ANGIE THOMAS — THE HATE U GIVE — 2017
This novel is a manifesto on black literature, though the author does not know about that. It is vastly inspired by a rap singer she calls Supac and his famous album THUG LIFE, Volume 1 (1994). But this rapper is far from being the only inspiration and I am going to argue about another influence, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a novel I taught as English literature at the University of California at Davis in 1973: the first black work of literature ever included in an English literature program there), though she might have received it through some diffuse community cultural heritage. We will have to try and find out later, though this question is not essential.
TUPAC THE SHORT-LIVED PROPHET
But first Tupac. Lesane Parish Crooks aka Tupac Amaru Shakur, 2Pac and Makaveli, was an American rapper, poet, and actor. Shakur sold over 75 million records or CDs worldwide, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time. He was born on June 16, 1971, in East Harlem, New York City, New York, United States, and he died from injuries sustained in a drive-by shooting on September 13, 1996, at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. The life of an artist can be short and this artist did not see even the promise of mid-life. Twenty-five is a hell of an early age to die at. But I would like to give you a sample of one of his songs, “Under Pressure” from the album Thug Life Volume 1 (1994), featuring Stretch, produced by Stretch & 2Pac:
When the pressure’s on
When it’s on it’s on
[. . . ]
[Verse 2: Stretch]
Never run, throw your gun in the air, oh yeah
Nigga bust ain’t no time to spare
Causin’ ruckus mothafucker and we fuck shit up
And with the stainless steel razors, boy, we cut shit up
Flash and blast a nigga with the quickness
Cock the 4-pound motherfucker when I spit this and rip this
Damn, my mind is in the depths of hell
But when I’m walkin’ on the street kid my name rings bells
And I never fell, nigga, I stand too tall
I’m just a thug motherfucker who was born to brawl
Givin’ my all, some niggas wanna bring it to me
So I’ma sell my cocaine, and lay their ass down, G
[. . . ]
[Outro: 2Pac & Stretch]
When the pressure’s on it’s a hit
Ski mask, extra Gats, bring the clips
Don’t nobody move when we walk the streets
They stay silent, cause talk is cheap
THE 500TH ANNIVERSAY OF SLAVERY IN VIRGINIA
This inspiration is not really one-tenth correct. The novel is not the story of a thug selling cocaine in a black ghetto. It is the story of an escape from this doomsday vision of the black community, and yet it is a vision of black identity and how it has to engulf and embrace the full heritage of five centuries of history mostly slavery, segregation, and discrimination. And that is not yet finished. The first black slaves were bought by the pioneering settlers in Virginia in 1619 to work on the tobacco plantation of Mr. John Rolfe from Dutch slave-travers. In two years it will be the five-hundredth anniversary of this crime against humanity. At the same time, any black writer or artist has to envision and embrace all the dreams of all the Black people who carry this heritage and thus dream with them and for them a world in which that heritage would only be a memory. We are far from such a dream and race-hatred is still at work all over the USA and right now even in the White House. How many Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and as for that women are there in the inner circle of the President of the United States? Remember Charlottesville, just as much as we still remember the Alamo.
If we compare Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U give, we have to consider what is common and what is different. The historical and cultural value will come from the differences.
RALPH ELLISON’S INVISIBLE MAN
The main character of Invisible Man (1952) is an unnamed black man and his trip to New York, Harlem. He has no family or acquaintances and as such his trip is a picaresque voyage. He works to survive in, among other businesses, a paint plant that produces white paint. Later on, he will be in contact with the Brotherhood, a Communist-oriented organization whose main leader, Brother Jack, is a one-eyed white man. The general idea is that a black man has to become invisible in white society, hence has to lose his color either by some whitening miracle or just by becoming invisible as a subservient non-entity serving the whites as if they, the Blacks, were invisible ghosts. That’s the only way white people can accept black people next to them: serving and invisible. They can accept a glass from them provided they do not see the black hand, hence if they wear white gloves. The whole voyage is the exploration of various situations in which the encounter with the Brotherhood should enable the Blacks to find someplace in a bi-racial organization fighting for justice. Unluckily the white leader has only one eye. The other is a glass eye. And of course, his one-eyed vocally bi-racial vision becomes an arrogant white-biased vision. He cannot see the Blacks as Blacks. He only sees them as tools draped in white. They are the black foot-soldiers in full white uniforms fighting for his white justice which may be working class justice but in no way racially oriented or even bi-racially oriented justice.
The end is a riot in Harlem. The main hero and narrator runs away and finally finds some shelter in a cellar he has equipped for that purpose. No natural light from the outside white-dominated world gets into the cellar but he has installed an enormous number of electric bulbs to have a really blinding white light in which his blackness is all the more visible, and yet no white person can see him in this situation since the whole world is cut off from this illuminated and illuminating cellar, and he can only see his blackness in his own mind since he cannot look at himself from any distance at all. This ending is the very symbol of the fact that the white-requirement of the American society, in fact, the color blindness this white American society imposes onto everyone of any color whatsoever, this absolute model imposed onto everyone, be white and then you can think Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, is the way things are supposed to be in 1952, even before integration started moving.
In Ralph Ellison’s novel, there is no hope whatsoever. In the multi-racial American society there is such an imposition of the WASP model that Black people will always be invisible and thus enslaved into segregation and discrimination, just the same way as the Indians were made invisible by extermination for most of them and by confinement in concentration reservation camps for the survivors. Let’s say here that this “invisibility syndrome” is the result of the Post Traumatic Slavery Stress Syndrome that has lasted so long that it reproduces itself in the Black community, both collectively and individually, and that it is commonplace in the white community. PTSlaverySS is a disease that swallows up both Blacks and Whites, even though differently.
THE HATE U GIVE LITTLE INFANTS FUCKS EVERYBODY
So, now what can we say about Angie Thomas’s novel? A lot.
To describe this THUG novel, we have to consider some essential characteristics. The first thing is that the main character and narrator is a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old black girl or young woman, Starr Carter, from a black family essentially recomposed. She is living with her father, Maverick, and mother, Lisa, who are still married and living in the family home, probably still in love. But she has a real brother, Sekani, still in primary school, and a half-brother, Seven, whose father is her father but whose mother is Iesha is the wife of the main drug lord of their neighborhood, a certain King. This main character Starr has two daughters too very indirectly though not through blood connected to the first family, Kenya, and Lyric, Seven half sisters. Note the father, Maverick Carter, used to be part of King’s gang and one of his drug dealers, but one day he took the blame for something King had done, he got three years in prison, and he got the great privilege of being authorized to step out of the gang afterward. The ghetto is called with an antonymous name, Garden Heights, though it is no garden at all and it is divided into two parts, the eastern half and the western half, each one under one gang, hence two hostile gangs openly at war with each other. It is a rather old and odd situation since the opioid crisis has not reached these drug dealers. They are still in cocaine. Heroin is not their main goods, and they work inside the ghetto mostly and not in the white city. In other words, this black community is self-contained but also under the constant exploitation of white landlords, white shopkeepers, employers and businessmen, and of course under the police from the city itself that may contain a few black or Latino men, note no women cops are mentioned.
THE DESIRE TO ESCAPE THE GHETTO
The second element is that this family wants their children to get out of the ghetto, so they are registered in a white school downtown and as such are the very rare black students, if not practically the only ones, there. Only one Asian girl is mentioned. All others are white, some making friends, some not. Starr has, in fact, two girlfriends, including the Asian girl, and a boyfriend, none of them black. The race relations between the various groups are described as essentially a constant misunderstanding due to understood but never really expressed racial differences or racial competition. Starr is also a member of the female basketball team and as such has some relationships with some more girls. Her second girlfriend, Hailey, is openly racist though refusing to acknowledge it. She considers asking the Asian girl, Maya, after Thanksgiving, if the cat they had for the occasion was good, is plain humor and cannot be seen as offensive. She uses a similar joke with Starr and that killed the relationship.
Yet the relationship with her boyfriend Chris, both white and rich, is explored from her point of view and a little bit from his point of view. She desires the boy in all possible ways but she is forced to refrain her appetite because he is white, what he calls to her great damn the race problem or race question. She knows her family, particularly her father, would object, and actually, the objection is only shown on her father’s side, which is probably an understatement. There is practically no mention of Chris’s family’s objections, though there should quite normally be some, and his being grounded at the end for having taken part, an active part, in the final riot is at least very lenient. This color divide in American society is thus explored in successive and mostly light touches, but it is a constant permanent question. In the white school, Starr is expected to fit, which means succeed and keep all appearances that are to be white. She is supposed to speak white English, to behave the white way, to react and feel as if she were white, in other words, to be as invisible as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Even her name is questioned. This farce has been going on for years since she is in her junior year at high school level. Her brother Seven is in his senior year. This double identity of hers, whitened at school and black in the ghetto and with her family, is the worst possible alienation and, mind you, traumatic alienation, one young person can experience. That does not mean she has two cultures, two identities or two true sets of roots. She is black and she behaves artificially like a whitened black girl in any white context. This can be absolutely traumatic and in some circumstances that can lead to paranoid psychosis and even a violent explosion against oneself or against the people that are perceived as being some threat and in this case white people and police officers of any sort.
KILL THEM ALL, SINCE THEY ARE BLACK
When she was ten or eleven she saw her friend Natasha shot dead in front of her. That’s in the past, in her memory. But now she is sixteen going onto seventeen. One night after a party in the ghetto she is driven home by a friend from her infancy since she was raised mostly with him when a child. They are stopped by some white cop, alone in his patrol car, which is absolutely unacceptable by the way, and he plays it rough with the boy and ends up shooting him several times in the back and keeping Starr under his gun till reinforcements arrive. That is an enormous re-enactment of Natasha’s fate and Starr could completely lose her sanity. She does not because of the help of her family, her uncle (her mother’s brother), and an activist organization that provides a lawyer. This procedure ends up in a Grand Jury that of course — and there is no doubt all along it will end up lilke that — acquits the white officer who shot Khalil.
This brings up a riot in the ghetto and typically they do not go out of the ghetto, they destroy the ghetto itself and the businesses, mostly those that are not marked with a graffiti saying “Black-owned.” This aspect is maybe not explained enough. Post Traumatic Slavery Stress Syndrome among Blacks makes them turn their violence onto themselves, their community, their ghetto, henceit makes them remain self-contained inside their black community, mostly, whereas the same PTSlaverySS among whites makes them aggressive and violent but not onto themselves, always against the Blacks, against their own victims from all these centuries to erase their own guilt by erasing their victims. This is clearly shown in the book but yet a dramatic vengeance of King, the gang lord, against Maverick Carter because Starr Carter has “snitched” publicly against him on television, covers up the main issue, the main fundamental dimension of the “race problem” in America.
The two communities suffer from the same disease, because it is a disease, Post Traumatic Slavery Stress Syndrome, but in specular symmetry: The Blacks turn their violence and hatred against themselves and their own community, the whites (and first of all police forces and other law and order institutions) turn their violence and hatred against the Blacks and their communities. The Blacks are self-oriented-psychotic individuals whereas the whites are extra-oriented-psychotic individuals. But both, in crisis time, behave like psychotic people. The Blacks since they can’t be accepted by white society makes it their fault and submit to their own violence for some kind of redemption in their own self-destruction. The whites since they cannot whiten the Blacks into the white community turn violent against them to eliminate the danger along a line that is always more or less genocidal: kill them all and ask questions afterward, God will save the good ones among them.
IS THERE ANY HOPE IN SUCH A SITUATION?
My answer is yes, and you can “feel” it in the novel with a few details. Carlos, the uncle, is married to a black surgeon and as such is living downtown in a white neighborhood. Lisa Carter is selected as the head nurse of an institution downtown and as such will be able to take her family out of the ghetto. Seven graduates from his white high school which gives him the opportunity to go to some decent college. Chris is so taken by his love for Starr that he follows her and takes part in the whole riotous night and he is still in love afterward in spite of his fear and beyond the danger he had to face since he nearly died in the hands of the gang lord King. Maverick Carter manages to step over his total antipathy against the “little white boy” his daughter has selected as a boyfriend and finds new words to speak of him that are less aggressive and suggests that they should have some training session at the boxing club to learn to know each other.
But will there be one day the full integration of all Blacks as Black people and not whitened Black ghosts in American society? I will not answer this question, though the novel seems — only seems — to believe so, but it will happen in at least — if you arean optimist you may say at most — two generations, which means with the Black children Starr and Chris will deliver to this frightening world of racial violence.
The last remark I would like to add is that Ralph Ellison worked on a clear communist allusion through a bi-racial brotherhood that was an extension of the Communist Party of the USA, though the white leader was only one-eyed, hence white-biased: for him the Blacks were invisible because his one eye could onlysee whites. Here Angie Thomas does not allude to Marxism and Karl Marx but very clearly to real Black activists and leaders: The Black Panthers, particularly Huey P. Newton, but also the Nation of Islam (not named) with Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King seen as someone somewhat antagonistic to the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam. Politically the book is clearly rooted in the recent history of the Black civil rights movement, mostly non-violent, all either advocating non-violent struggle or firm mass action to impose the recognition of the Black community as equal.
THE CAUCASIAN DECLINE IN THE USA
These two trends brought great improvement to the Blacks, but yet it has not been able to solve the police violence that kills black people regularly; it has not been able to solve the racist racial problem; it has not been able to stop the obvious extreme segregation against the Blacks within the infamous war on drugs, even today when we know that the vast majority of the victims of illegal opioids are white. This last element is absent from this book and it is slightly regrettable. It is, in fact, this opioid crisis that has maybe the potential of bringing down many anti-black and racist policies if the struggles of the Blacks amplify. If nothing is done opioids victims will die like flies. If the Blacks take it in their own hands to fight for a solution, some kind of generalized Medicare and/or Medicaid will have to be put in place, not to help the Blacks, but to save the whites, otherwise within fifteen years the white Caucasian population will drastically fall under 50% and will lose any potential to directly control any power in the USA, I repeat within fifteen years. . . instead of twenty-five at the most.
The following table gives you the trend: at the rate of decline over the last 22 years (-16.93% or 12.8 percentile points).
And wait for the Blacks to be freed from the prisons: there are at the present moment as many Blacks incarcerated in all prisons as there used to be slaves in 1861, and these prisoners all work for private businesses or for their prison administration for a pittance. That is modern slavery. This and that put together, it promises a very difficult wakeup call in a few years, even maybe in just plain one year to all the white supremacists or those who use white supremacy to conquer and consolidate their power.
That’s how Obama won two elections with the majority of all ethnic minorities and a minority of the Caucasian vote: 20 to 25% of it is enough with 90% of Blacks, Latinos and Asians, non-Caucasians of all sorts.
Remember Charlottesville, the modern version of El Alamo.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU