A few years ago, I read The Hate U Give and liked it enough that I have multiple copies of it (various special editions). Angie Thomas then followed it up with On The Come Up, a spin-off set in the same neighbourhood but with a different cast and a focus on hip-hop, something Thomas cares about deeply on a personal level. Now we have a third novel that is clearly the result of a deep connection, in this case to one of her characters—I suspect Maverick wouldn’t shut up until Thomas told his story. That’s because Thomas is a fantastic storyteller who crafts characters you want to know personally, yet at the same time, she confronts serious social issues. Concrete Rose is no exception.
Reconciling this Maverick’s voice with the Mav Carter we know from The Hate U Give was a challenge at first. This is not a criticism of Thomas but instead a comment on her prowess at fully realizing young adult voices. Maverick in Concrete Rose is young, grappling with the path to maturity, and above all else, he is in pain. It’s a pain that a white person like myself cannot fully understand, because I benefit from our white supremacist society rather than suffer from it. Yet, as with Thomas’ other two novels, this book also displays the power of Black joy.
First, an all-important question? Can you read this if you haven’t read The Hate U Give? Yes, most definitely. Though the books are closely related, they stand alone. Moreover, I suspect that regardless of the order in which you read these two books, you will find interesting connections.
Maverick Carter is 17 years old and finds out he has a child as a result of a one-night stand. This throws a wrench into his relationships with Lisa, his girlfriend but not the mother of his child, as well as King, his business partner/fellow gang member and sometime-lover of the mother of Mav’s child. Yeah, it’s complicated. Mav is a member of the King Lords, being initiated into a life of dealing drugs as the only possible escape from destitution. Mav tries to get out, tries to find a different path, yet it never quite seems like the opportunities are there. One setback after another leaves Mav feeling disconnected, desolate, and desperate. The question he has to ask himself, and hopefully answer, is this: what does it mean to be a man when everyone around you thinks they know how you’re going to turn out before you even turn up?
I’m really happy Thomas chose to tell a story with a male protagonist and to dig into the intersections of anti-Black racism and toxic masculinity. When we discuss white supremacy and patriarchy, we need to make sure we comment on those intersections, and that’s precisely what Concrete Rose does. Mav’s experiences are not simply because he is Black, nor are they simply because he is a man. He is a Black man, both things at once, and these identities together inform the expectations the world lays upon him.
Mav’s age is important, because so many people tell him to be a man and expect him to act like an adult. Yet, as Thomas shows us, he’s still in many ways a boy, a scared boy who needs a lot of help. This manifests most evidently (and joyously) when Mav is caring for his infant son. There’s a tenderness to the way he interacts with Seven that belies the tougher persona he tries to have around his friends. The only man he drops that persona around is Dre, his cousin, who shares with him the experience of fatherhood. We also see Mav’s immaturity in how he interacts with authority figures, such as the school guidance counselor who chews him out for his poor academic performance while simultaneously offering very little in the way of, you know, guidance. Mav’s response is to bristle and get his back up, which is an entirely natural thing for a teenager to do when they feel like you’re not actually listening to them.
Exploring this immaturity is important because our society likes to pretend Black boys are scarier and more threatening than white boys. Black boys (and girls, for that matter) get handcuffed and put in headlocks by school security and police. We criminalize them from an early age, and when we project this threatening aura onto their masculinity, is it any wonder it begins to seep in? Mav runs with the King Lords because this is his safest option in his neighbourhood. His father is in prison and therefore absent—not because his father abandoned them but because of the racist prison–industrial complex—and so Mav unconsciously seeks surrogate father figures. Some of the most significant and moving moments of Concrete Rose are the ones where other characters create a safe space for Mav to show emotion and let down his guard, as Mr. Wyatt does more than once.
The flaws in Mav’s character are what drive this book forward and make it so engrossing. I won’t go into too many details, because I don’t want to spoil the plot—but let’s just say that Mav makes a lot of mistakes, some predictable and some surprising. There is no clear arc here of “oh, I have a kid now, so I need to be responsible,” nor does Thomas even do the classic, “I’m going to try to be responsible and then there’s going to be a big setback.” Rather, it’s a series of ups and downs and lateral movements, and at the end of the book, honestly we don’t even really know if Mav will be ok. Thomas refuses to give us the satisfaction of that reassurance (obviously, if you have read The Hate U Give, we know what happens to Mav, but there’s still a 16 year gap!). This isn’t really a book about a boy learning to be a responsible father. It’s a book about a boy learning to question the narratives society taught him about himself, even though that means he has to undertake the hard work of creating a new narrative.
In the same way, we need to alter our narratives about Black boys and men. Even as I write this review, Minneapolis police have shot and killed an unarmed Black man, Daunte Wright, about a year after they did the same thing to George Floyd. Police brutality against Black people continues unchecked (defund and then abolish the police, plz), but this is part of the larger white supremacist structure of our society that is propped up by the narratives Thomas challenges with her works. Concrete Rose doesn’t have the flashy police-shooting plot underlying it like The Hate U Give does—there are no protests in this book, no tense standoffs—so for that reason, I suspect it’s going to get less attention and acclaim. Yet, as you might be able to tell from my 5-star rating, I think it’s every bit as good and important as The Hate U Give.
I’ll close with one other observation about white reactions to books like this. In my review of On the Come Up, I discussed how one reaction to books by Black authors about Black characters is to silo them off as being “for” Black audiences, not for us. I criticized this as an oversimplification (and still believe that)—we need to approach books about people whose experiences are very different from us with sensitivity, yes, but we should still read them. However, if we take that to an extreme, sometimes we get into the position of talking too much about how these books “create empathy” in white readers. And that’s gross and simplistic too. It once again centres white people’s experiences and needs in a conversation that should remain about Black people (and be driven by Black people). Read books by Black authors like Thomas. Celebrate them and uplift them. Learn from them! But don’t make it about you, ok?
Every one of Angie Thomas’ novels has hit me differently so far, and I love it. Every one has been powerful, has championed the need to talk about the issues that Black people face in America complexly and completely rather than through narrow lenses. Concrete Rose does this with a story about teenage parenting, gang membership, relationships, loss and grief, and so much more. Thomas is one of those authors who can bring alive an entire world through the eyes of a single narrator, and while her books at times can be heavy, reading them is always a joy.