings. Starr’s father, Maverick, makes her recite the first point in the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program:
“We Want Freedom. We Want the Power To Determine.The Destiny Of Our Black Community.”