THUG LIFE: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” - Books In School
Tupac’s wisdom is the basis of Angie Thomas’ powerhouse of a young adult novel, The Hate U Give—that hate is insipient, that directing it towards one person hurts an entire community, and that communities of color are stuck in a cycle of hatred and violence directed at them, which hurts everyone. Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is going to do something about it.
The Hate U Give follows Starr as she moves between worlds—the dangers of her neighborhood, Garden Heights, which is run by gangs, and the privileged world of her private school. Her father, a former gangster, and ex-convict himself, is vigilant in protecting his kids, yet they still face daily dangers of living in a poor urban neighborhood. Despite how hard Starr’s parents work to provide better opportunities for their kids, they fear for their family’s lives. Starr can’t share the challenges of her home life with her (mostly-white, affluent) school friends, not even her boyfriend, Chris; she knows they won’t understand. But when her childhood friend, Khalil, is murdered in front of her by a police officer despite being unarmed and non-violent, everything changes for Starr.
Khalil’s death is not the first time she’s witnessed a friend murdered. When she was 10 and playing with her best friend, Natasha, a drive-by shooting killed Natasha. At only 16, while her school friends worry about more trivial teenage concerns, Starr has witnessed the murder of close friends, had her father imprisoned for gang affiliation, and has seen countless drive-by shootings in her neighborhood. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon experience for many young people in the U.S. today.
“That’s the hate they’re giving us, baby,” Starr’s dad tells her, “a system designed against us. That’s Thug Life.”
“I’ve seen it happen over and over again,” Starr says, “a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”
While Starr is dealing with trauma and incredible challenges, she’s also a teenager who loves basketball, sneakers, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She straddles both worlds, the one where she fears for her and her family’s safety and the one where Chris recites the opening song from their favorite TV show for her in front of everybody at prom. In short, she’s 16, dealing with things so many teens are today, from the pressure to have sex to conflicts with friends. Starr’s school friends can’t fathom what she’s going through after Khalil’s unjust death. One of her best friends, a wealthy white girl named Hailey, unfollows Starr on Tumblr after seeing Starr’s posts about violence against communities of color because Hailey doesn’t want to see “that black stuff.” Starr and Hailey drift apart over Khalil’s death, after Hailey suggests that the officer who shot Khalil had the right to be afraid of him, a young black boy doing nothing wrong, because he was a drug dealer and that the world was better off without him. She doesn’t understand what it’s like to grow up in Garden Heights, where Khalil was forced to sell drugs to pay off his addict mother’s debts to the gang that runs their neighborhood. Starr thinks her white, rich friends, including Chris, will never understand what it means to have everything stacked against them and to try to rise above decades of poverty, violence, and racism. Starr says, “This is bigger than me and Khalil though. This is about Us, with a capital U; everybody who looks like us, feels like us, and is experiencing this pain with us despite not knowing me or Khalil. My silence isn’t helping Us.”
Starr struggles with how to use her voice to demand justice for Khalil. An advocate attorney encourages her to speak out on national TV and in front of a grand jury, but Starr feels that it still isn’t enough. She is furious when Hailey and her brother lead a schoolwide “protest” about Khalil’s death, ostensibly just to get out of class, but don’t seem genuinely concerned with the racial profiling, police brutality, discrimination, and violence Starr witnesses every day in Garden Heights. Her neighborhood has erupted in riots, destroying businesses like her father’s convenience store, and conflicts between the police and her neighbors as they protest Khalil’s death and the lack of accountability of the officer who shot him.
Thomas’ 2017 novel, New York Times bestseller and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, is extremely powerful, heartbreaking, and empowering. It’s an important read for teenagers today, many of whom face similar challenges to Starr in their communities. It personifies the violence so many black people experience every day in this country.
It teaches students to be aware of their privilege, to try to understand people who don’t have the same opportunities they do, to learn how even a 16-year-old can make a difference.
In the wake of gun violence targeting schools in recent years, young people all over the country are stepping up and speaking out. Nationwide school walk-outs followed the fatal shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018. Young people like Starr are using their voices to condemn the violence they face every day. This book is a great tool for discussion about gun violence, police brutality towards black and brown communities, white privilege, and the power of one person’s voice. It has been made into an equally-excellent movie (a rare feat for adaptations), which can also be used to show students the threats and violence Americans deal with every day. This story needs to be told, and should absolutely make its way into school curricula everywhere.
What books do you think should be taught in school?
Leave a recommendation in the comment section below.
About The Blogger
Erika Nichols-Frazer is a freelance writer and editor, as well as the part-time Communications Manager at the Children’s Literacy Foundation. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She won Noir Nation’s 2019 Golden Fedora fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in HuffPost, Literary Orphans, Noir Nation, Lunate, OC87 Recovery Diaries, Please Do Not Remove: A Collection Celebrating Vermont Literature and Libraries, and elsewhere. She is a reader for Literary Orphans. She lives in Vermont.
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