Know Your Worth, Light Up the Darkness
When it was first published in 2017, Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give debuted at the top of the New York Times’s Young Adult Best Seller list. It has remained there for 85 weeks, and a film of the same name was released nationwide this weekend. While there are substantive differences between the book and the film, a one-sentence summary offered by the Times captures the plot of both simply yet powerfully: A 16-year-old girl sees a police officer kill her friend.
Starr Carter, the heroine of the book, grew up in a world where she witnessed two fatal shootings before she graduated high school. The first was of her best friend by a local gang lord when she was 10, and the second was of her first love by a police officer six years later. While Starr has a supportive and loving family, she ultimately bears the burden of making sense of what happened, grieving her loss, and finding the courage to speak the truth.
When we first meet the teenage version of Starr, she confesses that she feels the need to hide who she really is from both her family and her friends. As a resident of Garden Heights and a student of Williamson Prep, Starr must navigate the pressures to fit in both in one of the poorest predominantly black neighborhoods and in one of the most privileged predominantly white educational settings. That alone would be enough of a backdrop to produce a great work of art, but The Hate U Give goes much deeper than that.
Besides the officer involved in her friend’s shooting, Starr is the only witness alive to tell what happened. Her “hero’s journey” towards self-actualization unfolds as she is questioned by police detectives, the media, and ultimately a grand jury. She realizes that those who were entrusted to uncover the facts were primarily interested in details that discredited the victim and seemed to blame him for his own death.
The Hate U Give draws attention to the differences between the wide margins of error in which some groups of people get to make mistakes and learn and the narrow margins of error in which some groups of people end up killed or disproportionately incarcerated. These margins correlate closely with race, class, and other forms of unearned privilege, and they have serious consequences for all of us.
Spoiler alert! There’s no Atticus Finch to save the day in The Hate U Give. But by allowing us to see the narrative through Starr’s eyes and to walk in her shoes, Thomas leaves the reader/audience with something much more powerful: a young black woman who has come to know her worth and who has the courage to light up the darkness.