Angie Thomas

Author Angie Thomas sheds light on ‘private, hidden conversations’ about race, says former professor

The founder of the creative writing program that inspired author Angie Thomas to write “The Hate U Give,” a young adult novel that has swept The New York Times’ best-seller list, remembers how the book started.

Founder Dr. Randy Smith at Belhaven University, a Christian school in Mississippi, recalled that Thomas wrote in the prologue to her senior project that she wanted to show that beauty within her community can transcend the damage it faces.

“I thought that was an admirable goal,” Smith told the NewsHour Weekend’s Alison Stewart.

Thomas’ assignment would later become the novel that is now a finalist for a National Book Award and a Kirkus Prize.

The book is about a 16-year-old girl who is the sole witness of a police officer shooting and killing her friend. Thomas decided to expand her story into a novel after the death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was forced to lay on transit platform in Oakland while an officer shot him in the back on New Year’s morning in 2009.

Smith, who now calls Thomas a friend, remembers when he helped Thomas recognize her talent for writing from a more intimate perspective. For more on “The Hate U Give,” watch PBS NewsHour Weekend tonight.

How long have you known Angie Thomas?

I’ve known Angie since 2008. That was when she applied to Belhaven for the creative writing program. And actually before the interview, I went back and found her entrance portfolio and her senior project. And so I got to look through and look at some things that she said in there and then compare those to some of the things that she said in the book.

So it’s interesting to see her development and growth as a writer and I really now count Angela as as a friend and a colleague. In fact, in some ways she’s become my teacher as I read her book. I’ve learned a lot about culture and race in America through her.

What was the assignment that inspired the seed of this book?

Every student in the creative writing program when they’re a senior, they have to complete a senior project. Angela chose to write fiction, a collection of four short stories. And in the prologue to that she said over the years that she had been a college student, she had come to realize that even though her community was damaged in some ways that it had a beauty that deserved to be recognized and she wanted to show the hearts of the people in her community and the ways in which their hearts transcended some of the damage in the neighborhood around them. And I thought that was an admirable goal.

And when I look at her senior project, I’ve realized that many, many of the seeds of what she’s doing now were in that particular project.

How would you describe Angela’s talent?

I think Angela’s book, “The Hate U Give,” transcends a young adult novel category. In fact, I would go as far as to make this prediction: that I think at the end of the 21st century when people look back, it’s going to be listed as one of the best 100 novels of the century. I think it’s one of the best 100 novels for adults and for young adults and everyone.

Her command of popular culture, of television, music, clothing and fashion, she’s able to bring all of those things in and weave it together in a tapestry that’s rich on every single page, every single line, every paragraph.

Probably the best thing that she does in the entire book is the way that she rips the veil off of what had previously been private, hidden conversations about race in black communities, in black families, in white communities and white families. She’s foregrounding the things that people say privately to one another when they’re with people of their own socioeconomic class or ethnic background and she’s brought it out in the open. To me, that’s one of the powerful parts of the book. That’s what’s making a change, I think.

As her professor, what did you need to draw out of her?

Every student also has to apply to the program with a portfolio. They write an essay, “Why do you want to be a creative writer?” And then they have to turn in 15 to 20 pages of writing that they’ve done.

[In 2008], Angela submitted her portfolio for entrants that fall and the short story that she submitted is about a family with a very strong opinionated mother, with a strong father, but who, you know, he and his wife spar with one another, very similar to what happens in “The Hate U Give.” And they have a number of children and they’re all invited home for Christmas and the family is white. It’s a white family, it’s a wealthy family, and they live in California.

When I look back at that and I think about what Angela was doing at the beginning when she came to Belhaven, she needed to be pushed to write about her community, about the people she knew, the characters that were important to her, and the people that she knew at the deepest levels, and that’s what she did with “The Hate U Give.” She wrote about the people that she loves and cares about.

It’s interesting that she started to understand those stories were worthwhile.

I think what happened is she finally realized that she lived in at least two different worlds that were very different from one another. A dominant white culture and an African-American community. And … she started to see that there is a potential for something creative here.

One of the things I now tell students, and it’s largely because of Angela, is that you will do your best writing when you write out of two different worlds that you [live] in.

When I was growing up my mother literally, in Georgia in the 1930s, was a poor white sharecropper. As the first person in my family to go to college — and I have a Ph.D. — there are a lot of times where I feel like there’s a disconnect between the world I grew up in and the people I’m around now. It’s not the same.

I’ve not experienced the oppression that African-Americans have in this country and other minorities, but I certainly understand that there are times, when you inhabit these different worlds, you have to learn to speak different languages to act different ways. But it’s when we write out of those things that I think that we do some of our best work.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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