Content Warning: I’d like to note that on Goodreads, several people have argued against students reading Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school due to “sexual content.” I haven’t finished Angelou’s book, but her description of her rape is not graphic: “The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel cannot.” I feel that if people argue Angelou’s book is “too graphic,” then The Hate U Give is, too. Both books have murder, the n-word, threats to kill/beat someone, gangs, and sexual feelings/situations.
The most bangin’ book in young adult literature in recent years, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give has won all the awards and is being made into a movie. But it’s young adult, which isn’t my thing, so I didn’t read it when it came out it February 2017. However, this month my book club chose The Hate U Give, and seeing it was 444 pages, I almost died. I’m not a quitter in book club (typically), so I found it on audio and listed on my commute to work.
Starr Carter narrates the book in first-person. She’s a convincing teen character. I especially felt “old” when she said people would “give dap.” I don’t know what that means. Is in the new “lay some skin on me”? The novel is summarized in a way that suggests two major plot conflicts: 1) the conflict Starr feels as a black girl living in “the ghetto” going to a majority white prep school about 45 minutes away, and 2) Starr sees her black friend shot by a white police officer.
Starr’s parents are more interesting than Starr because they have complex histories that led them to their current place. Starr is still “becoming”–one of the key reasons I don’t read YA. Her father was in a gang and landed in prison, meaning he missed all of Starr’s “firsts.” Later, he bought a store in “the ghetto” that serves people in the neighborhood. At one point when Starr’s mother and father had a fight, he visited a prostitute, which resulted in a son. Starr’s mother got pregnant with Starr as a college student, so her mother disowned her (to some extent), meaning Starr was raised by an old woman in the neighborhood, who refused to let Starr’s mom quit school because she had a baby.
The voice actor, Bahni Turpin, tried so hard to make the kids at the prep school sound and act as white as possible, which was confusing when I realized one Starr’s best friends is Chinese, not white. The kids talk about how microwaving PopTarts is “a crime” — Angie Thomas’s attempt to make white kids seem carefree, vapid even, in contrast to black kids who worry they’ll be murdered by police. Thomas may be right.
But Turpin made every kid sound like Cher from the hit film Clueless (1995), or Buffy’s friends in the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). The problem is The Hate U Give is set in 2016 or 2017. Turpin’s attempts to make white kids sound stupid, boring, and “other” were embarrassing.
Starr’s white boyfriend, Chris, raps the theme to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air whenever Starr is mad with him because it’s their show, and they’ve seen every episode. Turpin reads the rapping like Ikea instructions. It actually takes effort to make that rap sound boring; Will Smith’s work is not so challenging that white people can’t get the beat. I don’t think this was Thomas’s intention because later we learn Chris creates his own beats/music, and Starr likes its old school quality. I would have liked to heard a talent like Regina King as the voice actor. She brings tons of life to Huey and Riley Freeman, both black boys, in the TV show The Boondocks. Turpin couldn’t make any of the male characters sound different. If Starr’s dad, half brother, and a gang member were all in the same scene, they were indistinguishable.
While the synopsis for the book suggests the story will be dramatic, The Hate U Give is also really funny. I love when Starr’s eight-year-old brother, Sekani, says he’s too sick to go to school, but when her dad leads the family in prayer that morning, her dad says, “Thank you for Sekani’s miraculous, sudden healing that just so happened to come after he found out they’re having pizza at school today.” After the father finishes the prayer, Sekani complains, “Daddy, why you put me on the spot like that with Black Jesus?” Though a child, he is a memorable character.
Because I have a background in black lit/history, I caught Thomas’s many links to other time periods and artists. Case in point, Black Jesus. While historians have always questioned the true race of Jesus Christ, African Americans began creating art works of an undeniably black Jesus around the Harlem Renaissance. Malcolm X also repeatedly preached that black Christians are so brainwashed they pray to images of a Jesus who doesn’t look like them, but should. Granted, I can’t assume this is what Thomas was trying to do, but it’s there.
Another example: when Starr’s dad opens his store five minutes late, he gets an earful from an older gentleman who owns the barbershop next door, and a reminder that he hates how Starr’s dad has changed things:
“The store used to open up at five fifty-five on the dot,” he says. “Five fifty-five!”It’s 6:05.Daddy unlocks the front door. “I know, Mr. Lewis, but I told you, I’m not running the store the same way Wyatt did.”“It sho’ is obvious. First you take down his pictures–who the hell replaces a picture of Dr. King with some nobody–““Huey Newton ain’t a nobody.”“He ain’t Dr. King!….”
I was reminded of “Buggin’ Out” from Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. He questions why the local pizzeria, owned by an Italian-American man but located in a black neighborhood, can’t have pictures of black leaders on the wall. Instead, the wall has images of famous Italians. I appreciated these little historical callbacks.
Overall, I can see how The Hate U Give helped readers talk about complex race issues: whether to riot, which leaders to look up to, to be silent or speak, if black people can trust the police (even black police officers). But Starr spent a lot of time crying and panicking (rightly so), and it made for a long listening experience. She repeatedly stated her dead friend’s life mattered. And she’s right. But as a listener/reader, going over the same emotional triggers over a dozen times — and this is not hyperbole — made me exhausted. But maybe that’s the point.