Starr Carter is a 16 year old girl who is caught between two lives: the life she lives while going to her mostly white prep school, and the life she lives when she goes home to her poor, black neighbourhood. One night Starr is driving home with her childhood friend Khalil, when they are stopped by the police, and Khalil ends up being shot and killed in front of her. This is nothing new for Starr, she has seen another friend get shot in a drive by, but this time it was by a white police officer, someone who is supposed to protect them. The death of her friend is the tipping point for her neighbourhood; starting riots and protests for justice, making national headlines. Starr will have to testify in front of a grand jury of what happened that night, and she is caught between speaking up and staying silent. She faces pressure from both the police and the local drug lord, and what she does could have deep consequences for her community, as well as her life and the lives of her family.
I have really been struggling with this review, mainly because nothing I can say will ever do the book justice. I started hearing about this book on a weekly podcast I listen to about books, and it sounded interesting. Soon the book starting popping up on a number of must-read lists and was touted as one of the best books of the year, so I knew it was something that I had to read. It is such a wonderfully written book, so powerful and moving. I can honestly say I sobbed twice within the first 100 pages. There is no way to really discuss this book without spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
I live in a small city in northern Ontario. Where and when I was growing up you didn’t have to lock your doors. To step in the shoes of a 16 year old black girl who lives in a neighbourhood that frequently sees drive-by’s, and is constantly bombarded with drugs and gangs, was a real challenge for me, and very eye opening. I went to visit my mom in Toronto a few years ago, and at a small indie book store there was a jar collecting money for Black Lives Matter. I asked the cashier what that was about, and she looked at me in horror. My mom even looked somewhat embarrassed that I asked. But where I live, we didn’t have those jars, we hadn’t heard about the Black Lives Matter movement. It wasn’t a question out of arrogance or racism; it was a question out of ignorance to the cause. It was something that existed outside of my world completely, something I knew nothing of. Once I clarified that to the cashier, she visibly relaxed and explained politely. But for the first time, I now understand that hesitation, that concern over what I thought was an innocent question.
Starr is brought in to give a statement to the police about what happened that night as part of their investigation. Two officers walk in to question her; one Latina and one white male. At first the questions are simple and straight forward, and then they turn towards justifying the officer’s actions rather than about what happened. The questions start to be about Khalil; was he a drug dealer, was he drinking that night, was he a part of the local gang scene. It took about ¾ of the book before it came out that the police officer held a gun to her until back up showed up, all while she cradled her friend’s body and posed little threat. The entire time she was interrogated, she is acutely aware of her actions and words. She has learned a sad reality, that she needs to choose her words carefully so as not be thought of as “ghetto”. She has to keep her hands visible at all times, make no sudden movements, and only speak when someone talks to her. She has to make sure to look them in the eye, so the cops have no reason to doubt what she is saying. The media make it out to be Khalil’s fault. There are reports there was a gun in the car, which there wasn’t, and reports that he was in a gang selling drugs, which is not entirely accurate. It paints the picture we see all too often that the victim was at fault.
Starr cannot live the life of a typical teenager. She tried to have her white friends over for a sleepover once. One friend was not allowed to come over because her family didn’t want their daughter in the ghetto. Another friend came over, and called her parents to come get her shortly after getting there because of a drive-by around the corner that scared her. She is very aware of the fact she lives in a small house, while her friends live in huge mansions and have multiple fancy cars. She is “cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids” at school. The black kids in her community barely even know who she is. She is known as the girl that works at Big Mav’s store, not by name.
Starr soon realizes that the wall she has so carefully constructed between her two worlds is starting to collide. Students at her school start protesting for justice for Khalil, not because of the cause, not because they knew him or cared what happened to a black kid, but because it would get them out of school. One of her friends doesn’t understand why they were protesting the life of a drug dealer, insinuating that he deserved it. Her friends do not know she was friends with Khalil, and do not know she was a witness to his death. She finds herself saying she didn’t know him, lying to her friends and her boyfriend, trying so hard to keep both halves of her life separate, and trying so hard to not have her white friends think less of her. Her boyfriend, by the way, is a white boy from school, a relationship she is hiding from her father because he would be upset his black daughter is dating a white kid.
I cannot love this book enough. I loved how the author illustrated that the world is not black and white, but rather very grey. Sure Khalil may have sold drugs, but it wasn’t for a glamorous life, it was to help his mom pay back a debt, to save her life. Starr’s uncle is a police officer, he knows the cop that shot her friend, and he too is stuck between understanding the officer’s actions, and seeking justice for the loss of another young black kid. Even her father is an ex-con who used to sell drugs, and now is struggling with how to better his community and protect his family. He wants to stay in Garden Heights and help kids succeed and help them to not make the mistakes he made, while his wife wants them to move out of the Garden to a safe neighbourhood, a move he feels is selling out his community.
To me, I found that both the police officer and Khalil stepped right into their stereotyped roles. The police officer immediately thought a black boy was up to no good, selling drugs, potentially in possession of weapons, when all he was doing was making sure his friend was okay, attempting to get her home safely. Khalil, in turn, started being a little more hostile than necessary towards the cop when they were pulled over, saying everything with a disrespectful tone, which further antagonized the officer. The whole thing could have been avoided had the officer came to the window and explained a tail light was out, and Khalil said “okay officer, I understand, thank you for telling me, I will get that fixed right away”, and the officer walk away rather than demand ID and attempt to do a background check because Khalil was black. But, had that happened, this important story would not have been told.
I did a little bit of googling after reading this book in prep to write this review, and found out some amazing things, which makes me love this book just that much more. Most recently, the book has been banned in a school district in Texas. To me, this is terribly sad. I hate the idea of books being banned period, but to have a book which has touched me so deeply, and something that was written to enlighten people about the harsh realities that black people face every day, to me is appalling. I have seen that it was banned due to “inappropriate” language, and indeed there are swears in the book, but I feel that is the farthest thing from the reason why they are banning it as some classics that are taught in high school contain curse words, such as The Catcher in the Rye. I have also read that the book is being adapted into a movie, which I am super excited to see (I will have to remember to bring some tissues!). I loved learning that Angie Thomas based the main character loosely on herself. She herself grew up in a rough neighbourhood, and read Harry Potter to help distract herself from the sounds of gunshots near her home, according to a website I found. I super love that she took a shining to HP, as I too am a fan, though I was sad to read people compare Hogwarts houses to gangs. Thomas herself also went to a mostly white college, so she understands the feelings that brings, living within both worlds. It was very clear to me that Thomas used the book to bring to light the Black Lives Matter movement, to help people understand the racism and police brutality that occurs all too frequently in today’s society.
While the book is geared more towards teenagers, I think it is a book that is so important for everyone to read, regardless of age, or really even race. I am a white woman who lives in a predominant white community, and I found it so moving and so enlightening. Tupac was a little before my time, or at least had little relevance for me, but the author uses his message as the title for her story. The Hate U Give= THUG. Thug life= the hate you give little infants f*cks everybody; meaning what we as a society teach kids effects everyone. We need to stop fearing each other, stop fearing our differences and learn to embrace them. Learn from each other. Stop looking down at those that have less, or more for that matter. I am fortunate that I was raised by a very strong, independent woman, who taught me that race doesn’t exist, that it is a term used to differentiate what doesn’t need to be differentiated. That we are all the same, regardless of skin colour, religion, sexual orientation, financial stature. We all deserve to be treated equally, we all deserve respect, we all deserve love, we all deserve to be here.