Defining Activism With Angie Thomas
By Andrew Ward
This year, I was delighted by “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, one of the premier novels of 2017, which was featured at UCI Libraries last week along with a talk from the author. The story follows the life of Starr Carter after she watches her friend Khalil killed by a policeman. She must come to terms with her grief, and whether or not she should speak up about what she saw.
The story, though tragic and at some points deeply moving, has lighter scenes to balance itself out. Readers get to see Starr’s life at school, learn about her love of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” her boyfriend Chris and her family. We see how she feels like an outsider in her community of Garden Heights, and the friendships she makes at her school, Williamson. These light moments were the highlight of the book. I love young adult novels, and especially novels that bring readers closely into the life of the main character. Starr’s internal dilemma over who she really is drives most of the book, and it’s compelling enough to work. Of course, the novel doesn’t forget about the tragedy in the second chapter. It never goes away; it’s always working in the background or foreground of Starr’s thoughts. Ultimately, I felt like I was reading about someone learning to live with grief, not get over it.
Last Thursday, the campus initiative Illuminations hosted a talk by Angie Thomas, the first in a planned series of talks by authors. She detailed her own life and the inspiration she found in the Black Lives Matter movement, the influence of which is easily apparent in “The Hate U Give.” Thomas focused on the long journey of finding her voice, explaining that her novel had been in early development since 2009, but she was unsure if anyone would even want to read it (funny now, considering it was a New York Times Bestseller for 31 weeks). One of the instrumental artists who inspired her to write was Tupac Shakur, who wrote about his community and, in many of his songs, advocated for young black girls, which, to Angie Thomas, made her see her own self worth. And with her self worth, the fact that what she wrote was worth sharing.
If one reads “The Hate U Give,” one will see many of the important cultural events that influenced Angie Thomas’s life, as the book follows, in some ways, her own development and understanding of her voice. Listening to her talk, I was moved by the reality that was put into the novel and fascinated by the process that took real-world experiences and distilled them into such a memorable, moving book. Ultimately, Angie Thomas wants her readers to “define their activism,” as she phrased it. She wants to inspire readers to call out injustice and fight for the voices of the oppressed in ways that are manageable — not everyone has to be Starr, boldly sharing her story with the entire world, but people all can affect the world in smaller ways.
Starr’s grief is inextricably tied up with the novel’s main themes: speaking up about injustice, and the serious problem of police brutality in the black community. This book takes the relevant, real-world problem of systemic racism in police violence and engages with these topics through the main character. The most admirable thing about this book, to me, is how important it is to speak up, but also how speaking up is not easy. At a climactic point, Starr has to talk about the death of one of her close friends to an audience. That’s not something anyone can do easily, and the book knows this. Author Angie Thomas does not just write this message, she believes it.
In the question-and-answer segment of the event, stories were shared by people who found some of themselves in this book. Librarians and local teachers were present as well, and many of them had concerns about how to teach such a political book as some parents become belligerent when anything controversial is brought up to their children. Thomas stated her stance: it’s important to teach children about what goes on in the world around them, and it is important to give them an opportunity to find their own voice.
For this spectator, it was moving.
If you want to find this kind of positive and necessary message, read “The Hate U Give.” You won’t be disappointed.