The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has been on the New York Times’s best-seller list for 85 weeks now, and for most of those weeks, it’s been at No. 1. (Occasionally it slips down to No. 2 for a bit.) It’s a bona fide sensation of a book, and with good reason: It’s a YA novel that handles the problems of police shooting unarmed black men with thoughtfulness, warmth, and profound empathy.
The central character in The Hate U Give is Starr, a 16-year-old black girl who has become a master of code-switching as she travels back and forth between her white private school and her black home neighborhood. Starr is the only witness to the police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil, and over the course of the book, she becomes the center of the ensuing fallout.
The Hate U Give is now adapted into a movie that goes into wide release on October 19, directed by George Tillman Jr. and starring The Hunger Games’ Amandla Stenberg. At New York City’s BookCon in June, author Angie Thomas joined Tillman and Stenberg for a panel discussion, along with Girl Meets World’s Sabrina Carpenter, who plays Starr’s controlling white friend Hailey. Fielding questions from Cori Murray, the entertainment director of Essence magazine, the four talked about the empathy-building power of books, the difficulty of code-switching, and what “the hate u give” really means.
Following are highlights from June’s panel conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
How The Hate U Give was born
I first got the idea to write the story when I was a senior in college. I was a lot like Starr at that time. I lived in these two very different words: my neighborhood, which was mostly black, and my school, which was a mostly white, private, upper-class Christian college in conservative Mississippi. My classmates were basically those Trump voters who say that they love Jesus but don’t want anyone to have any rights.
When I was in school, I had to be two different people. I tell people all the time, I would leave my house playing Tupac, but by the time I got to the school, I was playing Jonas Brothers. (Don’t judge me.)
While I was in school, there was a young man by the name of Oscar Grant who lost his life in Oakland, California. And although that was thousands of miles away, it affected conversations right there in Jackson, Mississippi. In my neighborhood, Oscar was one of us. He was an ex-con. I knew guys just like him who were trying to turn their lives around. In my school, my classmates were like, “Maybe he deserved it. He was an ex-con. Why are people so upset? He should just have done what they told him to do.”
Now, if you know anything about Oscar Grant, his death was caught on tape, and it showed him laying flat on his stomach as the cops shot him in the back. There was nothing he could have done at that moment.
I was angry, I was hurt, I was frustrated, and I felt like I had two options. I could either a) burn down that entire school campus, or I could b) use those emotions and do something productive with them. I didn’t burn the school down. It’s sitting pretty over in Jackson, Mississippi, and they even gave me an award for alumni of the year. I decided to write.
I wrote this short story about a boy named Khalil who was a lot like Oscar, and this girl named Starr who lived in these two different worlds, a lot like I did. And that’s essentially how The Hate U Give was born.
What it’s like to work on a Black Lives Matter book as police shootings keep happening
I’ve had several people come up to me this week and say that the last few pages made them cry, where Starr gives off the names [of the victims of police shootings]. I wrote that the same week that both Philando Castile and Alton Sterling lost their lives. And if you remember anything about that week, those videos of their deaths were played over and over and over again. And I remember having this moment where I was like, “What’s the point of writing this book? It is not going to change anything.” I felt so hopeless.
My mom told me, “No, that’s why you have to write it.” She said, “You don’t know who’s going to pick this up one day and what they’re going to do one day.”
That’s what kept me going. Because I truly believe that books create empathy, and empathy is more powerful than sympathy. And I have to believe that if some of our current political leaders read books about black kids as kids, we wouldn’t have to say, “Black lives matter.” If they read books about Muslim children, we wouldn’t have to fight against bans. If they read books about LGBTQA youth, we wouldn’t have to fight for rights. If they read books about Latino children, they’d talk about building bridges instead of walls.
When I thought about that, that’s what pushed me forward, what made me decide to keep going with the book even as we see these things happening. What made me keep going was the idea that some kid picks it up today; he’ll later be a politician with a Twitter account.
How to play the well-meaning racist white girl
I didn’t want to approach [Hailey] like the mean girl or the character that everyone obviously hates, because I think there’s a lot of these people in our lives that we don’t hate.
I think she really is one of those people that isn’t seeing all of her actions as racist. It’s kind of uncomfortable for her to talk about, and that’s why her relationship with Starr is so unhealthy. Because they really do just brush over everything, and that’s kind of how their friendship always has been, I think. They never really get to the point of what they need to discuss; they never tackle their obstacles. They really just kind of get through it and get by.
What it’s like to film The Talk about what to do if you’re pulled over by the cops
George Tillman Jr.
As an African American, I always had that conversation, but it came from many different places. It came from my uncles; it came from my father. How do you act around a police officer? What if you’re approached? What if you did something wrong, or what if you get pulled over? All of that is just to save your kid, to get them to the next level, to go to college, be able to do things differently, to change racism. There are a lot of things at stake.
We put that conversation at a really early age, when Starr is 8 or 9 years old. So the two young kids that played that scene, I didn’t give them any context as to what that scene was about. Just, “Sit down, sit down at that table, just listen, that’s the most important thing.” So that scene that you see, that’s just them taking in all this information.
Why Starr’s code-switching matters
My experience growing up was the same as Starr’s. I lived in a black community, but I went to a white private school. I think that gave me some superpowers in some ways that I think a lot of black girls have to gain, which is the ability to navigate different environments and code-switch between them, and know how your mannerisms and the way that you speak are going to affect the way people interpret you, and therefore how you succeed or don’t in certain atmospheres.
At my school, I learned very early on how to navigate white institutions, being around a culture of wealth and a culture of whiteness. And that gave me some really important skills when it comes to navigating Hollywood as well, and navigating the environment in industries that are dominated by white men.
But I think it’s something that we have to figure out how to do, and sometimes it can feel confusing. It feels like maybe certain parts of you can feel more valid than others, or you have to hide different parts of yourself, or you’re having to put yourself into smaller boxes.
I think what’s really special about Starr’s narrative when it comes to the code switch of her identity is that at the end of the film, she learns how to feel cohesive in herself, and realizes that she doesn’t need to choose one side of herself. She doesn’t need to hide aspects of herself. She can be however she wants to be in her environment without being afraid of being called ratchet or being afraid of seeming angry or of seeming over the top. She learns how to break free of those burdens, and also realizes that those two sides of herself don’t need to be warring sides but can coexist in a really beautiful, harmonious way to make her the person that she is.
What “the hate u give” means
Tupac had that THUG LIFE tattoo across his abdomen, but a lot of people don’t know it was an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fs Everybody.” He explained that as meaning that what society feeds into you has a way of affecting us all.
He said this in 1992 in reference to the Los Angeles riots. A lot of people associate those riots with the beating of Rodney King, but it was also in response to the shooting death of a 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins. As a matter of fact, “Keep Ya Head Up” was dedicated to Latasha.
Latasha was in a store, and the store owner accused her of stealing a bottle of juice. Latasha put the money on the counter, and footage shows her walking away when the store owner shot her in the head. She only received probation.
Tupac said the hate that was given to that little infant Latasha affected the entire city of Los Angeles. We’re talking millions of dollars in damages. The hate that was given to Trayvon Martin affected the entire city of Sanford, Florida. That hate that was given to Tamir Rice affected the entire city of Cleveland, Ohio. The hate that was given to Michael Brown affected the entire city of Ferguson, [Missouri]. So if Pac were here, he’d say that’s THUG LIFE.