Bestselling book ‘The Hate U Give’ tackles police violence against black teenagers

September 24, 2017 at 4:03 PM EDT
The young adult novel "The Hate U Give" tells the story of a teenager whose childhood friend is shot and killed by a police officer. In the book, now a finalist for a National Book Award and Kirkus Prize, author Angie Thomas addresses difficult topics including race relations, police violence and racial stereotypes. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Alison Stewart spoke with Thomas.

ALISON STEWART: At the Mississippi Book Festival last month, people waited patiently in 91 degree heat to have their books signed…

ANGIE THOMAS: Do you want it personalized?

ALISON STEWART: And to spend a moment…

FAN: God bless you. Congratulations on everything.

ANGIE THOMAS: Thank you. Thank you.

ALISON STEWART: With 29-year-old Jackson, Mississippi, native Angie Thomas. The line to meet the first time author stretched the length of the tent.

ALISON STEWART: What were you doing in a year ago?

ANGIE THOMAS: I worked at a church as a secretary to a bishop here in Jackson. I had just quit my job, and I was deciding to write full-time. And I was in the middle of editing “The Hate U Give”. So in a year’s time my life has completely changed.

ALISON STEWART: Thomas’ novel “The Hate U Give” is a coming of age story tackling life and death issues facing black teenagers, including race relations, interacting with the police, and fighting stereotypes.

ANGIE THOMAS: I’m talking about issues that affect so many people. I didn’t wanna just give a surface explanation. I wanted to get into the heart of these things. I wanted to take things that are made political, and I wanted them to feel personal.

ALISON STEWART: Since its debut, in February, at number 1 on the New York Times young adult hardcover bestseller list, “The Hate U Give” has sold more than 300,000 copies in the U.S. Thirteen publishing houses had fought for the rights to the book. It’s now been printed in 27 countries and is being made into a major motion picture.

At the festival, Thomas appeared on a panel called “Rising Stars in Young Adult”.

ANGIE THOMAS: I think that some of the greatest work that is being done right now in our society is through young adult books.

ALISON STEWART: When we sat down with Thomas in Jackson, she read us a section introducing the protagonist, 16-year-old Starr Carter.

ANGIE THOMAS: “When I was twelve my parents had two talks with me. One was the usual birds and bees. The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me. Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.”

ALISON STEWART: Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her childhood friend, Khalil. He’s killed by a white police officer. At first, she’s reluctant to come forward. But ultimately she tells the police and the media what happened. That decision changes her life.

ANGIE THOMAS: What I think has touched so many people is that we’re talking about a 16-year-old girl at the core of this story, and when you’re talking about a 16-year-old girl, she’s still a child. She still has her innocence. So I feel like some people who maybe wouldn’t listen to a 30-year-old are more likely to listen to this innocent 16-year-old girl and see it through her eyes for a second, more so than they would through an adult’s eyes.

ALISON STEWART: Thomas’ love of books grew from childhood library visits with her mother, Julia Williams-Thomas, who’s still never very far away. But Thomas was unsure about pursuing writing as a career, until she discovered a creative writing program at nearby Belhaven University, a Christian college outside Jackson. She would go on to earn her BFA in creative writing.

ANGIE THOMAS: I loved telling stories, but growing up I didn’t see writers who looked like me in the flesh. I’m from Mississippi. We have a very rich literary history, but you’re talkin’ about Faulkner and Welty, and they’re both white and dead and I was neither. So I didn’t think I could do it. But when I found out that there was a school not far from me with a writing program, I said, “Okay. Yeah. Maybe you should pursue this.”

ALISON STEWART: “The Hate U Give” grew out of a short story from Thomas’ senior college project. She was moved to expand the narrative by 2009 fatal shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a San Francisco Bay Area transit officer in a train station. It became one of the first police shootings caught on amateur video to go viral.

ANGIE THOMAS: Although it was thousands of miles away it affected conversations here in Mississippi. So I was hearing two different conversations about Oscar. In my neighborhood he was one of us, but at my school people said, “Well, maybe he deserved it. He was an ex-con. And it angered me and it frustrated me because I didn’t understand how they couldn’t see why we were upset. And I wanted to show the value in a young man like Oscar, who despite his bad decisions he may have made at one point in his life, he was still a human being. He still had value. He had still had purpose. And I wanted to show that because every time they said that about Oscar it felt like they were saying it about the young men in my neighborhood.

ALISON STEWART: Then, again and again, the shooting deaths of unarmed young African-Americans made national headlines. 17-year-old Trayvon Martin… killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in Florida. 18-year-old Michael Brown killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. 12-year-old Tamir Rice… shot in Ohio by a white police officer who mistook rice’s pellet gun for a real one.

ALISON STEWART: Why do you think a young adult novel has been able to tackle this very complex subject in a way that many traditional mainstream adult novels haven’t?

ANGIE THOMAS: For one, so many of these cases, we’re talking about young adults. Trayvon Martin’s 17. Tamir Rice was 12. You know? These are young people, so young people are affected by this. And I wanted to write it for them.

ALISON STEWART: The main character, Starr, sees her best friend killed. He’s an unarmed black teenager. And she will only refer to the officer by his badge number, 115. Why did you decide to do that?

ANGIE THOMAS: Starr is raised to believe that names have power. She doesn’t want to give him the power that she feels like he’s taken so much from her as it is. So referring to him by his badge number instead of by his name to her says, “What you did in that moment did not seem human to me, therefore I’m not sure I can humanize you by calling you by your name.”

ALISON STEWART: The title is a modern twist on the biblical lesson “as you sow, so shall you reap,” and the phrase “The Hate U Give” is borrowed from Thomas’ favorite hip hop artist, Tupac Shakur. When you reduce the book title to an acronym, it spells t-h-u-g, “thug”.

ANGIE THOMAS: Tupac had a tattoo across the abdomen that said THUG LIFE. And a lotta people don’t know it was an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants *effs* Everybody.” And he explained that is saying that what society feeds into youth has a way of affecting us all. We saw that in Ferguson. The hate that was fed into Michael Brown affected the entire city of Ferguson. The hate that was fed into Charlottesville with those–those Nazis, that was the hate. It’s affected our entire country right now. We’re having conversations about this all around. That’s thug life.

ALISON STEWART: While writing the book, Thomas researched the deterioration of inner city communities, reviewed police procedures, and even the coroner’s report of Trayvon Martin.

ALISON STEWART: How was it to live with such difficult material day in, day out?

ANGIE THOMAS: It was hard. I had to read the transcripts from the Michael Brown case. I’ve read stuff like that. So emotionally a lotta times I cried. A lot of times I was angry. But I allowed myself to feel those things because in turn it came out in the paper. It came out in my words. I think sometimes people tell writers, “Don’t let yourself go there.” Yeah, you should, because when you do it comes out in your words and it comes out in your writing. And now I have people who told me I made them cry. I’m like, “Oh well, I cried too.”

ALISON STEWART: Join the club.

ANGIE THOMAS: We’re even so…

ANGIE THOMAS: This is gonna go up on my wall, seriously.

ALISON STEWART: Though the book has been praised for its handling of a difficult subject, some have bristled at the book’s central theme — that black lives matter.

ALISON STEWART: Has anyone said to you, “I really like your book, but you know, ‘All lives matter’?”

ANGIE THOMAS: Oh yeah. I’ve had that. And I’ve had those conversations. And, you know, I just have to tell people all the time, because when you say Black Lives Matter, they assume, “Oh, so it’s anti-cop book.” No. It’s anti-police brutality. There’s a big difference.

ALISON STEWART: Have you gotten any pushback from people saying, “You are reinforcing stereotypes about black people who live in marginalized neighborhoods?”

ANGIE THOMAS: You know, I haven’t had that pushback, but I’ve had pushback where people say, “Why would you put them in the ‘hood? Why is it another book about black people in the ‘hood?” But I push back with that by saying, “Not everybody in the book that’s black is in the hood.” You know? Starr’s Uncle Carlos and her Aunt Pam live in a very nice neighborhood, because not all of us live in the ‘hood. I wanted to show both sides.

ALISON STEWART: She also used that character–Uncle Carlos– to show both sides of law enforcement. He is a cop, and like her character, Thomas is related to police officers.

ANGIE THOMAS: I wanted to show a good cop too, who not only does his job and does it well, but he holds his fellow officers accountable. For so many of us, that’s the key issue right there. We don’t see enough accountability. And I wanted to show that with this book, with a cop that does actually do it, and hopes that it would influence and inspire more cops to hold each other accountable.

ALISON STEWART: During our visit to Jackson, Thomas spoke to an assembly of 9th graders from several public schools.

SPEAKER: Please join me in welcoming one of our very own, Angie Thomas.

ALISON STEWART: She’s using her newfound fame as a platform…to encourage kids who grew up like she did….to write and to know their value.

ANGIE THOMAS: I wanted to thrive even when nobody cared. I wanted to be seen and heard.

ANGIE THOMAS: I’ve had kids like that tell me, you know, “We don’t see ourselves on books.” I’ve had young black girls just say, “Thank you for the cover,” ’cause they see themselves on the cover. Then they hear it’s gonna be a movie deal. They’re like, “Wow, people actually wanna hear stories like ours?” Yes, somebody’s listening. Somebody cares. Your stories are just as important as anybody else’s. So to know that my book has shown them that and tells them that, I’m honored and I’m humbled to know that.