I was scrolling down my twitter feed the other day and came across this.
Reader’s Digest version: in the great state of South Carolina a group of police officers are calling for the removal of a handful of books that deal with police brutality from a high school summer reading list, among them The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The charge against the best seller is that it’s, “almost an indoctrination of distrust of police.”
Seeing infuriating things on Twitter is an occupational hazard, but I found this especially frustrating. Why police officers feel inclined to weigh in on a summer reading list outside a George Orwell novel is truly beyond me, but since they brought it up, let’s unpack this. The officers say that The Hate U Give “promotes an anti-police mentality,” but if their takeaway truly is that Angie Thomas wrote THUG to brainwash teens into thinking all police are monsters, I honestly have to question if the folks in blue contesting this novel even bothered to read beyond the synopsis.
The Hate U Give is Angie Thomas’ debut novel and follows the story of 16-year-old Starr Carter who witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend Khalil by a white police officer during a traffic stop. Khalil was unarmed, an investigation ensues and in the midst of her own grief Starr’s thrust into the position of being the only person who can speak for her now dead friend.
“Once upon there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil, the world called him a thug.”
The Hate U Give is about policing, but it’s not an indictment of police. If anything, it’s an indictment of the assumptions that can cost people who look like Starr and Khalil their lives, and a system that allows officers like officer 115 in the novel to walk away from it without consequence. This story is a part of a national conversation that is long overdue and a private conversation people of color have been having for generations. To discount that simply because it makes you uncomfortable shows a glaring lack of empathy.
THUG is about love, community, family, class, racism, and growing up. Over the course of four-hundred pages, Thomas touches on a number of issues. Readers see the havoc gang-violence has reeked on Starr’s neighborhood. We’re given some nuance in the conversation about police brutality because Starr’s beloved uncle and surrogate father is—drumroll please—a police officer. Through Starr’s memories and conversations had throughout the novel, Thomas examines the desperation that often goes with poverty and the painful choices that can come from it. We’re given a glimpse of the other side of the war on drugs, by seeing the pain of loving someone with an addiction. To her credit, Thomas never hesitates to present readers with harsh truths or force them to ask themselves hard questions. Would they have seen Khalil the same way officer 115 did?
I’ll admit I put off reading this book for a while, not because I don’t worry about policing in this country, but because I worried that due to my own experiences with gun violence, the story would be too emotionally overwhelming. And it was—but that was oddly cathartic. There are moments in the story that are truly devastating. Thomas writes in a way that ensures you feel Starr’s loss as if it were your own. Which is a part of the reason that trying to ban this book does a disservice to teenage readers, because for some of them Starr’s pain really is their pain.
Another criticism of the novel is that the 9th graders given the reading list are too young to drive, therefore haven’t had any positive or negative encounters with law enforcement yet. This is one of those moments where I’m gonna have to mention privilege. Black and brown children often aren’t afforded the luxury of childhood. Tamir Rice was after all considered a scary black man at the ripe age of twelve. Some of them have had encounters with police long before they’ve gotten their driver’s licenses. We live in a gun culture so they may have lost friends or family members to gun violence. They may know someone or love someone with an addiction.
Thomas balances out the frustration and loss with humor and hope; a difficult act to balance. Through Starr’s eyes, we see Khalil for what he was: not a saint, and not the thug people are so eager to paint him as—but simply a boy who did the best he could with the circumstances he lived with.
In being shown Khalil’s humanity, the audience is importantly shown Starr’s. Young Adult fiction is thankfully evolving, but it’s still hard to find a well-rounded black, female protagonist. Amazing writers like Angie Thomas, Nicola Yoon, and Tomi Adeyemi are changing this, but we still have far more magical negros and sassy sidekicks than we have fully realized black characters. Starr defies all the usual tropes. She’s not the impenetrable black woman, she just a girl who’s trying to grow up the best way she can. We see her resilience and her trauma, but we also see her vulnerability and her youth. She’s someone who has dealt with poverty and witnessed more violence than anyone should be forced to, yet she’s also a teenager. One who’s allowed to laugh and cry and care more about her sneaker collection than I ever would, but I digress.
Robin Brenner said that ya books should a mirror for minority youth and a window for their counterparts. The 8th and 9th graders in SC could do so much worse than seeing the world through Starr’s eyes for a few hundred pages. The very police officers contesting The Hate U Give could gain important insight into the anxiety the teenagers in the communities they police feel by reading this book and not taking it as an attack.
In a world where empathy feels like a dying phenomenon, The Hate U Give is a book we all need.