New American Songbook: 'The Hate U Give' Falls Short

Nov 5, 2018

The debut novel from Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give, takes its title from an extemporaneous monologue delivered by rap icon Tupac Shakur. In it, he expands his interpretation of gangsta rap’s main trope: the criminal and revolutionary identity he calls ‘thug life’. As he sees it, thug life is a response to the inherent racism and classism of American politics and culture. The novel explores this concept over the course of the plot, which centers on a police shooting witnessed by the protagonist, a young black woman named Starr.

The book most resembles the events in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown, but the book’s city, Garden Heights, is fictional-- which is to say, this resembles what happens everywhere so much so that we don’t need to imagine a specific city at all.

The novel avoids becoming a polemic by situating the bulk of the conflict and driving action in Starr’s interior experience. The story is really about how this particular young woman navigates the various oppositions and tensions in her own life, and if there is a tactical misstep in the construction of the book, it’s surely this. Because the novel needs a resolution, all that’s necessary is for Starr’s specific situation to resolve--she moves out of the inner city, her rich friends and poor friends get along, her cop uncle and gangster dad make a tentative peace. By the end of the book, the reader is allowed to feel good, but nothing has actually changed except our feelings. People are still dying at the hands of police, who are still an occupying force in inner-city neighborhoods, and regardless of our personal aspirations, the problem remains, as Tupac conceived it, explicitly political.

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