Children and teenagers
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas review – racism and police brutality
An outstanding debut stages the debates convulsing America in the story of a teenager who testifies after a shooting
Sat 8 Apr ‘17 09.30 BST
irls wear their hair coloured, curled, laid, and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail. Guys in their freshest kicks and sagging pants grind so close to girls they just about need condoms ...” Then gunshots shatter the music. Fleeing from the party, 16-year-old Starr is led to apparent safety by her friend Khalil. Shortly after, their car is pulled over by a police officer. What happens next crystallises the Black Lives Matter movement and indeed, the whole debate about race in America. The unarmed Khalil is murdered – shot at point blank range by the man Starr refers to from this moment on as “Officer One-Fifteen”. Starr is the only witness to the crime and her 16-year-old shoulders have to bear the ferocious outrage of her race and community.
For her YA debut, Angie Thomas gives Starr a relatively stable home life – her father, “Big Mav”, is the proprietor of a downtown convenience store, and her mother is a nurse.She has two brothers, Seven and Sekani. The family own a pet dog, Brickz, and Starr gets to wear the expensive name-brand trainers of her choice. Starr’s parents have sent her to a school in the suburbs dominated by white middle-class students. Unbeknown to her father, she is dating Chris, a white boy from school who can recite the lyrics to the opening credits of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. To further confuse things, Starr’s Uncle Carlos is a cop who acted as a father figure while Big Mav served a three-year prison term during her childhood – a point of tension between the two men.
When she was 12, Starr’s parents instructed her on sex education – and on what to do if stopped by the police. “Keep your hands visible,” her father advised. “Don’t make any sudden moves.” It’s unnerving to read that part of the toolkit for raising a black child in America is to coach them on the dos and don’ts if confronted by the law.
What makes this novel so compelling is the way Starr negotiates the relatively safe world of school, where she assimilates despite the soft racism of one or two so-called friends, and how she navigates the dangers of her own neighbourhood, where it’s not uncommon to be caught in the crossfire of rival gangs. There is one chilling scene where Starr witnesses a police officer, in a revenge stop, force her father to lie on the ground as he searches him. “Face down,” the policeman yells, his hands never too far away from his gun, humiliating his victim even though Big Mav offers to show his ID and addresses the officer as “Sir”.
Finally, she summons up the courage to make a statement to a grand jury. The world outside waits to learn if the officer who killed Khalil will face charges. As the tension mounts, the reader suffers with Starr’s quite ordinary friends and family as they hurtle through extraordinary experiences and circumstances.
The first-person narrative is simply beautiful to read, and I felt I was observing the story unfold in 3D as the characters grew flesh and bones inside my mind. The Hate U Give is an outstanding debut novel and says more about the contemporary black experience in America than any book I have read for years, whether fiction or non-fiction. It’s a stark reminder that, instead of seeking enemies at its international airports, America should open its eyes and look within if it’s really serious about keeping all its citizens safe.
Alex Wheatle’s Straight Outta Crongton is published by Atom. The Hate U Give is published by Walker.