Friday’s Forgotten Books, Banned Books Week Edition: The Hate U Give

It’s ironic that people would fight for censorship of a book that advocates using your voice to seek justice.

Starr Carter is a sixteen-year-old girl who has grown up in a rough neighborhood called Garden Heights. Her dad used to be in a gang and did time, but has cleaned up his life. Through an impropriety he shares a son (Seven) with a woman who is partnered with one of the local gang leaders; with Starr’s mom — his wife — he has Starr and a younger son.

Starr’s parents have worked hard to keep their kids clean and raise them right. They are principled, they have rules. After Starr saw one of her best friends shot and killed at the age of 10 in a drive by shooting, her parents sent her and her brothers to private schools outside their neighborhood.

The book starts with Starr at a party in Garden Heights — a party she’s not supposed to be at. Her older half brother has two other sisters through his mother, and Starr and Seven’s half-sister Kenya have gone to this party. Kenya is focused on her conflict with another girl over a boy. Starr is trying to melt into a wall and wondering why she’s there.

Until Khalil walks in.

They were the best of friends from childhood, along with their friend who was killed. They have the kind of connection that is unbreakable. In a few seconds their chatting just like old times. 

When shots ring out at the party everyone runs. Starr and Khalil get in his car and drive away. They’re going the speed limit. He doesn’t have a gun, doesn’t run a red light, doesn’t do anything.

A cop pulls him over.

Things escalate quickly and the cop pulls Khalil out of the car. When Khalil comes to the door to ask Starr if she’s okay he’s shot multiple times. Starr runs to him and watches him die as the cop points his gun at her.

That’s just the beginning of this novel. Enter Starr’s world, where you will see a good kid struggling with her identity and the expectations she lives with every day; how she has to behave at private school and how she is at home. 

“For at least seven hours I don’t have to talk about One-Fifteen. I don’t have to think about Khalil. I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson and have a normal day. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang — if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

“I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.”

Khalil’s death sets the stage for both internal and external conflict with Starr as her worlds collide. She has to decide whether or not to speak about what happened. First to the cops, second to the DA, third to the grand jury. Along the way she does an interview where her identity is concealed, but her white boyfriend from Williamson knows immediately that it’s her when he sees a back shot of her walking with the interviewer in the program. 

Starr asks herself a lot of tough questions — about who she really is, about the risks she’s willing to take, about her feelings towards the police. When you add in that her uncle is a detective, she has conflict in every area of her life. One of the things that really sets Starr apart is that most things aren’t black and white for her. She can be angry at the police for Khalil’s death, but she also knows not all cops are bad. 

The basic plot points touched on here primarily in the first few chapters, and there is a lot of story to discover. While I’m always nervous about unrealistic expectations with extremely popular books, this book kept me turning the pages late into the night and I was hooked on Starr. There are some laugh out loud lines and there are some punches to the gut.

As someone who used to work in schools in Cherry Hill (Baltimore) and had kids in schools in the county, Starr’s worlds were as real as the one we breathe air in. Her conflict and struggles are relatable. The Hate U Give cuts right to the core of racial profiling, discrimination, presumptions based in ignorance and indifference.

This book should be required reading at all high schools in the United States and Canada. It could be the catalyst for powerful discussions about important topics. I would not hesitate to put this book in my stepkids’ hands or to recommend it to anyone. It is an utterly captivating, engaging story of tragedy, but with a thread of hope throughout. Starr’s Dad said he named her Starr because she was his light in the darkness. And Starr is our light in the darkness of these all-too-real tragedies that play out on the pages and weigh on her heart and mind.

I purchased the hardcover of The Hate U Give last week and, after finishing it was trying to remember why people had advocated for this book to be banned. From the ABA website: “Banned and challenged because it was deemed “anti-cop,” and for profanity, drug use, and sexual references.”

In my opinion, this book is only “anti-cop” if you project that on it. Starr complies with the police. She always cooperates. She gives her statement. She gives the system a chance to do its job. She loves her uncle, who is a detective. 

The experiences she has are very much rooted in reality. What the book asks you to do is imagine what it’s like to see your friend shot in the back and killed, to see your dad harassed because you’re a witness, to see police abuse their power. 

However, if what the book includes adds up to being anti-police, then it is definitely anti-gang. And it shows just how tough it can be to try to stay out of the gang conflicts when you grow up in a neighborhood where they’re entrenched. 

Overall, there aren’t that many swear words in this book. And using drugs is not considered cool or good. It’s not something that Starr or her family do. Honestly, to allege there’s “drug use” in this book is ridiculous.

As for the sexual references, there’s a little bit of innuendo. 

Quote: “At home for once and not playing games with your li’l boyfriend.”

“Why does Chris always have to be ‘li’l’ to you?” I ask. “He’s not little.”

“You better be talking about his height,” says Daddy.

Anyone who thinks the book should be banned for a handful of lines like that had best wear earplugs when they go to the store because I’ve heard worse shopping at Walmart.

People tried to silence this author by having this book banned. A book that cuts right to the heart of speaking out, of claiming your voice, of not being silent in the face of wrongdoing.

Quote:

“Who said that talking isn’t doing something?” she says. “It’s more productive than silence. Remember what I told you about your voice?”

“You said it’s my biggest weapon.”

“And I mean that.” She stares at me a second, then sighs out her nose. “You want to fight the system tonight?”

I nod …

She takes me to the patrol car and motions to her colleague. The lady climbs off and hands Ms. Ofrah the bullhorn. Ms. Ofrah passes it over to me.

“Use your weapon,” she says.

Trying to censor a book that advocates using your words.

If you ask me, the real reason people tried to ban this book is because it humanizes people and helps you see things from a different perspective, instead of simply labeling everyone from the hood as bad, criminal, unprincipled. This book shatters the ‘one story’ that people tell about people who come from the kind of neighborhood Starr lives in. And the thought of having their ignorance-based presumptions challenged was too much for them to handle.