The Hate U Give: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.
K. Imani: The title comes from a quote by Tupac who said Thug Life stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*** Everybody.” I had never heard that quote before and found it very interesting. As the novel progressed and the meaning of Thug Life became more and more evident, I found it to be extremely profound. And a true statement of our times, especially since the election there has been a rise in hate crimes. Children of color are bearing witness to hate against them and I can only imagine what will happen when they come of age and discover the power of their voice like Starr does.
Crystal: I too hadn’t heard of this particular quote, but it resonated with me. It made me think of the many ways that Black children are seeing and experiencing hate in our country. Tupac had some wisdom there. It only seems logical that sowing hate will bring negatives for everybody.
Audrey: It was also my first time hearing that quote, but it is a powerful sentiment and a perfect distillation of the themes in THUG. I loved how it kept coming back into the story and how Starr’s relationship to it changed as she watched the fallout of Khalil’s murder in her family, her community, and the surrounding city. The hate played out differently across the characters, but there was no question that it made things worse for everyone all around.
K. Imani: One aspect of the novel I loved is that Starr had a relationship with her parents. We learn early that her parents are very frank with her, specifically having given her “The Talk” (not the sex talk, the one all Black kids get about dealing with the police) at a young age, and even shows when her 8 year old brother receives The Talk. It is because of this talk/relationship with her parents that Starr initially stays relatively calm when she and Khalil are pulled over. I like how Thomas revealed the different parts of The Talk by having her think of her father’s words as she encountered the hostile police officer. I know many Black folk who go through the same process when pulled over, especially these days when one never knows how their encounter will end up. I think we’re all Starr in that moment.
Jessica: Speaking of The Talk – I didn’t notice until later in the book that even though Starr did everything “right” when she and Khalil were pulled over, just like her parents told her, it wasn’t enough. The policeman pointed his gun at her as well. She points that out to her parents, and they understood instantly. So many people question who Khalil was, whether he had it coming, and so on, but Starr’s parents are steadfast in their understanding of the reality of the situation – that nothing justified his killing.
Crystal: I really appreciated the adults in the story and the relationships Starr had with them. Starr’s parents showed that they loved their children and were going to hold them to high standards because of that love. Their rules and consequences are reasoned decisions based on love and a desire to do what’s best for their kids. The humor and respect they show sure add another great element too. They had a beautiful relationship they were sharing and modeling for their kids. It was also good to see Starr’s uncle and his role in her life. It added another layer to the story to see how he had stepped in for her family when she was young and to see events from a Black police officer’s perspective.
Audrey: I loved Starr’s parents. Thomas gave me a glimpse through them–and Starr’s reactions to them and their advice–about what other people’s experiences are in America. It was heartbreaking when her little brother got pulled aside for The Talk, but I appreciated seeing that their parents had to make that call not because any eight-year-old is an actual threat to anyone but because we live in a world where they, as good parents, must give their children as much information and advice as they can to help keep them safe. Starr going through The Talk in her head when she and Khalil got pulled over made me very aware of all the small things that could–and did–go wrong. And it made the second awful encounter with the police later on all the more terrifying because of the possibility it could happen again.
There were a lot of good adults in Starr’s world, and I appreciated how Thomas took the time to demonstrate how they could have different perspectives and disagreements about how things should play out. They could fight with one another and still be united in the desire to do what was best for their families and communities. It was wonderful to see that depth and breadth in the characters.
K. Imani: Yes, I so agree with you Audrey. A common YA trope is to have absent parents & adults, so I’m glad that Thomas filled the novel with with so many important and loving examples of parent/child, uncle/niece, sibling, in-law relationships. All of them really showed how inter-connected many families, and communities, truly are and that when one hurts, the entire family hurts.
K. Imani: Another theme that was so strong in T.H.U.G is the concept of code switching that Blacks who move in primarily White spaces have. As one who grew up usually one of the few Black children in school, I fully connected with Starr here. She states, “That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang – if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do.” This duality that many Black people live with is exhausting, but not really talked about. I felt like being with Starr as she struggles to maintain “Williamson Starr” while dealing with her grief, her PTSD, and the tension in the community from Khalil’s death was an original way to show the inner turmoil many Black people experience from having to code switch.
Audrey: As a biracial Latina who wasn’t taught Spanish and grew up speaking like the white side of my family, I don’t have personal experience in code-switching, but I was exhausted for Starr as she had to flip the switch back and forth repeatedly. It took so much effort for her to maintain “Williamson Starr” while at school or around her school friends. Her repeated reminders to herself about not wanting to come across as the Sassy/Angry Black Woman or as “ghetto” made me upset and angry on her behalf–and was a potent reminder about how damaging stereotypes are. Starr struggled with her PTSD and grief and conflicts with her community, but she had to bottle so much of it up in the Williamson Starr side of her life because she didn’t want to mess up the image of herself she had built there. How much better off would Starr have been if she felt free to fully express herself at Williamson?
K. Imani: A few years ago I taught an article about PTSD in children who experience violence and I think exploring Starr’s PTSD from seeing the murder of her friend, especially at the hand of a policeman, reminds me of it. The article explains that children who experience trauma, who see family and friends murdered, experience PTSD at almost the same rate as war veterans. I’m so glad that Thomas has Starr experience PTSD, triggered whenever she’s around police officers, because witnessing Khalil’s murder is so traumatic. The way Starr’s PTSD manifest felt very real and true to life.
Audrey: I’m glad that Thomas included Starr’s PTSD and demonstrated all the ways it was present in her life. Too often mental health issues are swept under the rug for minority communities, and it’s important to see characters who deal with them. Especially a black teenage girl, since stereotypes about black woman frequently center on very specific types of “strength” that don’t allow for mental illness or emotional vulnerability. The PTSD seemed to be handled well to me, but I would love to read a review of T.H.U.G. from a black reviewer who has PTSD to get their thoughts.
Jessica: Ditto what Audrey said regarding reviews.
K. Imani: Let’s talk about Starr’s and Chris’s relationship, specifically how it was presented and the inner conflict Starr felt about having the relationship. Having Starr be in an interracial relationship truly added another layer to the narrative of THUG, and one that is often not addressed much in stories where interracial relationships exists. The challenges the couples face are usually very surface, but Starr deals with some serious identity issues because of their relationship, and trust issues, especially after Khalil’s murder.
Audrey: I really appreciated how Thomas didn’t shy away from showing some of the conflicts of interracial relationships. (My family has some nasty stories about future in-laws flipping out when they found out who their children had fallen in love with.) The struggles Starr faced through the book as she reexamined her relationship with Chris demonstrated how difficult forging and maintaining that kind of relationship could be. It was also an excellent contrast to Starr’s friendship with Hailey, who refused to believe she could be wrong or that Starr’s POV and feelings and experiences were valid.
Crystal: Starr felt comfortable with Chris because she could be herself with him. She didn’t do as much code switching with him as with the others at her school. She still kept many things hidden from him though. Thomas really did a great job showing Starr’s decision making there and letting readers know that these decisions weren’t made lightly. Chris and Starr have a lot to work through beyond the typical dating issues that come up between teens. Some of their conversations around race show that even Chris is operating under some biases though he is open to learning.
K. Imani: I agree with you Crystal that Thomas did an excellent job of making Starr and Chris’s relationship complex and that the decisions they make apart and together are done with careful thought. It is clear that there is mutual respect and love for each other based on their personalities and mutual likes.
Audrey: One of the small things later in the book that made me really happy was how Maya and Starr formed a “minority alliance” and promised each other that they wouldn’t let Hailey get away with saying any more racist stuff to them again. That moment of self-reflection from Starr, about how she needed to have a voice and stand up for others, too, was wonderful, especially since both she and Maya followed up on their pledge to back each other up. It was great to watch them come together and be allies for each other.
K. Imani: That moment! I almost forgot about that, this novel has so much. I’m, again, thankful for the way Thomas chose to write Hailey because a lot of people think racists are the evil mustache-twirly villains of old, and not realize that they harbor their own racist beliefs until they are called on it. Hailey is a character that I think will make folks uncomfortable but also be able to use her antics to take a good look at themselves and make a change. I was proud of the girls banding together and standing up to her because they realized they were also part of the problem, but now by having each others back they can invite change.
Jessica: Just a sidenote… was super psyched to see that Maya was Taiwanese! And the little details about her that were linked to being Taiwanese – spending breaks in Taipei, her last name, etc.
Getting back to the topic, I’m struck by how many threads were running through the book – the different family and friend dynamics, neighborhood life, the protests, coping with trauma, and relationships. There is so much going on, but it all links together and just fits. Sometimes, I think books will try to tackle current events and topics, and will struggle to make everything work in a way that doesn’t sound like an after-school special, but THUG succeeds where an awful lot of other books flounder.
I know THUG hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list (woo!), is getting a movie, and is basically enjoying some well-deserved success. Given that it’s on the path to being the next “everyone and their mother is reading this book” kind of novel, I’m definitely curious to see how people directly involved in the organizing (and leading? I guess ‘leaders’ is kind of a false concept in grassroots movements) of the Black Lives Matter movement react to this book. Or maybe they’ve already read this book, and I just haven’t dug into the reception of THUG enough.
Also, I’m way excited for Book 2! Aaaah!
Crystal: I had to go verify this second book you mention. Yes! In a recent interview, A.C. Thomas implies that it’s more of a companion book set in the future a bit, but still, I too am super excited to read more.
K. Imani: What? There is a second book? Woo-hoo!!! Thanks Crystal for the link to the article. I’m sure everyone who has read “The Hate U Give” or has yet to read it (what are you waiting for) is excited to hear that news! Clearly we all loved “The Hate U Give” , now tell us what you thought of Thomas’s best selling debut novel.