Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I'm flagging this with a spoiler warning because I want to talk about the entirety of The Hate U Give, but with that being said, I don’t think spoiling the plot details of this book will spoil the emotional experience. If anything, you should be able to guess how this book ends. It is, after all, a mirror for our society.
Let’s start by boosting some Black women’s voices in this discussion of The Hate U Give:
- Miss Fabularian at Hype Lit offers some thoughtful critique on the way Thomas presents the Black community of Garden Heights in this book.
- Brittany N. Williams over at Black Nerd Problems has praise for the prose but concerns over Starr’s characterization and the pacing.
- Read in Colour discusses why this book is powerful, particularly as a response or pushback to more white-filtered presentations of movements like Black Lives Matter.
Go read these reviews (I’ll add more as I see them), because it’s important that we listen to Black women talking about books by Black women. In particular, I appreciate reading their critical opinions of the book—I love that The Hate U Give is being celebrated by mainstream reviewers in a way that too few books by Black women and about Black issues are, but at the same time, that doesn’t give it a blank cheque. Miss Fabularian makes a great point about wanting this book to be the start of a discussion, particularly one among youth about their experiences and what they can do to take action.
I can spoil my own review right now by saying it’s not very critical. Look, as I belabour the point to my Indigenous students on the first day of class: I’m white. I can’t speak about this book from a Black perspective and tell you that this book is “so real” or “realistic” or that it represents the people, concerns, or experiences of majority-Black communities. Neither, for the exact same reasons, can I criticize that representation and point out where it’s problematic. I just don’t have the frame of reference to do that, which is why it’s so important to take the time to listen to those who are qualified to critique those parts of this book.
What I can do, however, is talk about what I think my fellow white people could learn from reading The Hate U Give. So, read on, white folks. Alternatively, if you are future!Ben reading this review to remember what you thought of this book (which is really why I write these reviews), then hi! How’d you like the ending of Mass Effect: Andromeda?
The plot summary is so simple it belies the power of this book: Starr is the only witness to a white police officer killing Khalil, her childhood best friend, an unarmed Black teenager. Only 16 herself, Starr ended up in Khalil’s car that night by chance. She hadn’t seen him in ages, and she feels guilty that her life at Williamson Prep, where she goes to school, has her growing apart from the people and friends she had in Garden Heights, the projects where she grew up and where she still lives. As the anger and protests build surrounding Khalil’s murder and the media’s handling of the matter, Starr has to tough choices about how loudly she wants to speak up on Khalil’s behalf. Angie Thomas captures the tension that young Black people with social mobility feel every day as they navigate the minefield that is race relations in the United States of America. Moreover, The Hate U Give pulls no punches and gives zero fucks about white fragility while doing this.
By way of disclaimer, I blew through this in about 24 hours. Partly this is because it’s such an emotional rollercoaster that I just wanted to keep reading it. Partly it’s because I bought it for a birthday present, and if I’m giving a book as a birthday present I like to have read it first so I can honestly recommend it (I kind of figured, going in, from what I’d heard, that I would want to do this). There’s something to be said for mainlining a book, but it might also be worthwhile to read this one more slowly and deliberately. I’m sure there are things I missed I’ll have to pick up next time I read it—oh, I bought two copies so I could keep one and give my friend the other.
The Hate U Give is an important book about how a community navigates racism and police brutality, unquestionably. But it’s so much more than that too. It’s not just a piece of social commentary; it’s a beautifully written piece of social commentary. It’s an exquisite story with dynamic characters. Thomas can write, and from the first few pages I was hooked not just on the premise and conscience of her narrative but on the words themselves:
Girls wear their hair colored, 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. My nana likes to say that spring brings love. Spring in Garden Heights doesn’t always bring love, but it promises babies in the winter. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them are conceived the night of Big D’s party. He always has it on the Friday of spring break because you need Saturday to recover and Sunday to repent.
With a single paragraph, Thomas masterfully establishes Starr’s voice while also giving us a sense of the community of Garden Heights. And she goes on like this. The scene in which One-Fifteen actually kills Khalil is breathtakingly disturbing, but the aftermath is harrowing in a different way. Because now that Starr has to live with what she witnessed, she has to process it against the type of person she thought she was:
I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.
Thomas is careful to demonstrate that there is no such thing as the monolithic Black community. There are so many different voices here: the different gangs and their battles; the conflict between Maverick and Mr. Lewis over the appropriate Black icons to celebrate (Huey Newton vs. Martin Luther King, Jr.); Maverick and Carlos’ differing opinions both on childrearing and policing; Maverick and Lisa’s slow journey towards deciding whether or not to move out of Garden Heights for the sake of their children; Seven and Starr’s differing perspectives on Iesha; and, most obviously, the way that people react differently to Khalil’s murder even within Garden Heights.
There’s the fact that Starr is so painfully navigating two worlds. In Garden Heights she feels out of place because she doesn’t spend much time there any more; she is just “Big Mav’s daughter who work in the store”. At Williamson she has to be “the only Black girl in eleventh grade”:
Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.
Chris Emdin talks about this code-switching quite extensively in For White Folks Who Want to Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too. This is a big deal, because it’s something white privilege means people like me don’t have to think about. I get to assume that when I say something, no one is assuming I speak for all white people. I don’t have to constantly be on my guard with how I present myself lest I fall into a stereotype about my race (I mean, no, I can’t dance—but I like dancing anyway, damn it, so I won’t let that stop me!).
And this becomes increasingly important for Starr, as she becomes more vocal and reveals herself as the witness, because of the microaggressions she increasingly endures. As a white reader of The Hate U Give, the two major white characters, Chris and Hailey, were most interesting to me, because these are the two characters I am closest to being.
Chris is well-meaning, certainly, and definitely interested in supporting Starr in all her efforts. He still makes mistakes, of course, and navigating the fallout from everything from microaggressions to outright racist remarks or actions is something he and Starr have to deal with together because they’re a couple. Sometimes Starr doesn’t necessarily deal with it as well or as maturely as she could—because she’s 16 and under, you know, just a teensy amount of extra stress—and I like that Thomas makes this relationship a struggle without making the conflict too contrived. The few scenes that feature heated discussions or emotional blowouts come predictably—that is to say, they are believable results of pent-up anger and unaired doubts. Through the character of Chris, Thomas demonstrates how it doesn’t matter if you are a well-intentioned dude who is aware of his white privilege (like, uh, me)—you can still mess up. There is never a point when you are “past” your internalized racism, never a point where one is free of one’s privileges or biases. I appreciate this reminder and a portrayal that emphasizes why it is so important to keep working to understand white supremacy, and one’s place in that system, despite the indelible nature of privilege.
Hailey, on the other hand, is the white person who refuses to acknowledge her privilege. When Starr calls her out, Hailey becomes defensive and pulls out every stop in the white fragility handbook. Everything is about her, and she can’t possibly ever do or say a racist thing because she is so not a racist! She just isn’t, and it’s so hurtful to be accused of such a dreadful thing! At first we’re left to wonder whether or not this is a bump in the road on Hailey and Starr’s friendship. Maybe Hailey will realize she is wrong, own it, and apologize.
Spoiler: she doesn’t.
She really doesn’t:
“It’s not my fault she can’t get over a joke from freaking freshman year! Just like it’s not my fault you can’t get over what happened to Khalil.”
“So I’m supposed to ‘get over’ the fact he was murdered?”
“Yes, get over it! He was probably gonna end up dead anyway …. The cop probably did everyone a favor. One less drug dealer on the—”
I have to admit, Hailey’s character makes me really uncomfortable. I kept wanting her to apologize, to come round, to repair the relationship. I kept hoping something would happen such that Starr could forgive her. But that feeling, after some self-examination and with a dose of honesty, is because I’m trying to centre myself and the feelings of white people at such an inappropriate juncture in this narrative. Hailey’s problems are her own; this is not her story. It’s unfortunate that their childhood friendship has to wither because Hailey refuses to confront her privilege and racism, but it does not behove Starr to be the one who guides her through that process. White people need to stop asking Black people to educate them or give them, at least without compensation, time and guidance through this process. Starr’s decision to cut Hailey out of her life is painful but definitely self-compassionate.
After Starr punches Hailey for her racist remarks above, Starr naturally gets into trouble with the school and her own parents. I love the portrayal of Starr’s relationship with her parents. They are so loving, so strong, but not without their own flaws and complications and prejudices. I love that Starr’s family situation is a bit “messy”, what with her and Kenya sharing Seven as a brother despite not being sisters themselves, yet her parents are also together and her home is actually a very stable one.
I love that Starr’s dad is committed to educating his daughter while also keeping her safe:
Drugs come from somewhere, and they’re destroying our community…. The Brendas can’t get jobs unless they’re clean, and they can’t pay for rehab unless they got jobs. When the Khalils get arrested for seeling drugs, they either spend most of their life in prison, another billion-dollar industry, or they have a hard time getting a real job and probably start selling drugs again. That’s the hate they’re giving us, baby, a system designed against us. That’s Thug Life.
This paragraph really underscored the entire theme of The Hate U Give for me and reaffirmed this notion that the problem is not individuals being racist but people supporting, intentionally or unintentionally, systems of racism that oppress Black people. And Thomas makes this so clear. younger readers might not have the academic background of my university-trained brain to follow sentences that use terms like “power dynamics” and “systemic oppression of marginalize groups”. But they know what Big Mav’s talking about.
I love that, in the midst of all the tragedy and heavy things happening in this book, Thomas takes the time for conversations like this one between Starr and her mom:
“We had an argument yesterday,” I say. “Really though, things have been weird for a while. She stopped texting me and unfollowed my Tumblr.”
Momma reaches her fork onto my plate and breaks off a piece of pancake. “What is Tumblr anyway? Is it like Facebook?”
“No, and you’re forbidden to get one. No parents allowed. You guys already took over Facebook.”
“You haven’t responded to my friend request yet.”
“I need Candy Crush lives.”
“That’s why I’ll never respond.”
Dying here. This is what I was talking about at the beginning of the review about The Hate U Give being more than social commentary. If it were that and that alone, it would still be worth five stars and most of the hype and praise surrounding it. But it’s not just that. It’s a witty, wonderful, compassionate young adult novel.
I have a favour to ask: please do not “like” this review. I had a difficult time finding those links to Black women reviewers at the top. (Fortunately, Twitter is a powerful force.) When I scrolled through the list of reviews on Goodreads, they were overwhelmingly from white women or POC-non-Black women. This is replicated in the reviews I'm finding on blogs and newspaper and magazine sites all over. There’s nothing wrong with white people reading and extolling The Hate U Give, obviously—but it’s a testament to the bias present in these systems, that white people’s voices are being boosted, amplified, and applauded over the very voices that Thomas seeks to boost in this book.
So don’t “like” my review. While I know it’s not a zero-sum game, and it’s not like my reviews get hundreds of likes or anything, I’d like this to be my way of de-centreing myself and my thoughts on the book. Please comment, by all means, so we can have a discussion. But show your support by not “liking” and by going forth and boosting Black women’s voices instead. Because white people should read The Hate U Give, but merely reading it is not enough if we don’t act afterwards to fight against and dismantle white supremacy.