The rapperTupac Shakur once broke down the acronym for “THUG LIFE” as “The Hate You Gave Little Infants F***s Everybody.” He said this while referring to systemic injustices. “What you feed us as seeds, grows and blows up in your face.” More than two decades after his death, his message was worked into “The Hate U Give,” Angie Thomas’s best-selling 2017 movie about a black, female teenager who experiences those inequalities firsthand.
“Pac’s gonna always be relevant,” Khalil, a character in the movie, insists to his childhood friend Starr in this film. Moments later, Khalil was dead, shot by a jittery, white police officer who pulls them over and mistakes his hairbrush for a gun. The acronymtattooed across Tupac’s abdomen could be read as an embrace of a dangerous lifestyle. But, as Khalil explains to Starr, just minutes before the cop pulls them over, it’s really an indictment of systemic inequality and hostility: “What society gives us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out.” One way to reckon with this fact is through art, which is why, as more black artists have gotten behind the camera and entered the writers’ room, the police brutality narrative has almostbecome a genre unto itself.
By the time she’s 16, Starr, the protagonist of the book, has lost two of her childhood friends to gun violence: one by a gang drive-by, and one by a cop. In the movie, Starr and her brother receives “The Talk”, a familiar rite of passage for many black Americans about navigating and surviving in a predominantly white world. Her father wants to instill in them a sense of pride and the tenets of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program. As the sole witness to her friend Khalil’s fatal shooting, Starr is overwhelmed by the pressure of testifying before a grand jury and the responsibility of speaking out in Khalil’s memory. The incident also means that the carefully built-up boundary between Starr’s two worlds begins to crumble. The film’s driving plot is Khalil’s death and how it pushes Starr to come into her own as an activist. Starr’s two worlds converge over questions of police brutality, justice and activism.
This question of appearance versus reality recurs throughout “The Hate U Give.” Starr, familiar with perceptions of her neighborhood, community, and herself, code-switches to adapt to her environment and others’ expectations when she has to attend her predominantly white high school. After the shooting, a new narrative, one that paints Khalil as a drug dealer threatening a copsurfaces, but Starr challenges this simplistic framing of her friend. The novel goes on to raise credible counter-arguments to the flattening narratives often presented by authorities and exhibited by many media outlets in shooting cases involving young, black males. It illustrates how young people of color who might speak out to defend their late friends are unfairly criticized and the deceased get put on trial, rather than their killers. Thomas’s intimate writing style and the novel’s first-person perspective taps fully into Starr’s shock, pain, and outrage during the shooting and its aftermath. As a result, “The Hate U Give” allows some readers to see the complexity of their lives mirrored in literature; for others who may be removed from Starr’s experience or haven’t lived through similar tragedies, it can help generate deeper understanding.