Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Sh*t is Exhausting: Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give

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Review and analysis of Angie Thomas' novel The Hate U Give...
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature. 

There is a moment late in The Hate U Give that is played for humor but expresses a major theme in the novel. Starr, the black female protagonist, has her white boyfriend over to a barbecue. She struggles with how to act. "I should be used to my two worlds colliding, but I never know which Starr I should be...Shit is exhausting" (357). The most striking thing about The Hate U Give is the overwhelming sensation of the downright oppressive strain of life itself when you are a teenager like Starr Carter.

Angie Thomas' novel, above all, teaches the reader about the struggle for power within a world that doesn't want you to have any. This is the world for most teenagers, but, if your black and living in Garden Heights, an inner-city neighborhood overrun by gangs like the King Lords, you hardly stand a chance. Luckily (?), for Starr, she gets a chance. That chance though only stands to press down on her even more in many ways. That chance is the nice, wealthy and mostly white private school she attends, Williamson Prep. Her parents, an ex-con father and a hard-working nurse mother, do whatever they can do give Starr a chance, but even that great chance is, as Starr repeats several times, "exhausting."

This novel is about double-consciousness, a term coined by W.E.B. DuBois to explain the inherent split in identity of black people as they try to maintain a sense of self in and among their own black culture and heritage as well as a sense of self in a white-controlled society. Starr lives this literally, physically in terms of place. Her home in the city and her school in the suburbs. Her black friends. Her Williamson friends. At 16, she must navigate all of these things: the two sides of her, the dramas of each side, the tragedies of her past (the loss of her father to incarceration as a child and her witness of the murder of her childhood friend in a drive-by shooting) and her present (her witness of the murder of a childhood friend at the hands of a police officer). And the tragedies simply bring along more pressure and strain, as she crosses paths with gang members and more police and lawyers and social media and unwitting racist "friends."

We have painful shifting perspectives in the world we live in right now. Starr's father Maverick speaks to these, as the title of the novel does itself, that there is what is real (where the Carter family lives) and what is fake (where Williamson Prep and Uncle Carlos live). These opposing ideas are the only way for Maverick and the Carter family to see things. For them, leaving their world behind for greener pastures is like hiding from what is real, the pain and suffering brought on by oppression, poverty, crime, a never-ending cycle perpetuated by an unjust power system of complete inequality that exists now 55 years after the Civil Rights Act. These are the things that carry Starr through this novel. Things that no teenager should have to even think about, let alone witness with her own eyes.

The Hate U Give is a tremendous novel of development. I loved reading it. It is a reminder that so many teenagers, still forming an identity, are faced with so many forces to contend with that serve to split that forming identity. It is a reminder, also, that only through true equality can anyone be truly free.

"...It is wrong to aid and abet a national crime simply because it is unpopular to do so." 
- W.E.B. Du Bois

For the past several weeks now, Du Bois has been popping up in my mind. Fact! It's impossible to discuss African-American culture and/or literature without him. Last night, I re-watched Spike Lee's BlackKklansman (now convinced it is the best movie of last year by a long shot), and two characters in the film bring up Du Bois. I have written, in responses to All American Boys and The Hate U Give about his idea of double-consciousness, so I'm so happy to see that Shanetta brought his words out in her presentation on Post-Colonialism as it pertains to this novel. Du Bois' words always bear repeating. Sure. It is wrong "to aid and abet" the murder of anyone, but especially young black men, by police. It might as well still be 1962. And that's the saddest thing of all...it is also wrong how we got tot this point and how we can't seem to get past it in this country. It stems from our own separations, our own labels. Upon being prompted in Shanetta's presentation to write about my labels, I wrote something like this: My being white affects the way I see the world because, while I don't view myself as superior to a person of any other race, I clearly see the comforts I've had in life and my unending privilege.

Late in The Hate U Give, tensions between Starr and her white friend from school, Hailey, have reached a snapping point. Haley's passive-aggressive racism has gone too far. Starr brought out the fists. "I've had to listen to people try to make it seem like it's okay he was murdered. As if he deserved it" (343). This is what many people, especially white people, in this country do. They aid and abet with ignorance. It comes from a superiority complex.

Shanetta's point about superior and inferior culture is directly related to colonialism and certainly a theme in post-colonial literature. Similarly, this plays into Brandon's take on the novel in terms of race theory. Take the DeVante character, a young King Lord who crossed King and has now found refuge with the Carter family. He and Starr discuss Khalil and the way society viewed him. Starr starts... "You said it, he wasn't a gangbanger, and if everybody knew why he sold drugs, then--" and DeVante finishes, "They wouldn't think he was a thug like me?" (238). This is what Brandon's presentation nailed when he claimed that "Society constructs victims like Khalil as criminals. This societal backwardness is also evident through Mav, a strong-willed father of three, who has to look at Starr and teach her the truth about this divide in cultural status. "Lack of opportunities...so many of the schools in our neighborhoods don't prepare us well enough...It's easier to find some crack than it is to find a good school around here" (169). This is what has happened as a result of the post-colonial, still racist society we are in so many ways. We understand then Tupac's acronym T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. From birth, we are still giving some people more of a chance than others based on race and class, and we are doing so very little to change that.

The fight with Hailey is a key to thinking about these divides and how they might be bridged. So too is Starr's relationship with Chris. What to they share? I was taken by Brandon's question about intersectionality in race theory. He provides several examples, but I've found another one that brings so much together in this novel. When Starr and Maya talk after their mutual falling out with Hailey over at Maya's house one night, they talk about what just transpired and agree to work up "a minority alliance" (Maya is Asian-American), a funny thought. But right before that, Starr, in her thoughts, gets right to the point: "We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What's the point of having a voice if you're gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn't be?" (252). This marks the spark of change for Starr. She has to use her voice. She can't let the jokes about fried chicken go anymore. She can't see another friend murdered. She is able to find peace and identity with people of other races, including Maya and especially Chris, who shares so much with Starr on deep levels but also seemingly superficial ones, like their mutual love of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

How do we bridge two sides? Let me make a brief argument for the intersectionality of popular culture. I play a song in my class every day as students enter the room. I let students make requests, as long as they're somewhat appropriate. More than once, a lily-white country kid has requested the theme song from Fresh Prince. I've had black students request it before too. Everybody sings. I love it too. It's magical. That's a show about a fish out of water, an inner-city black guy into the world of a wealthy black family, who themselves face issues in the mostly white world they inhabit. But that show and that song have bridged a gap, racially and generationally. The Hate U Give knows that. And, while those scenes in the novel are played for humor and connection with audience, they bear a strong truth. Our intersectionality doesn't have to complicate things. This novel reminded me of many things, but here's a new one. We can bring our dueling identities that are so often "exhausting" together with things that make us mutually happy. I love when I get to feel that as a teacher...when two students who seem like they'd never speak to each other laugh together. That's the kind of thing Dr. King "dreamed" about. We still have work to do if we're going to help him achieve it.

Works Cited

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  1. Great post! I haven't read The Hate U Give yet, but I really enjoyed the film and I wish it had made a bigger splash during awards season because it deserves it.

    1. Thanks! I've yet to see the movie. Soon enough. Great great read!

  2. This is a GREAT post, Kevin! So happy that you're posting some of your coursework, even if we don't have the full context of who/what you're talking about hehe :)

    I definitely want to read the novel, especially since I loved the film so much.

    1. Thanks, man! I'm sharing because I really just want a place to not only share with cool people but also to archive this work. Otherwise, it just fades away on a Blackboard discussion board. Glad you read it! Keep coming back.