A story is a powerful thing. I’ve read the studies about racial discrimination and its tragic effects in the past, and they have formed me intellectually. Over the past several years, I’ve accumulated knowledge in an attempt to become informed about the unique struggles of black people in America today. But information can only go so far, and none of that information impacted me as deeply as the story of Starr in The Hate U Give.
The Hate U Give is a young adult novel, the first by author Angie Thomas. The title is based on a Tupac quote that, while insightful, is too explicit to repeat in this article. (Of course, no one is stopping you from looking it up yourself.) After witnessing the string of deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement in recent history and the public discourse surrounding these incidents, Thomas was inspired to write a story about these kinds of tragedies from an African American perspective.
The book follows Starr, a 16-year-old girl growing up in a poverty-stricken urban neighborhood. As you might expect based on the setting, Starr has had more than her fair share of struggle. A father in prison during the formative years of her life. A childhood best friend killed in a drive-by. And more. But she also experiences a certain amount of privilege, attending an upper-scale private school instead of the neighborhood public school. This duality of experience causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance for Starr, a conflict that comes up a lot in the book.
All of this come to a head one night when she unwittingly becomes the witness of a police shooting. And not just any police shooting, but the killing of her friend at the hand of a white police officer. This is the inciting incident of the story, and the book details the impact of this tragedy on Starr’s development as well as her experience serving as the sole witness to the incident and trying to get justice for her friend.
Though police brutality is the central issue that plays out throughout the book, The Hate U Give touches on so many other aspects of the black experience as well, including safety concerns in poor neighborhoods, the reasons why crime rates are higher among the African American population than others, and the conflict one feels between self-improvement and investing in one's community. The most enlightening issue for me was Starr’s experience of code-switching, feeling compelled to act one way in her black neighborhood and another way at her predominantly white school.
But Starr isn’t just reduced to a stereotype for the sake of some agenda. She’s a dynamic, full-fledged character who learns, grows, and changes throughout the book. Like any other teenager, she deals with school and relationship issues. And fair warning, the book does include some aspects of Starr’s life that some may find objectionable, including a good deal of cursing and some sexual references. All of these details, though, leave the reader with the impression that Starr is a real person whom they can relate to, which is a necessary prerequisite for understanding her experience.
Because the book is basically an introduction to race issues geared towards a young adult audience, it can fall into the trap of over-exposition at times. One chapter in particular, in which Starr and her father discuss his past as a drug dealer and his search for redemption, comes to mind. But these instances are rare, and the story is plenty compelling on its own. To be honest, if a little exposition is what it takes to get readers to empathize with racial minorities, it’s certainly worth it.
The Hate U Give doesn’t present these issues as simple and straightforward, either. Even Starr, the protagonist of the story, has to learn to be less prejudiced as the story progresses, especially when it comes to slut-shaming. And at the risk of sharing spoilers, I’ll say that the story doesn’t have a “happily ever after” ending. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide to solving racism.
Instead, it’s an expression of the black experience from a young woman’s perspective that offers readers who’ve never been subjected to such experiences a starting point for empathy. The Hate U Give is a powerful story about the issues and struggles faced by African Americans today, and it has the potential to invite a whole new group of readers to become allies of racial minorities. Reading this book impacted me deeply, and I hope that others will open themselves up to being impacted by it as well. Empathy and understanding are the first steps towards reconciliation, and this could be a powerful tool in starting that process for many.