Black Lives Matter began as a Twitter hashtag, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot young African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013. Two further deaths the following year, of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Eric Garner in New York City, both at the hands of police officers, brought the movement to the streets. While the greater majority of BLM protests have been peaceful, that is not to say that they haven’t been angry, and much of their anger has been directed at police officers involved in the deaths of African-Americans, mostly African-American men. The police and their supporters have been frequently critical of BLM members, and have also formed their own group, Blue Lives Matter.
This is the briefest of histories of a major movement, about which whole books could be written—and it is in fact on one of these books that I want to focus, rather than on the movement itself. The past month saw the publication of the long-anticipated debut young adult novel from Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give. Although it has been called “the Black Lives Matter novel” by the press, the organization is not mentioned in the novel. Angie Thomas says she was inspired by the movement, but isn’t affiliated with it (http://www.mtv.com/news/2991910/qa-angie-thomas-on-the-hate-u-give-black-lives-matter-and-writing-an-unapologetic-black-girl-book/). Her distance from the movement is nonetheless not distancing; it allows Thomas to depict a variety of complex characters with equally complex motivations.
This is most obvious in her main character, 16-year-old Starr Carter, who starts the novel living two separate Black lives: one in Garden Heights, a drug- and gang-plagued African-American neighborhood, and one at the posh prep school, Williamson High, she attends across town, where she is one of two African-Americans in her grade. She thinks of “Williamson Starr” as “normal Starr” (71): “Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the ‘angry black girl.’ Williamson Starr is approachable” (71)—by which she means, approachable to white people who, Thomas subtly infers, even Starr sees as the “norm”. Early on in the book, she is able to “flip a switch” in her brain to become the appropriate Starr for the appropriate setting. But her ability to do this begins to fail as the order of the world around her also falls apart. Her former best friend Khalil is killed in front of her (not a spoiler, as this is on the blurb describing the book); Starr has dealt with shooting deaths before, but her friend Natasha, also killed in front of her, did not die a second death at the hands of the police and the press. Khalil, on the other hand, is turned into “a drug dealer and a gangbanger,” as one white character puts it, “Somebody was gonna kill him eventually” (341). It is at this point that Starr realizes that not only is “being two different people . . . so exhausting” (301), it’s wrong. Wrong for herself, and wrong for the people she loves.
The person she thinks she has to be is “angry black girl,” but Angie Thomas does not let her character off the hook so easily. Being the opposite of Williamson Starr means pushing away people who want to help, including her white boyfriend Chris. Chris is a figure of fun at times, especially for Starr’s brother and father, but Thomas gives him a stubborn will to help, even participating in a protest that turns into a riot, that convinces Starr that white people are not the enemy. Neither are the cops, at least not in a body; Starr is at first angry at them all, including her Uncle Carlos, but he stands up for her to the point of taking a beating and being suspended. Thomas argues through her depictions that it isn’t how you look or what you wear, but the actions that you take or don’t take that make you a good person or an enemy.
And acting out of love is something in Thomas’s book that happens, not just between individuals, but between an individual and the community. Here again, the message is complex. Starr’s mother wants to, and eventually convinces Starr’s father that they should, move out of Garden Heights for the safety of Starr and her siblings. Starr’s father initially thinks this is a betrayal of the Black community, but the conclusion of the book—which I won’t give away—has him realizing that betrayal can happen within the community, and “We ain’t gotta live there to change things, baby. We just gotta give a damn” (436). Starr—now neither Williamson Starr nor Garden Heights Starr—gains both the ability to act out of love and use a “weapon” (410); her weapon is not a gun, or tear gas, but the “biggest weapon” of all: her voice. Thomas’s book indicts no group wholesale (not police, and not all drug dealers either), but does argue that young people have a choice to make between love and hate. In order to honor the dead, and help the living, the love you give through visible, audible action is needed. The love you give matters.