Starr keeps her worlds separate. She spends weekends working at her daddy’s small grocery store in Garden Heights; weekdays, she attends an elite prep school in the white part of town. While concealing her blackness in one world and reaffirming it in another is sometimes exhausting, Starr loves her family and friends, fresh kicks (she’s partial to Jordans), and the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” When a late-night traffic stop turns deadly, the seam holding her two worlds together begins to crack.
While the novel’s core message is about the systemic racism in American law enforcement, the message is never that all cops are bad (Starr’s uncle is a detective), or even that racism in law enforcement is the biggest issue. The title says everything. The origin of “The Hate You Give” is in the lyrics of Tupac: “THUG LIFE. The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything.”
Two conversations break down the meaning: the first between Starr and her childhood best friend, Khalil, before he is shot and killed by a white policeman, and the second between Starr and her father during the aftermath. What society feeds the oppressed comes back as something society fears. What’s the Hate? The lack of equal opportunities for education and jobs in poor and minority communities. This leads to a choice between dealing drugs and homelessness. The hate being fed leads to a fear being realized. This is the cycle that must be broken.
What came first, the fear or the hate? Parents should not have to give their children that talk, the one Ta-Nehisi Coates described so heartrendingly in “Between the World and Me”—the cop talk. “Keep your hands visible,” Starr’s daddy tells her as a young child. “Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.” Yet, this talk is necessary, because the list of unarmed black boys and men killed American police is steadily mounting. This talk is necessary because racism is deep, preconceptions are slow to break, and “‘drug dealer’ is louder than ‘suspected’ will ever be.”
Thomas explores the dissonance between Starr’s two worlds, divided not just by race and class, but also by culture and a desire to both honor roots while growing beyond them.
Turf wars plague Garden Heights: The Kings and the Garden Disciples are the two gangs tearing the neighborhood apart. Starr is born King royalty, her father high up in the gang, but Maverick wants out. He takes a sentence for a fellow gang member and owes no obligations after serving his time. He is a powerful black man: he believes in Black Jesus and follows the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program, he teaches his children the doctrine of Malcolm X, tries to lead by example, and believes in his community. While Maverick is willing to send Starr and her younger brother to school on the other side of town, he is unwilling to leave Garden Heights. As much as he wants to protect his family, he wants to help his community.
The boys in Garden Heights get caught up in turf wars and violence and drugs when there is no room for them in school, when the expectations of the world comes to bear on them. They are handed a definition of who they should be and see no other options. Maverick observes that finding crack is easier in Garden Heights than finding a decent education. He is not arguing that gang members aren’t accountable for their decision to join gangs, just that the choices available, and the majority of their role models, make that life appealing. These boys have an idea of what being black looks like, just as white Americans hold false notions of what being black looks like. Even Maverick holds on to the idea that leaving Garden Heights will make him less black. Deciding to make a life outside of drugs and gangs and wider society’s expectations does not make anyone less black, a conclusion Maverick eventually comes to.
Thomas’s novel draws inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, a decentralized international coalition of activists who sprung into the media spotlight following the 2013 acquittal of the white police officer who fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin. Ultimately, Starr’s decision to speak out about the Khalil she knew, one who was afraid of animals and took bubble baths with her when they were small children, who was there for her at a devastating time in her life, is both brave and beautiful, heartbreaking and terrifying. My mind returns to the image from “When Women Were Birds” of one hummingbird trying to put out a fire one mouthful of water at a time: Starr’s mouthful of water doesn’t put out the fire, but serves as a rallying call to the country. Black lives do matter. Why? Because they’ve never been treated like they do.