Celebrating Your Right to Read

Every year, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. Because I’m one of those teachers who likes to think for herself and to let others do the same, in honor of Banned Books Week, celebrated September 23-29 in 2018, I always visit the American Library Association’s website in August to check out the latest list and select to read one of the books receiving objections.

Appearing as number eight on the list of Top Ten Most Challenged Books in 2017 is The Hate U Give, written by Angie Thomas and published in 2017 by Balzer + Bray.  That title was familiar to me.  In late July, I had seen it on Facebook when the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English awarded the 2018 Amelia Elizabeth Walden Book Award for Young Adult Fiction to The Hate U Give.  I knew I had to read Thomas’ book and assess for myself whether The Hate U Give deserved the hate it was receiving, despite its award-winning status.

From my reading, I determined that this is a banned or challenged book with an ability to positively impact a person’s life.  The Hate U Give comes at a time when society needs to confront socioeconomic disparity and to ask important questions about racial profiling and systemic racism.

Thomas’ book develops these relevant themes using the backdrop of American family life in a low socioeconomic neighborhood populated predominantly by racially diverse families.  Readers encounter not only the loyalty and worries of these individuals but their joys, accomplishments, and connections.  As they speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE), their sense of humor and their cultural pride emerge.  On several occasions I found myself smiling knowingly or laughing at various teenager-parent exchanges.  In one of these, the story’s protagonist, sixteen-year-old Starr Carter, and her father, Maverick, hold differing theories about the Harry Potter movies.  While Starr admires them for the loyal friendship featured between Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Mav theorizes that Harry Potter is about gangs and is shocked that nobody thought to “shoot that nigga Voldemort” (166).

In another, Starr and her father are discussing music and its messages and how “They don’t make rappers like [Tupac] no more” (167), singers who care about uplifting black people.  “Like he took the word ‘nigga’ and gave it a whole new meaning—Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished” (168).  When the Tupac song about thug life comes on, Starr and her father discuss various philosophical translations for Thug Life, an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody” (170).

Starr’s daddy also teaches her about the oppressed and why the government is afraid of those who have been educated and empowered and how opportunities are denied some people.  Starr and her brothers learned to recite the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program like others learn the Pledge of Allegiance.  In the fight for justice and systemic change, a voice is powerful; we can’t be silent, and we have to speak truth. Starr recalls times when she laughed uncomfortably at someone’s racist comment or joke and realizes she can’t let those moments slide; otherwise, such commentary becomes okay to the speaker and normal to those unjustly targeted.

This novel provides a counternarrative for those who, like Officer 115, believe that ghetto neighborhoods are poisonous—breeding nothing but low-life thugs, drug dealers, and gang bangers.  Thomas encourages us to see black lives and their circumstances from another perspective, one without luxury but rooted in survival.  Once we learn Khalil Harris’s story, once we understand his motives, we realize that everyone has a story and that every life matters.

Not only does Thomas please readers with her substantial plot and thematic richness, her style also deserves recognition.  Thomas’ well-crafted sentences carry the reader along in a flowing rhythm but punch when required to make a point.  Frequent figurative language adds vivid imagery, and the characters’ use of AAVE and slang lends both local color and verisimilitude to the novel.  With these qualities, The Hate U Give demonstrates a positive approach to life, possesses widespread teen appeal, and exhibits literary merit.

With all of these features, I consider The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas a rockstar—especially since it has accumulated numerous accolades in addition to the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Book Award: William C. Morris Award Winner, National Book Award Longlist, Printz Honor Book, Coretta Scott King Honor Book, #1 New York TimesBestseller, and Most Searched-For Book on Goodreads in 2017.

While some readers might join me in calling Angie Thomas a rockstar for having won so many awards, others do not see The Hate U Give in a positive light.

In statistics gathered by the OIF, this young adult novel was challenged and banned in school libraries and curriculums because it was considered “pervasively vulgar” and because of drug use, profanity, and offensive language.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, pervasive has Latin roots.  As the past-participle stem of pervadere it means to "spread or go through."  Vulgar derives from the Latin vulgaris, meaning "of or pertaining to the common people.”  If readers were to take those definitions literally, I would have to agree that Thomas’ novel is “pervasively vulgar” because it focuses on the story of common neighborhoods and common problems like poverty.  However, the word vulgar took on a more Roman meaning during the 1500s and came to represent human depravity or “the mind of the herd,” specifically the herd in the gutter or the tavern.  Applying this Romanized meaning, the novel’s disconcerting moments include uses of the f-word and words like shit, bitch, ass, hell, and others that might get classified as gutter language or tavern talk.

However, this language is used at home or exchanged in social situations where many of us adopt a different register. Although I don’t speak with a predominance of cuss words on a regular basis, I have been known to drop the f-bomb.  For me, language is about tone, place, and audience.  Different settings call for different delivery habits and language usage, and in the context of this book, the language isn’t offensive.  On more than one occasion, the book uses the term nigga.  In another context, that word might be considered offensive, but in the moment, it’s the word called for.  The important thing is to be audience aware and to know when to code-switch.  Furthermore, Starr’s younger brother Sekani—who is almost nine—calls out anyone who cusses, telling that person to add a dollar to the cuss jar. So, it’s not like Thomas is condoning the language, simply capturing the speaking patterns of a particular neighborhood and age group.

Besides the novel’s use of profanity and what some people might call offensive language, other vulgar moments occur with violence.  Gunning down a defenseless sixteen-year-old boy certainly classifies as violence, and when the grand jury comes out with its decision, that, too, reflects iniquity and injustice.  The protests and riots that ensue as a result of the verdict, turning Garden Heights into a warzone, further represent the Romanized version of vulgarity.  While I certainly understand the anger of all those involved, rage and hate give no man or woman lasting peace, and the power deriving from anger and hate often leads to destruction.  Because anger is a powerful emotion, it holds one’s logic mind hostage.  Thomas’ characters would do better if they were to channel their hurt and anger into productive action.  Starr eventually realizes this and walks away from the violent protests and destructive actions fueled by mob mentality.  She wants people to know that black skin isn’t dangerous, that hoodies and low-riding jeans don’t identify a thug, and that peace and equality shouldn’t be so hard to achieve.  She wants justice for the Khalil Harrises and the Emmett Tills of the world.  On her journey for justice, Starr is still learning that life is about confronting a storm’s fury while holding on to hope and using anger to leverage the power needed to get people to pay attention, to listen, and to effect change.  These are important lessons for anyone who values compassion, justice, and equality.

Regarding the second point of contention, “because of drug use,” the novel certainly talks of drug use; one of its key themes is about how drugs destroy communities: “You got folks like Brenda, who think they need them to survive, and then you got the Khalils who think they need to sell them to survive” (170). The novel also discusses how it’s easier to fall into thug life than it is to stay out of it when the system is designed against the poor to create oppression.  Thomas invites readers to ask serious questions about how these conditions developed and how we might find resolution.  Society will only put an end to gang-infested streets, robberies, vandalism, and gun violence in neighborhoods like Starr’s when it focuses on a solution to the root cause.  After all, these are the symptoms of poverty.

After reading the novel and weighing its message against the complaints, I don’t believe The Hate U Give deserves the hate it is receiving.  Ultimately, the haters are gonna hate, but if readers take away any message from this book, it should be that all cops aren’t bad, all African Americans aren’t thugs, and all whites aren’t racist.  With this novel, Thomas gives us hope for a united front and an inspiration to join together against racial profiling. From reading The Hate U Give, readers can learn not only that anger is an energy best channeled into something useful but that although inspiration arrives on its own schedule, it needs a doorway.  Each one of us can be that doorway every time we speak out against systemic racism and follow those words with actions that also reflect greater altruism.

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