There is a moment in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a book that I adore, when the narrator, Starr, is debating with her friend Khalil the merits of Tupac’s music. Khalil begins to excitedly talk about Tupac’s definition of Thug Life: The Hate U Give Little Infants F**** Everybody. It’s a deep and powerful moment, which obviously lends the book its title, but also serves as a thesis statement for the interactions of the books characters with each other and with the inequalities and discrimination that they face. Angie Thomas skillfully shows the power of hate and the terrible ways that it ripples through a community, impacting lives from birth to death.
Recently I’ve happened to read three incredible books, all in a row, that also deal with the impact that hate can have on young people. In each of these books a young man must come to grips with the violent deaths of loved ones and make a critical decision; whether to allow the hate they experience in the world to consume them or to find some other path forward. These are powerful, empathetic novels that I could not put down and am eager to share.
Nic Stone’s Dear Martin opens with a young black man named Justyce McAllister being handcuffed and detained by a police officer, all for the crime of trying to stop his girlfriend from driving under the influence. Justyce has no doubt that he has been profiled, but tries to channel his anger in a productive way by writing letters in his journal to the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. about his troubles, while trying to live his life as he believes the King would.
Justyce is a scholarship student at an affluent private school and often feels singled out both because of the color of his skin and the knowledge that he comes from a poor, underserved neighborhood. Despite his emotional maturity and keen intellect, Justyce struggles to live like Martin. When a terrible event throws his life into chaos, making Justyce a key figure in a national news story, he must decide whether to continue his fight, forcing the world to give him the respect and dignity he deserves or to give in and embrace the violence and strife that white eyes seem to expect of him.
Twelve year old Lolly Rachpaul faces a similarly difficult decision in The Stars Beneath our Feet by David Barclay Moore. Lolly’s older brother was recently murdered, leaving Lolly devastated by a mix of grief, anger, and guilt. Lolly finds himself lashing out at the people around him, taking pleasure in small acts of cruelty even though he knows these acts are wrong and fall outside his typical behavior. This is a terrible burden for Lolly, but he is also surrounded by adults who seem genuinely invested in his well being. When a Lego project he undertakes at his after-school program begins to blossom into a massive architectural project, Lolly begins to feel like himself again.
Unfortunately, outside forces conspire to mar his new joy. Lolly lives in a Harlem housing project and he and his best friend Vega face a daily mix of intimidation and coercion by members of various “crews.” The message they’re being sent is the same that many young people face across this county every day: You can’t survive on your own. Join us and we will take care of you. As the bullying worsens, Lolly and Vega’s choice becomes clear. They can continue to pursue their passions, even if it makes them targets, or they can succumb to the pressures that surround them and risk following Lolly’s brother’s violent path.
Jayson Reynolds’ verse novel, Long Way Down, feels like a combination of the experiences of Justyce and Lolly, distilled into harsh, mean truth. This is the story of Will, a fifteen year old who just lost his older brother to senseless gang violence. As Will explains, there are rules that dictate what comes next:
No.1: No Crying
No matter what.
No. 2: Snitching
No matter what.
No. 3: Revenge
If someone you love
find the person
The Invention Of The Rules
ain’t come from my
the guys outside,
the hustlers and shooters,
and definitely not from
Another Thing About The Rules
They weren’t meant to be broken.
They were meant for the broken
These inescapable rules lead Will, with his dead brother’s gun tucked into his waistband, to his building’s elevator that will take him down 7 floors. He will then walk to another building and wait for the man that he believes took his brother’s life. He will take his gun and kill that man. But first he must travel down these 7 floors. As it happens, on each floor Will encounters the ghost of someone in his life who has been taken by gun violence. And as he revisits each death, Will is forced to reckon with the destruction that is tucked in his pants and whether the violence he is about to bring into the world will set things right or will simply feed a beast that devours young people far too soon.
These books all deal with deeply upsetting events and are not easy reads. I worry that by writing about them together, I am contributing to an idea about violence in the lives of young people of color or at least the depiction of these young people in fiction. For this reason, I want to emphasize that all of these novels feature nuanced portrayals of their characters. In particular the violence in Dear Martin and The Stars Beneath our Feet is almost entirely secondary to the characters’ rich inner, social, and academic lives. These violent events, however, do help reinforce the terrible trauma that many young people experience and the ways that inequality, institutional neglect, and racism force too many people to make impossible choices every day.