“That’s the so-called gun,” Ms. Ofrah explains. “Officer Cruise claims he saw it in the car door, and he assumed Khalil was reaching for it. The handle was thick enough, black enough, for him to assume it was a gun.”
“And Khalil was black enough,” Daddy adds.
A hairbrush. Khalil died over a fucking hairbrush.”
This is the story that Angie Thomas tells through Starr in ‘The Hate U Give’, a heartfelt and passionate story of police brutality, racial profiling, and uprising against an unjust legal system.
Starr Carter, the narrator of the novel, witnesses her childhood best friend being shot by an officer at a routine traffic stop after a hairbrush is mistakenly identified as a gun. She is then forced to decide if she will adhere to the street code and stay silent or ‘snitch’ and testify in front of a grand jury, putting her life and the lives of her family at risk.
On the surface ’The Hate U Give’ appears to be a text focused solely on political activism, but on deeper exploration, it becomes clear the core of Thomas’s poignant work is really a meditation on identity. The struggle faced by young black girl attending an upper class private high school – Williamson Prep – and having to throw off her real personality to fit in and perform as expected. Morphing into what she refers to as ‘Williamson Starr’, a mild mannered, non confrontational and studious girl who strips off her culture and opinions like a coat to leave at the door.
Thomas uses The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a major recurring motif throughout the text – Starr heavily identifies with the protagonist of the Fresh Prince, Will Smith, because it represents her fantasy of being able to be herself, without having to play the roles that society has set out for her. Thomas has drawn strong parallels between Starr’s situation of fitting in and Will’s. As Starr struggles to fit in at Williamson prep, her ritzy private high school, ‘The Fresh Prince’ offers her an ideal of being able to think, behave and speak as she wishes without facing the social consequences.
Thomas characterises ‘Williamson Starr’ and ‘Garden Heights Starr’ with subtle changes in language and slight altering of the sentence structures. She disconnects ‘Williamson Starr’ from what the reader understands to be the real Starr by using third person when referring to Williamson Starr. An expert from chapter 5 is a key example of this technique – “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.” This is narrated by Starr but she speaks about herself in third person, disconnecting Williamson from her true identity. Starrs Williamson guise begins to fall apart as the plot progresses, as her friends disregard Kahlil’s death, treating it as a way to get out of school, Thomas alludes directly to this change, referencing ‘Starr from Garden Heights’ in the Williamson environment to symbolise this fractured mental state. The climax of this change takes place in chapter 11 with Starr’s quote ‘I’m breaking all of my Williamson rules with zero fucks to give’.
The Hate U Give was published in 2017. Thomas was born and raised in the one of the lowest socio economic states in the US – Mississippi, and one of the poorest neighbourhoods of its capital city. In her own words, Thomas says “If you say the word, “Georgetown,” to anyone who is familiar with Jackson, they will define it with images of crime, drug-infestation, and poverty.”.
Thomas spent her early life seeing literature as her refuge, for her ‘the neighborhood crack house was a dragon’s lair that I scurried past every day before the red-eyed, scaly-skinned dope fiends attacked. My imagination was, and still is, my blanket.’
As she grew up she began to understand her position in society. She knew how she had to behave. She knew to use different inflections, expressions and language when she travelled from her backwater neighbourhood to Belhaven University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Thomas struggled with her own identity as she transitioned between her two worlds.
Then a police officer in California, shot and killed a young, unarmed black man named Oscar Grant in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day of 2009.
Thomas was horrified as her white friends justified Grant’s death, disparaging the man and dismissing the topic as though it was his own fault, The Hate U Give is Thomas’s outcry about what she felt was this culture of blame, of justification and profiling based on race combined with her own identity and societal struggles.
She highlights how differently we perceive the same event, the same story, based on our childhood, past experiences, race and culture. Ironically, The Hate U Give is a singular perspective in itself, Thomas shows many different perspectives, but evaluates them all from her own standpoint, we hear very little of the other side.
Starr refers to the officer by his badge number ‘One-Fifteen’, depersonalising and desensitising him in the same way that she accuses her friends and the media of depersonalising Khalil.
Starr ridicules the media for profiling Khalil, ignoring who he was, his childhood, his life, but then proceeds to do the same to Officer Brian Cruise, referring to him as ‘One-Fifteen’ which she alludes to as being a way for her to remove the fear she feels in connection to him but can also be rationalised as a way for her to direct all of hear fear an pain at a faceless number, allowing her to demonise the man, and remove his humanity without the associated guilt of actually considering him as a person.
The Hate U Give reveals our human need to have a singular perspective, a right and wrong. Even if this means removing many of the factors in the equation, from the media and Starr’s peers singular perspectives of Kahlil as a ‘Thug’ and a ‘Drug Dealer’ to Starr’s erasure of the officer’s identity and story, so that we can justify our own opinions.