Hard Truths in a Brilliant Book

When it comes to books, movies, song lyrics, or pretty much anything else, I’m not exactly known for the power of my memory. It’s why I’ve never nailed a movie quote, why I can’t get to the grocery store without the maps app on my phone, and why I’m 90% sure the new Thor movie stars Chris Hemsworth and not Christopher Walken but I can’t say for sure without Google’s help. This might also explain why my favorite books at any given time are often the ones I’ve read most recently-they’re so clear in my mind!  

And yet this year the book that I’m still talking about, that is crystal clear in my mind, is one that I read waaaay back in March. The reason is simple and it has nothing to do with the Ginkgo Biloba I forget to take every morning. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas wasn’t just the best book I read this year, but was among the best I’ve read in a long time.

the-hate-u-giveThe narrator of this novel is a teenager named Starr Carter. Starr lives in a neighborhood that is majority black, under-served, and impoverished. Starr’s family has deep connections to their community; her mother is a nurse and her father owns the local convenience-style grocery store. Starr’s father also grew up there and made many mistakes as a younger man that continue to follow him. Rather than hide his past, however, he speaks honestly and uses his own experiences as a catalyst to help the young people around him. Although they embrace their community, Starr’s parents also want Starr and her brothers to have greater opportunities and send them to an expensive private school in the suburbs.

The Hate U Give opens with Starr attending a party where she encounters a childhood friend, Khalil. The party is interrupted when members of rival gangs come into conflict and gunshots are fired. Starr flees the party with Khalil who offers to drive her home. They are pulled over by the police seemingly for no reason other than the color of their skin. This traffic stop ends like many that have made headlines and provoked outrage in recent years. Khalil, an unarmed young black man, is shot dead by a white police officer. Starr witnesses all of this and finds herself with a gun in her own face during the incident leaving her deeply traumatized, enraged, and terrified.

This shooting occurs very early in The Hate U Give and the rest of the story traces its effect on Starr, her family, and her community. Starr’s parents are fearful for their daughter and encourage her to avoid the news crews and the activists who show up in the wake of this tragedy. At the same time, Starr sees her old friend Khalil get linked to drug dealers and local gangs and unjustly blamed for his own death. Her loyalties are further fractured by pressure from people in her neighborhood and her love for her uncle, who also happens to be a cop. As Starr’s life lurches forward she must figure out how to speak the truth about Khalil’s life and death without tearing apart her family and neighborhood or jeopardizing her own future.

Thomas’s skillful and thoughtful storytelling combined with the circumstances of the lethal shooting guarantee that The Hate U Give is both a topical and emotionally charged read. While I appreciate and value this story, the book is also a masterful consideration of Starr’s full life as a young black woman. Starr spends a considerable amount of emotional energy concerned with her own identity, worried about how she presents herself in her neighborhood and in the affluent school where she is surrounded by white classmates and friends. She is aware of the way that she code-switches, altering her speech, mannerisms, and appearance to adapt to these very different environments, and she is burdened by the guilt of hiding parts of herself at school while keeping secrets about her school life from her loved ones.

Thomas also explores the emotional weight of Starr being her community’s representative at her school and the unfair responsibility Starr feels to defend Khalil, as if his death is only unjust if he led a mistake-free life. It is this final point that ties back to the unconditional, unapologetic statement that black lives matter and that the onus to actualize this idea in our communities is on all of us, not just those facing oppression. This is a statement that can be difficult and uncomfortable to accept but through Starr’s eyes it feels essential and undeniable.

Award-Winning Reads

How is it already August?! In case you’re just joining us, there’s still about a month left to complete 7 of the 8 adult summer reading challenges. If you turn in your entry by August 31st you have a chance of winning a prize. Not enough incentive? How about getting to read 7-8 rad books you may never have read if left to your own devices? Yeah, now we’re talking!

So let’s dip into another reading challenge, shall we? This time I’m focusing on National Book Award winners. The National Book Award is an American literary prize given by the National Book Foundation. The 2017 winners won’t be announced until November, so let’s focus on last year’s winners. The overarching themes in the 2016 winners–racism, civil rights, political violence, and immigration–are timely reminders of how far we’ve come as a society and how very, very far we still have to go.

2016 Fiction Winner:
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Summary: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. Their first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey — hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.

2016 Nonfiction Winner:
Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Summary: Americans like to insist that we are living in a postracial, color-blind society. In fact, racist thought is alive and well; it has simply become more sophisticated and more insidious. And as award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi argues, racist ideas in this country have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit. In this deeply researched and fast-moving narrative, Kendi chronicles the entire story of anti-Black racist ideas and their staggering power over the course of American history. Stamped from the Beginning uses the lives of five major American intellectuals to offer a window into the contentious debates between assimilationists and segregationists and between racists and antiracists. From Puritan minister Cotton Mather to Thomas Jefferson, from fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to brilliant scholar W. E. B. Du Bois to legendary anti-prison activist Angela Davis, Kendi shows how and why some of our leading proslavery and pro-civil rights thinkers have challenged or helped cement racist ideas in America. As Kendi provocatively illustrates, racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation’s racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. While racist ideas are easily produced and easily consumed, they can also be discredited. In shedding much-needed light on the murky history of racist ideas, Stamped from the Beginning offers us the tools we need to expose them–and in the process gives us reason to hope.

2016 Poetry Winner:
The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky
Summary: Daniel Borzutzky’s new collection of poetry draws hemispheric connections between the US and Latin America, specifically touching upon issues relating to border and immigration policies, economic disparity, political violence, and the disturbing rhetoric of capitalism and bureaucracies. To become human is to navigate these borders including those of institutions, the realities of over- and under-development, and the economies of privatization in which humans endure state-sanctioned and systemic abuses.

2016 Young People’s Literature Winner:
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Summary: Welcome to the stunning conclusion of the award-winning and best-selling March trilogy. Congressman John Lewis, an American icon and one of the key figures of the civil rights movement, joins co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell to bring the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world.

Already read these, or looking for more options? Check out the complete list of past winners at the Award’s website.

Hopefully this series of blog posts is helping you achieve your summer reading goals. For me, it’s definitely making my TBR grow dangerously tall–but who ever said that was a bad thing?