In this novel for young adults, the parents of Starr Carter, 16, have sent her to an upscale school in a nearby predominantly white community for the past six years, ever since one of Starr’s best friends, Natasha, got killed in the crossfire in Starr’s poor, black, gang-riddled neighborhood. To some extent though, going to Williamson High has led Starr to change some of who she is in order to fit in; she feels like she has turned into two different people – one at home and one at school:
“Being two different people is so exhausting. I’ve taught myself to speak with two different voices and only say certain things around certain people. I’ve mastered it. As much as I say I don’t have to choose which Starr I am with [her white boyfriend] Chris, maybe without realizing it, I have to an extent. Part of me feels like I can’t exist around people like him.”
She discovers too that she has become ashamed of where she lives and everything and everyone in it.
All that starts to change when Starr goes to a neighborhood party and leaves with her childhood friend Khalil after they hear gunshots. On the way home, they are stopped by police. Khalil is shot and killed, and everything is turned upside down for Starr.
“When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me. One was the usual birds and bees. . . . The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.”
This time it didn’t work. As her mom Lisa tells her: “Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.”
But Starr is reluctant at first to speak out and bear witness to what happened that night; she fears – not unreasonably as it turns out – reprisals by the police on her family. She has nightmares about the policeman who shot Khalil – his badge number was One-Fifteen, so that’s how she thinks of him. But her mom tells her: “‘Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,’ she says. ‘It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.’”
Moreover, to her family’s dismay, all the focus is on Khalil and what kind of person he was. A lot of people assumed Khalil was a gang-banger, and got “what he deserved.” Lisa says to a reporter:
“‘Whoa, wait one second,’ Momma says. ‘Are y’all putting Kalil and Starr on trial or the cop who killed him’?” . . . ‘You haven’t asked my child about that cop yet,’ Momma says. ‘You keep asking her about Khalil, like he’s the reason he’s dead. Like she said, he didn’t pull the trigger on himself.’”
“We just want the whole picture, Mrs. Carter. That’s all.”
“‘One-Fifteen killed him,’ I say. ‘And he wasn’t doing anything wrong. How much of a bigger picture do you need?’”
[For a real-life example of this phenomenon, see this story from “The New Yorker” describing popular negative reaction to the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, a nineteen-year-old rising high-school senior sometimes described as Trayvon Martin’s girlfriend. As “The New Yorker” reports, her appearance, diction, size, and intelligence were an unspoken but all-encompassing part of the proceedings.]
Starr struggles with a number of issues after the shooting, even beyond the nightmares. There is the fact that her boyfriend Chris is white “just like One-Fifteen.” And at the funeral Starr thinks: “But if Khalil’s not celebrating, how the hell can they? And why praise Jesus, since he let Khalil get shot in the first place?”
Her father “Big Mav” was a fan of Tupac, as was Khalil. On that final ride, Khalil had explained to her about Tupac’s concept of “Thug Life”:
“Pac [Tupac] said Thug Life stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G-L-I-F-E. Meaning what society gives us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?”
After Khalil’s death, Big Mav tries to educate Starr further on the idea of THUG LIFE. He asks her, “Why was [Khalil] a drug dealer? Why are so many people in our neighborhood drug dealers?” He spells out for her the ways in which lack of opportunities is especially a problem in their area:
“Corporate America don’t bring jobs to our communities, and they damn sure ain’t quick to hire us. Then, shit, even if you do have a high school diploma, so many of the schools in our neighborhoods don’t prepare us well enough. . . . Our schools don’t get the resources to equip you like Williamson does. It’s easier to find some crack than it is to find a good school around here.”
He asks her to think about how the drugs even get to their neighborhood. “This is a multibillion-dollar industry we talking ‘bout, baby. That shit is flown into our communities, but I don’t know anybody with a private jet. Do you?”
He explains that Khalil’s mom Brenda, a drug user, couldn’t get a job unless she was clean, but she couldn’t pay for rehab without a job. Khalil sold drugs to help pay back a gang leader from whom Brenda stole to get her fix. Khalil didn’t want to do it, but he wanted to protect his mom, because she had death threats against her. “That’s the only reason he started doing that shit. Trying to save her.”
Big Mav doesn’t insist Starr speak out. But his lessons sink in. Starr says to him, “That’s why people are speaking out, huh? Because it won’t change if we don’t say something.” “Exactly,” he answers. “We can’t be silent.”
She knows he won’t judge her either way, but she comes to understand:
“This is bigger than me and Khalil . . . . This is about Us, with a capital U; everybody who looks like us, feels like us, and is experiencing the pain with us despite not knowing me or Khalil. My silence isn’t helping Us.”
Because Starr has been interacting in a white world for so long, she knows how to “code switch” and act and sound white. As it turns out though, not even that helps with the media or the grand jury.
The grand jury verdict, and the neighborhood response to it, is a defining moment for all of them.
The book ends with a devastating coda, listing many of the names of blacks who were killed [in real life] with little or no provocation, often with their backs turned: Aiyana, Trayvon, Michael, Eric Sandra, Freddie, and so on. “So many more,” as Starr adds.
Discussion: This is not an “anti-blue lives” book by any means; in fact, Starr’s beloved Uncle Carlos is a cop. But it is a book about racism, and about the ways in which blacks constantly experience microaggressions, negative presumptions, a system still stacked against them, and even unwarranted killing. Starr takes a long time to come to some difficult conclusions about her life and what she should do with it, but it seems quite realistic.
There is also a great deal that is upbeat about this book, from Starr’s loving and supportive family to her colorful neighbors and steadfast friends.
Evaluation: This is an excellent and moving story one hopes will get a wide audience of both blacks and whites, all of whom too frequently gravitate only to media that reinforces their preconceptions. Angie Thomas tells her painful story in a very nuanced way that will expose many readers to what may be a unique but essential perspective on contemporary issues of critical importance. Highly recommended!
Published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017