Once, a young Angie Thomas was nearly caught in the cross fire of two rival gang members hurling bullets in a shootout. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, that shouldn’t surprise you. (The Delta ranks No. 3 in the nation for deaths by firearms at 17.8 per 100,000 residents.) But the next thing her mother did might surprise you: She took Angie straight to the library.
“One of the first things my mom did afterward was take me to the library so I could see there was more to the world than what I saw in that moment,” Thomas, now 28, said in a recent phone interview. “So books have always been a place of refuge for me.”
It’s her debut novel, now, that’s providing the shelter. Since its publication on February, 27, The Hate U Give (Balzer & Bray) has shot its way the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list for young adult books, selling 100,000 copies in the first two weeks, according to The New York Times. The rights to the film have already been purchased by Fox 2000, a particularly striking success story for a book with a black girl on the cover whose origin story begins on Twitter.
That black girl is protagonist Starr Carter, a rare black student at a lily-white private school—in a neighborhood modeled after Ms. Thomas’ own experience—who’s also a hooping sneakerhead from the other side of the tracks. She witnesses her best friend Khalil get pulled over and gunned down by local police. Sound familiar? The themes echo some of the crucial issues represented by Black Lives Matter, which is a central idea for Thomas’ work. GOOD spoke to Thomas about the resounding success of her novel and an America that has so much trouble with those three words.
Your book has garnered a lot of buzz. It’s been called the YA novel for the Black Lives Matter generation. Did you set out to write that kind of novel?
When I set out to write the book I was first writing it for myself. I started it as a short story back in college after the shooting death of Oscar Grant III. A lot like my main character Starr, I was in two different worlds at my mostly white, upper-class private school called Belhaven University and my mostly black, poor, neighborhood. So I heard two different conversations about Oscar.
At school, he deserved it. But at home, he was one of us. And in my anger, frustration, and hurt I wrote this short story. I really was writing it for myself just to get those feelings out. I picked it back up a few years later after Trayvon Martin happened; after Tamir Rice happened; and after Michael Brown happened because I was angry and I was frustrated and I was hurt.
A lot of people don’t realize that Black Lives Matter is both an organization and a movement. I think both of them have done so much in just a few short years to bring attention to the systemic problems in this country.
I was seeing so many young people, particularly, have those same feelings because every time we would see these cases the victims were young. Trayvon Martin was 17. Tamir Rice was 12. So when I set out to write it, I wanted to not only write it for myself to get my feelings out, but to write it for the kids that I saw in my neighborhood every single day affected by these cases. I didn’t set out to make it the Black Lives Matter novel. But I wrote in hopes of having people understand why we say, Black Lives Matter.
What’s the day to day of having to constantly code switch between your worlds?
It was the small things that would get me through the day to day because I never wanted anyone to stereotype me as the black girl from the hood. I never wanted to ever be seen as the angry black woman, so there were times where I would keep my opinion to myself or I would stay silent. Just the day to day of being careful of what you say, depending on where you are or how you say things. Always making sure that I spoke in what people would consider proper English. Or making sure that I made myself come off as intelligent as my peers. Because I didn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t deserve to be at this school—or that I got in because I was black. I was the first black student to graduate from the creative writing program at my school, and I was often the only black student in my class.
So I always felt the need to prove myself even harder than my peers. It was an every day, constant thing of being aware that I was different in this other world.
Do you think the world is fractured, particularly for people like Starr?
I think so. I think the world right now is fractured for young black girls and young minorities period. We live in a world right now where if someone speaks out for someone like Starr, the majority makes those people the antagonist of that narrative. For example, people want to have the Black Lives Matter organization classified as a terrorist group. So the message we’re sending people like Starr is whenever anyone speaks up for you that they’re wrong. And we’re seeing how that emboldens white supremacists. We’re seeing laws being passed that discriminate against brown and black people.
This is the message that we’re sending brown people. So, for me, as a writer, I show that fractured world. I’m not going to shy away from it because it’s part of our life. At the same time, I want to give our readers a little hope. I want to find the light in the darkness. I want to highlight that and let them know that their voices matter and that their lives matter. Because so often the message from the mainstream is that they don’t.
What do Black Lives Matter mean to you and what do you think it means to our culture?
It means that we exist and that we have value. Black Lives Matter means that we’re here. We deserve full rights just like anybody else. We deserve to not have to worry about our lives being taken just because we’ve been pulled over. Black Lives Matter means we accept ourselves in our full blackness and we want other people to accept us and our blackness. Black Lives Matter means saying that, ‘Yeah, all lives should matter’—but we have a systemic problem in this country that shows black lives don’t matter enough.
YA authors aren’t afraid to go there on some things. We’ll sometimes say what other books won’t.
A lot of people don’t realize that Black Lives Matter is both an organization and a movement. I think both of them have done so much in just a few short years to bring attention to the systemic problems in this country. I really do hope that people will really understand why we say those three words and that those three words do not mean that other lives don’t matter or that blues lives don’t matter. That’s not what we’re saying. We’re trying to remind you that Black Lives Matter.
Why do you think YA is so important right now?
Young adult literature speaks to teens and gives them the windows and mirrors that they need. Adults also read young adult books and the thing about YA is that there’s no one topic. There are books like mine and there are books like More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, which is sci-fi and LGBTQ. You get so many voices and windows in YA.
YA authors aren’t afraid to go there on some things. We’ll sometimes say what other books won’t. We respect our readers and we respect that age range. So often, teenagers are overlooked or people downplay them and their emotions. We need to pay attention to these kids because when I’m at the nursing home in 60 to 70 years they’re going to be the ones running the country. We need to create empathy in them.
I’ve never had outright racism done to me. But I’ve seen things that show me that as a black person my value is not as great as it should be in the state.
I really do wish people would give YA a little more respect. It’s like Birdman said, “Put some respek on my name” (laughs).
What was growing up in Mississippi really like, and what is writing about black kids in Mississippi like?
I have a love-hate relationship with Mississippi. For example, I hate our flag. You know, I once read this Facebook post where someone says that Mississippi is like that parent you can’t wait to get away from. Mississippi is a lot like that. I don’t see myself leaving, though, because there are a lot of kids here who need to see someone like me doing something like what I’m doing.
Growing up in Mississippi, it’s not as bad as some people think. I’ve never seen the Klan. I’ve never had outright racism done to me. But I’ve seen things that show me that as a black person my value is not as great as it should be in the state. For example, they want to arrest young black men for wearing saggy pants. What kind of message is that?
There are parts of Mississippi that I love. You never meet a stranger in Mississippi. We can be some of the sweetest people. When bad things happen— like Hurricane Katrina— we come together like no other. But there are things that show me that my state doesn’t value my person the way it should.
America can be two different countries to black people. How do you reconcile that and bring that out in your novel?
There’s this quote from an episode of Blackish recently that really spoke to me, and it spoke to what it means to be black in America: “I love this country even if sometimes this country doesn’t love me back.” And I think that’s something that a lot of black people know to be part of being black in America. I love this country even though it antagonizes anybody who fights for me or speaks up for me. I love this country because I know what it can be.
An interview with Angie Thomas, author of <em>The Hate U Give</em>
Photo by Anissa Hidouk for Anissa Photography
Cover courtesy of Balzer & Bray — an imprint of Harper Collins