Our church book group finished working its way through The Hate U Give last week.
It’s a novel. This was a feature that some of the members really liked, and some others went along with, because of trying to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace and all that. The ones of us, that is, who only read novels if they’re assigned for book group.[*]
As novels that aren’t detective novels go, The Hate U Give is a good one: readable, enjoyably brisk, a gripping story about appealing and life-like characters and situations, which by the end of readers feel we’ve learned something from and have gained some insight into the lives and minds and hearts of human beings other than ourselves. And about ourselves as well.
By the end of the study, everyone in the group seemed to have been won over by Thomas’s story, including the ones who don’t go in much for fiction. And we had plenty to discuss along the way, as we read through the story of how sixteen-year-old Starr first witnesses the shooting of a childhood friend, Khalil, at the hands of a nervous white police officer, and then navigates the aftermath of that event as she answers investigators’ questions, testifies before the grand jury, advocates for her friend with her mostly white classmates at a prestigious private school in a different neighborhood, and is caught up the acts of violence that erupt in her home neighborhood, Garden Heights, following the announcement of the grand jury’s non-indictment of “Officer 115.”
Thomas is a gifted writer. Her situations ring true, and her characters feel real. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the book is her rounded depiction of Starr’s fully human neighborhood, a place full of community and love, as well as the specific dangers that arise from poverty and limited options. It’s a neighborhood prone to stereotyping, one that we learn always seems to appear on local television shown on its worst days, from its worst angle. Thomas manages to show her readers the varied ways and reasons people follow or evade the paths through life already well-worn by former community members, from gang-bangers and drug dealers to small local business owners to escapees and returnees. The balance of “good choices” and “bad choices,” and the complexities of every set of choices, comes alive in this narrative. The “bad guys” aren’t all bad; the “good guys” aren’t goody-two-shoes.
Starr’s not-at-all-dysfunctional family is another bright spot in the narrative. Her father, in particular, is an impressive character: self-taught, smart, deep, with slowly-revealed talents for organizing and leadership, both in the family and in the community. As an ex-con, he has had to finesse a respectable life out of an especially bad hand and some epically bad choices over the years. We see the signs and traces of how he’s done that, from the pictures of Black Jesus and Malcolm X on his office wall and the way he drills his children in the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program, to the grocery store he runs in the neighborhood, the roses he cultivates in his front yard, and the relationships he cultivates with his children and his wife.
We can all benefit from Starr’s parents’ wisdom. The moral of a particularly dramatic story Starr’s mother tells her to encourage her in a difficult moment, a story about the day of her birth, is one for any time:
Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right (154).
Race is a central theme of the story. It’s race from Starr’s perspective, that of a bright black teen with an already-wide set of experiences and environments, between her neighborhood and her school. And, of course, from Thomas’s perspective, that of a young and talented Black American novelist.
Angie Thomas is not Harriet Beecher Stowe. That is, she’s no sentimental outsider. That seems like a good thing, to me. It makes me more likely to trust Thomas’s presentation of characters like Starr and her family.
Which leads to the question about what it is that makes us think a book is “political.” Because it also seems to me that The Hate U Give is a deeply political novel. At least, it’s a novel with deeply political implications.
One of the things that novels do is tell stories. Novels aren’t the only story-telling medium, of course; “the news” tells stories, too. YouTube and the movies tell stories. So does sociology. In fact, I read somewhere recently that “sociologists are the story-tellers of our age.” That struck me as observant.
Still, novels tell stories, and one of the things that happens when we listen to stories is that we accept them, or reject them, as being stories about our world, the real world, the one we share, or don’t, with the characters in the story. Storytellers are “world-makers,” and when we encounter one of these story-made worlds, we decide whether that world is real, or imaginary – or, perhaps, to what extent it is real, and to what extent it is imaginary.
And that decision, our decision about how things really are, is a fundamentally political decision.
Because [as I have said often, including here], “politics” just is “how we make decisions in groups.” Everything, that is, about how we make those decisions, including all the assumptions we bring to that decision making process. Especially including the assumptions we make about how things really are.
So, a story that gives a reader what they understand to be fresh insight into how things really are – a story that makes it possible for readers to imagine that what they see of black communities on television news might be those communities on their worst days, from their worst angles, and that there’s more to be seen, that’s more positive, than meets the eye, for instance – is political.
A story that makes it possible for white readers to imagine black families as warmer, wiser, and more human than they had before is political.
A story that makes it possible for old white church people to identify, even briefly, with sixteen-year-old black American “Christlims,” and to imagine how it would feel to be a harmless teen pulled over by a man with a gun, as opposed to that regular guy from the neighborhood just doing his incredibly dangerous job, or the innocent bystanders in one of the houses on the block uninvolved in the whole thing – a story like that is political.
It’s political, in that way that stories have of shaping our assumptions about what world we live in, and about how things really are in that world. And therefore, of shaping what we think, and know, it makes sense and would be good to do in that world.
So it seems to me The Hate U Give is political.
In a good way, it seemed to me.
As usual, though, context is everything. The book showed up on the American Library Association’s top ten list of banned books in 2018 after a school administrator pulled copies of the book from the shelves complaining about its language and depiction of drugs, and was challenged and criticized as “indoctrination” by a police union in Charleston, South Carolina. Dealing with the acronym THUG LIFE from which the book takes its title proved a challenge for the maker of the film version of the story.
Politics is ubiquitous. And complicated. Sometimes, it doesn’t even look like politics. It just looks like reading a novel.
[*] Or are detective novels, which don’t count. Don’t expect me to explain that.
Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2017.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]
Learning need never end.