Belzer + Bray
February 28, 2017
Long ago, in the days when we bought CDs, we also bragged about who got whose new CD and learned the words to all the songs. We used liner notes to help us understand the lyrics the first time and then learn them the next few times. We would listen to this CD nonstop, with no interruptions and no other music until we knew every word. I’m going somewhere with this. I promise.
When I was in eighth grade, I walked most of the way home from school one day and stopped at a record store on the “urban” thoroughfare near my apartment. It was a special day for me; Bizzy Bone’s debut solo album was out, and I was going to be the first person in my grade to have it. I listened to it for hours and took it with me to school the next day. I had already chosen the songs I could skip if I wanted to and the ones I would repeat over and over again. One of these was the second to last song on the album: “Nobody Can Stop Me.” My need to listen to it so much was two-fold. First, it was and remains to be my favorite song on that album. Second? The words in the liner notes.
Just listen. Just. Listen.
These words have gone through my head and the image of that page in the liner notes comes forth in my mind’s eye as I have sat for hours–days–trying to write a review of The Hate U Give. I can’t tell you, the reader, what it is to experience this book. But I can give you a place to start, I guess.
The story: Starr is just an average girl. She plays basketball, hangs out with her friends, and loves collecting Jordans. She even occasionally wears matching ones with her boyfriend, Chris. But one night, she runs into Khalil at a party. Her oldest friend, the two haven’t seen each other in several months and end up fleeing the party together when shots break out. It’s when he’s driving her home that her whole world changes irreparably when Khalil’s life is cut short by an officer who has pulled them over for no reason.
Now, she has to juggle regular life with the debilitating fear and grief that is sending her emotions haywire. Relationships change—some fall apart while others grow stronger. Her identity is kept secret, but everyone knows. Meanwhile, her neighborhood is being torn apart by riots. How can this possibly end?
The most interesting thing about this novel is that it can be realistic without being hopeless. It’s not really a story of hope, but we as readers can see that things are looking up, because we’re acting on it. We’ll be there, saying their names, fighting for them.
Starr is such a dynamic character. She’s funny and smart, but occasionally makes choices that baffle us. She compartmentalizes her life in her mind, codeswitching both her speech and her actions at a turn. In this, she is every black person in the United States. When you then look not just at her behavior, but at her story, the personal journey she takes from beginning to end is inspiring. To come of age and endure the process of self-realization while, or perhaps because, you’re dealing with a horrible tragedy, learning new and realizing terrible things about people you love, and having your world shattered and put back together like kintsukuroi is an impressive feat.
The writing is accessible and compelling. It’s a bit of a slow start, but once you get moving, you zoom through it in a flash. There were little things that got to me a little bit while reading, and I realize they were there because people say them. “You’re not white, you’re light skinned,” one black teenager says to Starr’s boyfriend.
No. Just no. Chris is white. A white teenager who likes rap and makes hip hop beats and wears Jordans. It’s the reverse of “you’re the whitest black person I know” and fuck that noise. To paraphrase a quote, no. That thing is a black thing because I am a black person doing it. While I know it’s common speech to refer to actions, speech, and behavior by race, it’s a toxic habit, and it was jarring to see it in this particular book. While The Hate U Give isn’t any sort of fantasia, it would be nice to see some aspect of life that’s a little less real.
The Hate U Give is not a surprising story, which is sad in itself. We continue to make our way through life, counting the days until the next name is revealed for a hashtag. We will never be completely desensitized to it, and we’ll never ignore it, but we’re all on our way to a numbness in how we respond, as the last several years have felt like heads meeting walls and words going nowhere. But this is the story that can get us moving, get us thinking again. While the story of Starr and Khalil is not a true one, it could be, now or in the future, and that is enough to make it both heartbreaking and rage-inducing.
So yeah. Read the book. Just read it.