At least half the Eastern seaboard is packed into the Woodland, an historic venue in Maplewood, New Jersey. The audience members sit in row after row of folding chairs, nodding and occasionally applauding as Angie Thomas discusses her ground-breaking debut YA novel “The Hate U Give” with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. The novel, a massive NYT and Amazon bestseller (that’s all of Amazon including Amazon U.K.), derives its title from the acronym THUG LIFE that Tupac Shakur had tattooed across his abdomen — the hate u give little infants fucks everybody. Both Tupac and Thomas not only redefine this acronym, but also make another quintessential point: It’s not the “thugs” who are at fault, but the The System that disproportionately targets, traumatizes, incarcerates and, all too often, shoots African-Americans. The question “The Hate U Give” asks is what do you plan to do about it?
“When I wrote this book I wasn’t even sure it was appropriate for publishing,” Thomas tell the audience. “Because I made it as unapologetically black as possible.” Somewhere toward the center of the room, a girl cheers. Thomas continues, “Sometimes I get some criticism about my book from white people. They say, ‘But you don’t talk about black-on-black crime.’” She pauses. “Yes I do. Shut up.”
Almost immediately after it was published, “The Hate U Give” was optioned for a film with Amandla Stenberg (“Hunger Games”) attached to play Starr Carter, the novel’s protagonist. After it was acquired by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins following a 13-house auction, the novel became a critical and commercial hit, garnering high praise from reviewers, librarians, teachers and fellow YA authors and shooting to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for young-adult books where it has been holding steady at number one for the past six weeks, regardless of the tired publishing-industry myth that books by African-American authors/books with African-Americans on the cover don’t sell. In point of fact, for six weeks, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon have held three of the coveted top-10 spots of the Times list with “The Hate U Give,” “EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING”—also a film with Amandla Stenberg— and “The Sun Is Also a Star.”
“We’re doing good work in the industry,” Thomas tells me in a phone call. “We Need Diverse Books showed that there were more books about animals and trucks than there were about black kids. It’s even lower for Asian Pacific and Native American. Why is that? It’s big for a black girl to see herself like on the cover of my book. A black girl with her natural hair on the cover! A teacher came to my launch party and brought 30 kids. Some of them told me, ‘I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know I could do that until I saw you.’”
At 29, Angie Thomas has a playful yet poised demeanor. Though she’s an admitted sneakerhead, for the event at the Woodland, she wears all black and a long silver necklace. Her shoulder-length wavy hair is pulled back with a lime-green headband. Her expression remains neutral even when touching on incendiary topics such as police brutality or when answering obtuse questions from white people as though to indicate a certain Weltschmerz. As though to say, “Girl, bye.”
Thomas began writing in reaction to the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, in 2009, but found the subject too painful, so she put the book aside for a few years. “Where I lived, Oscar was ‘one of us,’” she tells me. “But where I went to college — a mostly white college in an upper-middle-class neighborhood — everyone was saying, ‘Oh, he got what he deserved.’ It was challenging. Then I was pushed to return to the story after Trayvon and then Tamir Rice. Somehow we are blaming Tamir but he was a 12-year-old child. Why are we putting so much pressure on him to be an adult? Sandra Bland and I are the same age. I could be pulled over like she was. I could be a hashtag. Or Emmett Till. It just came out that woman was lying. No one should be murdered for whistling.”
Thomas deftly brings the myriad challenges of existing in two worlds to bear in the novel, as well as a dire need for social justice. As the witness to her childhood best friend Khalil’s fatal shooting by a police officer, Starr Carter suddenly finds herself in a pressure-cooker of opinion, responsibility and opposing social mores. Not only is she terrified at the idea of testifying in front of the grand jury, but she also feels panicked about maintaining the walls she has built between her two worlds — the schmancy, mostly white, private school she attends and the low-income, predominantly black neighborhood where she lives. Her white boyfriend Chris is sweet and they both obsess over the “Fresh Prince,” but she isn’t certain he can ever truly understand where she’s coming from. As the events of the novel unfold, and as her school friends’ attempts at activism ring false, Starr is drawn to Black Lives Matter — here called Just Us for Justice — as another option for support, community and a voice.
“All these organizations like Black Lives Matter that are fighting for my humanity are made into antagonists by the mainstream,” Thomas says. “Part of me should be shocked by that. I mean, originally, they tapped Doctor King’s phone and called him a terrorist! But a lot of white readers have told me my book opened their eyes and helped them understand Black Lives Matter, and black readers told me, ‘I see myself in these pages.’ It’s like my book gave white readers a window and it gave black readers a mirror.”
It’s this aspect of Thomas’ particular experience that informs Starr’s unique vision and makes “The Hate U Give” so universal without sugar-coating the brutal truths about what it means to be young and black in America.
“Starr is trying to make it in two different kinds of worlds so she’s code-switching, which gets to be confusing,” Thomas says. “For Starr, it’s a form of assimilation, but under someone else’s terms. Like blackness and black culture are always seen in a negative light — you have to be quiet when things are said. Sometimes code-switching means being quiet.”
Thomas goes on to relate the following story: “I had a moment when I had to be quiet when I was in college. I was the only black girl at an all-white party at my white professor’s house. This was 2010. There were all these gag gifts under the Christmas tree and I grabbed one. The gift was a prescription bottle and a gun and a white girl said, “A black girl from the hood gets the gun and the drugs.” I was horrified. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh it off or go off on this girl and people were laughing and laughing but I was silent. I left there furious. I was mad at myself because I didn’t say anything. I just let it go. My professor apologized but I was like can we just let it drop. I didn’t want to be the angry black woman. I was the only black girl in the room at an all-white school at an all-white party. I went home and worked on ‘The Hate U Give.’ It gave me motivation.”
Sharon Content, the founder and president of Children of Promise, NYC — an organization that provides mental health services, mentoring, summer camp and after-school programs to children of incarcerated parents to empower them to break the cycle of intergenerational involvement in the criminal justice system — found herself similarly motivated, not to tell the story but to subvert the course of its often traumatic and destructive narrative.
“I wanted to make an impact in communities that were impacted by poverty and substandard quality of life,” Content says. An impeccably dressed African-American woman, she cuts a chic figure in a grey suit, fuchsia blouse and impossibly high heels. “At first, I thought real estate in community development and developing housing. I wanted to use time in a way that would be rewarding for the recipients of my efforts and that would be rewarding for me.”
While working at Smith Barney, Content found herself loving the energy and the pace, but growing increasingly unfulfilled, so she decided to pursue her masters in nonprofit management in the evening and then went on to volunteer at the United Way. From there, she got her first job at an alternative-to-incarceration program. “I loved working with young people,” Content says, her face blooming into a soft smile. “I loved the relationships I was able to build with the teens. You have to ask yourself, doing those spreadsheets, what impact are you making? Do you feel any sense of responsibility to make any level of impact on anyone but your own kids?”
“You talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, but this is the prison-to-prison pipeline,” says Anna Morgan-Mullane, Vice President of Mental Health Services for Children of Promise, NYC. “Seventy percent of the kids with incarcerated parents also end up incarcerated because of these systems that have been in place for a long, long time. Rather than systems of rehabilitation, they are systems of punishment and they are targeting African-Americans.”
Morgan-Mullane recalls an incident with a 6-year-old boy who was in a car with his father when his father was pulled over for a broken taillight. Since there was already a warrant out for the father, the father was taken to jail right away. What happened next to the boy is unclear. His mother was in Brooklyn and couldn’t get to him, so there were some traumatic missing hours. The next time the boy saw his father, he was in prison, sentenced to 10 years.
“They get hit with these massive sentences,” Morgan-Mullane continues. “I had a white intern who said, ‘Yeah, but if he’s arrested what else did he do?’ This is our conditioning. Law enforcement is targeting black people for nothing but it’s the youth who get hit doubly and the hardest. Many of the kids who are 11- and 12-years-old have already had brush-ups with the police or been harassed, which in turn creates more trauma. Nothing separates them from the potential of this happening other than the fact that it hasn’t happened yet.”
“I’ve lost friends to gang violence,” says Jada, a 17-year-old client at Children of Promise. Her father is currently incarcerated. “And I’m worried about my male cousins on the streets who might get in trouble with the police just for existing. When I first came here it was like a blanket. I knew I wouldn’t be judged.”
“I’m not scared of the police,” says Makai (12). After I watched the police arrest my mom and grab her and take her out of the house in front of me when I was in the third grade, it made me so angry. I got into 15 fights. I would black out and I wouldn’t know what I’d be doing and then there’d be security guards and police officers, but until I came here, they didn’t get it. It just kept on happening.”
“In the midst of my struggles to finish writing the book and to find the ending, Alton and Philando happened,” Thomas tells me. “They were murdered one day after the other. I saw the two different reactions to these deaths. ‘He shouldn’t have been out there doing this’ was one of them. That angered me. It was hard to even write. There’s this old trope of ‘the ideal negro’ versus ‘the one with the record,’ as it has been called by my predecessors, and that idea was being repeated over and over.” Thomas pauses for a moment.
“It was one of the hardest weeks of my life,” she continues. “For me, this wasn’t political, it was personal. I know both these men. Not individually or literally but collectively. I grew up with them. It was one of these moments when I knew deep down that the weight of the whole story and the weight of their story fell on my shoulders. I wanted to end “The Hate U Give” in a way that honored those men and gave us hope. No matter what, the fight goes on. We’re not stopping.”
After Angie Thomas and Khalil Gibran Muhammad finish their conversation there’s a round of applause and then a question-and-answer period during which fans take turns at a mic set up in the aisle. The expected questions and comments follow. Then Marie Thomas, a 10th-grade English teacher at Mojave High School, a Title 1 school in Las Vegas, approaches the mic. She informs the room that she has flown all the way to New Jersey from Vegas on her own dime and then walked from the train station to Woodland — in the snow! — in order to convince Angie Thomas to come to her school and speak to her students. Marie Thomas has read two advance chapters of “The Hate U Give” with her students, a group of kids who are usually less than enthusiastic about reading. “Now every week they ask me, ‘When are we gonna get the rest of those books, Miss?’” she says. The woman next to me begins openly weeping.
“You are an amazing teacher,” Angie Thomas says, growing emotional as the room rises to give Marie Thomas a standing ovation. “Now let’s get those kids some books!”