With police brutality, massive Black Lives Matter protests, and a global pandemic shaping experiences across America, the novels of Angie Thomas have never seemed more urgent. The visionary author and activist speaks to the complexity of the Black experience in America—laying bare the hardships endured, but also the community sustained, by those for whom systemic racism is a daily reality. The Hate U Give, Thomas’s 2017 debut novel (which became a number one New York Times bestseller), centers on the police killing of a young, unarmed Black man and the collective unrest, grief, and anger that followed—a story painfully familiar in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other people of color. Three years after its publication, the continuing salience of Thomas’s narrative is itself evidence of the need for accountability and change.
But while the injustices Thomas illuminates in the novel are sobering reminders of the progress we as a nation have yet to make, the work is also powerfully individual. The book centers on the experience of Starr, a young Black woman who straddles the two worlds of her Black neighborhood and her predominantly white private school. As the novel develops, we see Starr—the sole witness to the shooting of her unarmed friend—find the power of her voice, take matters into her own hands, and inspire change. Thomas’s latest novel, On the Come Up, published last year, unfolds within the same fictional universe as The Hate U Give, and also focuses on the power of community and togetherness, and how grief can fuel action. Told with depth and complexity, the story is another testament to the importance of speaking truth to power, and, like The Hate U Give, is hard to put down.
Thomas’s admiration for youth activism and advocacy extends beyond the page. Recently, she joined The Decameron Project—a student led literary non-profit I founded with my friend Lucas Gimbel at the beginning of lockdown—for a live virtual event to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, literature as activism, and making change in our communities. The Project was inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th Century novel The Decameron—in which ten young Italians quarantine together to escape the Black Death and tell stories to connect and pass the time—and its similarity to our current circumstances. We are a dedicated team of students who work to amplify other young people’s voices, empowering them to share their perspectives and come together through the power of stories. We publish our peers’ short fiction on our website, and we host virtual events with acclaimed authors to bring inspiration and insight to our community, comprised of thousands across the country and the globe.
In the Project’s commitment to bring about understanding and change through storytelling, we and Thomas share a common cause. To see video from this event and others like it, and to read stories written by hundreds of young people from lockdown and beyond, visit decameronproject.org.
— Freddie Coffey for Guernica
Guernica: The Hate U Give is such a powerful, personal story—so much so that people ask whether it’s a sort of memoir in disguise. You probably get this one a lot, but it’s impossible not to ask—how much of The Hate U Give really is autobiographical?
Angie Thomas: Everybody always asks, “So are you Starr? Is your dad Big Mav? Is your mom Lisa?” Like most writers, I put bits and pieces of my own story into Starr’s. I was like Starr. I lived in two different worlds: my mostly Black, poor neighborhood and the college I went to, that was just ten minutes away, but was an entirely different world—a mostly white, upper-class, private Christian school here in conservative Mississippi. I found myself being a different person when I was there; I did what was called code-switching. I was careful of how I spoke, of how I presented myself, because I never wanted anybody to think I was the angry Black girl or the ghetto Black girl or the poor Black girl or any of those things.
But while I was in school, there was a young man named Oscar Grant who lost his life in Oakland, California. I didn’t know Oscar personally, but I took his death very personally. Oscar was killed New Year’s Day, 2009, by police officers. Video shows him with his hands behind his back, lying on his stomach unable to move when the police officer shot him in the back. The officer was not charged in the way he should have been, and that led to riots and protests in Oakland. It also led to conversations here in Mississippi. In my neighborhood—we got it; we understood it; we were angry; we were grieving for Oscar as if we knew him. But my classmates at my mostly white school tried to justify why it was okay that he lost his life the way that he did. In my anger and frustration, I was like, I can either burn down this campus to make a statement or I can do something productive. So I decided to write. I decided that for my senior project I was going to write a short story about a boy named Khalil who was a lot like Oscar and a girl named Starr who navigated two worlds like I did. That’s where the basis of The Hate U Give came from.
Guernica: You said that the death of Oscar Grant in California spread all the way to Jackson—you and your community knew about it and came together, grieved together. That sense of community, that sense of togetherness, pervades The Hate U Give, particularly in the character of Maverick. Why was it important to write a character like him into the story?
Thomas: Maverick was so important for me that he’s the subject of my third novel, Concrete Rose. I know so many Mavericks. He’s not a unicorn. He’s an active, involved father—there’s this assumption that Black fathers don’t exist and they do. In fact, statistics show us that Black fathers are more involved in their children’s lives than any other demographic. People don’t talk about that, so I wanted to create this character who, if you looked at him and just judged him, you’d think “oh he’s a stereotype, this young Black guy who was once a gang member and a drug dealer,” but he’s a human being. He has purpose; his life matters; his dream matters; and he chooses his own route. I hope that by looking at him, people start looking at the real Mavericks and stop being so quick to judge them or write them off. If Maverick were a victim of police brutality, people would talk more about the wrong things he did in his life than the fact that he was a great father and a hard-working family man. Maybe, just maybe, by presenting this character, I can make people rethink their own misconceptions.
Guernica: There’s also Maverick’s foil, King. King sort of represents the other side of the vicious cycle that Maverick escaped—he just remains in it.
Thomas: Somebody recently made a comparison on Twitter that really struck me: They said that King and Maverick are like Professor X and Magneto. They’re two sides to the same coin. The big difference between King and Maverick is opportunity—who made an investment in Maverick and who didn’t make one in King. The thing about King is that he’s made a lot of poor decisions, but in a lot of ways he made them because he didn’t know any better or he wasn’t shown any better. People would be surprised if they knew how little the real Kings have been exposed to. For instance, I know right now there are kids in Jackson, Mississippi who have never seen a skyscraper despite being no more than 15 minutes away from downtown Jackson. There are kids in Compton, California right now who have never seen the beach—and they live in Southern California. And I’m just talking about something superficial like buildings and beaches, but let’s look at it from a wider standpoint—they haven’t been shown who they can be and what they can do. King just hasn’t been given a vision. And that’s a problem for so many of our young people. They’ve been given a limited view of what they can be. We have to do better by providing them with more mirrors that show them a wide range of possibilities.
Guernica: Starr finds her voice and finds herself, really, in activism as the novel progresses. The novel is sort of a coming of age story, of how she develops through trauma and becomes who she is. The ending is in many ways the most fascinating part of The Hate U Give, because it’s so open-ended. What did you really want to leave your readers with?
Thomas: I think open-ended endings have kind of become my thing now. Many people who like my second book, On The Come Up, say: “Why did you end it like that? I need to know more!” I ended both books the way that I did so that my readers can continue the story themselves, through themselves. How does Starr’s story continue? You tell me. How would you continue, what would you do, who are you, what are you going to take from her story and who will you become from it? Are you going to pick up the loudspeaker yourself and make yourself heard? How are you going to do that?
But also I ended it like that because I may go back to the characters at some point. I’ve said for years now that I don’t plan on writing a sequel, but who knows.
Guernica: I’ve been to many protests in the past few weeks, hearing the chant “No justice, no peace!” We all want justice for every Black person in America who has ever been subject to police brutality or any other form of racism, and of course those who have been killed by police. But the question becomes, what is justice? How do we get justice?
Thomas: For me, justice means that when we say Black lives matter, we see that Black lives matter. It means that a person who has made an oath to protect and serve me actually protects and serves me—if we’re going to keep this establishment in place. It means my tax dollars should not be going to somebody who can kill me without ever going to court. For me, justice is those families feeling as if their loved ones’ lives matter. I’m looking at Breonna Taylor right now: It’s been 101 days since the date she was murdered and no arrests have been made. In fact, two officers still have a job—but imagine I was a fast-food worker and I hurt somebody on the job; I would lose my job that day! If anything, officers should be held to an even higher standard—for me, that’s justice. I’m holding them to an even higher standard.
I believe in abolishing the prison system. I’m firmly getting into that. I see the way the prison system stemmed from slavery, and how it’s this modern version of slavery, so it’s hard for me to say, “yeah, lock people up.” But I want accountability. So it’s something I’m struggling with, and figuring out, “what does justice mean?” I think that’s something we all have the right to do. We all have the right for that thought to evolve over time. But hopefully at some point we can get to the point where at least accountability occurs—and we don’t have enough of that.
Guernica: What are the steps we can take to enact that change? Are we going to see pushback?
Thomas: Well, people always ask, “What does this mean, defunding the police?” In this country, police departments have funding of over $115 billion—115 billion! What defunding means is, essentially, taking some of those funds and putting them into social services that will affect communities so that you won’t have to have the police, because if you have affordable housing, if you have health care, if you have opportunities for people to get jobs, crime does decrease. It’s something we all have to work toward, but when you say “defund,” people say “you’re talking about having a lawless country.” I’m talking about having a country where people are getting the assistance that they need, so they don’t even turn to crime.
Guernica: The Decameron Project, as you know, is geared toward students, young writers. We want to lend them a platform—a space where their voice can be heard, where they can tell their truth. What can young people, who might be under 18 and unable to vote, do to spark change in this pivotal moment?
Thomas: I have to say, I’m so impressed by your generation. We’re starting to call y’all “Zoomers.” I’m so impressed because y’all keep showing us that there are ways to make change, even at your age. When we think of changing things, we sometimes think too big—and there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, there’s nothing wrong with going big, but sometimes it’s best to just start small. I’m a firm believer that if you change the world around you, you will find yourself changing the world. Whether you’re 16, 15, 14, or whether you’re 80, you can change the world right around you. You can find things that are happening in your community right now, where you have the power to make change whether you can vote or not.
Sometimes that’s having hard conversations with people in your life, with your family members who are racist, or who have said racist things. Sometimes it’s seeing things that are happening in your school and speaking out against them. I know of a group of students in Los Angeles who were tired of their schools being over-policed, and now they’re working on changing that. So it sometimes starts with working on things happening right around you, and if you don’t see things that are happening right around you, my challenge is to find them. Ask yourself, “Do I know what it’s like to be someone who doesn’t look like me in my school or in my community? Someone who doesn’t have the same religious beliefs as me? Someone who isn’t of the same sexual orientation as me? Whatever it may be, do I know somebody who’s not like me, do I know what it’s like to be them?” And if you don’t know, find out.
Guernica: You mentioned having tough conversations—trying to change people’s minds, to unite people behind a righteous cause. What advice do you have for young people, or teachers, to have those conversations? How can they do it in a way that’s respectful and empathetic, but also moves things forward?
Thomas: That’s something I’m still trying to figure out. The hardest people to call out are your loved ones. I recommend doing it from a place of love. I can easily get on Twitter and call out a troll. I cannot call out my loved ones as easily, because this is someone I care about and somebody I know. It’s tiring, and, sometimes, it puts you in an uncomfortable position, but we’re at a point where change comes from discomfort. I get a lot of questions along the lines of, “My friend said this and as a marginalized person, it made me uncomfortable. How do I tell them that?” They’re like, “I’m afraid of making them uncomfortable.” To that I say, “But you just told me you were uncomfortable.” If they care about you, they will want to hear that they made you uncomfortable, and if they don’t, you may not need them in your life. We can’t always worry about other people’s comfort. We can’t worry about other people’s comfort. We have to get uncomfortable.
Guernica: As a pioneer of the Black Lives Matter movement, who are your inspirations—from writers to creators in other forms of art?
Thomas: When I was a teenager I hated reading—it surprises people when I say that, but I hated reading and I realized it was because I couldn’t find books I could connect with. You know, when I was a teenager, the two big books were Twilight and The Hunger Games. I got nothing against them, but I just couldn’t connect with them; I looked at Twilight once and I thought, my mom wouldn’t let me date a vampire, this just ain’t me. I wasn’t connected with it. It wasn’t until I got to college and read Black literature that I really started to foster a love of reading. My influences range from Tupac and Nas and Queen Latifah and TLC to Dr. Maya Angelou to James Baldwin to Richard Wright. Hip hop taught me to write without worry; it taught me to write my truths; it taught me to write for y’all, to be honest and real with y’all even when it makes the adults in your lives uncomfortable. I often say if I can be like a literary version of Tupac mixed with TLC, then I’m good.
Guernica: What are you reading now? Who are your greatest contemporaries, the people who are side by side with you in the literature and change of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Thomas: Jason Reynolds is phenomenal. He is one of the most powerful voices we’ve gotten in literature in a long time, and I need more people to recognize that. Jacqueline Woodson—same thing. Nic Stone. Nic is the author of several books including Dear Martin, which is often read side by side with The Hate U Give, and she’s one of my best friends. Kwame Alexander. Elizabeth Acevedo. Tomi Adeyemi.
One thing that I love about all of these authors I just named is that they tell a wide range of stories. And there’s so many more that I’m missing. I’m so happy to be writing in the time I’m writing in, because thankfully I’m not the only author out there who’s giving young people books to see themselves in. It’s a great time to be a YA reader and a YA writer.
Guernica: In terms of refining those stories, writing them so that they can have the most impact, who do you go to for advice?
Thomas: I have to kind of limit who and where I get my writing advice from, because everybody has an opinion. One of my biggest sounding boards is my mom. I read my stories out loud to her and I can always tell by her reaction if it’s good or not—if she nods off and you’re reading something, it needs some work. But also I get advice from some of those authors that I mentioned, like Nic Stone. But limit how many opinions you get because eventually, if you take in too many, you’ll find yourself writing for all of them instead of for yourself—and the key is to write what you want to read and write for yourself first and foremost.
Guernica: As you know, we’ve had hundreds of questions submitted to you by students, educators, and other viewers from across the country who are watching live, right now. We’d love to delve into a few of those.
Samantha Mott asks: “I’m a high school librarian at a Catholic school and we have chosen The Hate U Give for our community read this summer. What would you say to a parent who doesn’t want their kid to read your book?”
Thomas: Ooh. That’s a great one. I’ve had a couple of run-ins—instances where I’ve had white parents tell me, “I don’t think my 15 year old is prepared to read this.” Young people can handle more than you think. I would say to those parents that this is a discussion that needs to be had, and if it’s something you feel like you can shy your child away from, realize that there are parents in this country who don’t have that privilege. And if they want to complain about the language—there are 80 something instances of the f-word in The Hate U Give—they should remember that last year well over 800 people lost their lives at the hands of police brutality. That number is far scarier.
Guernica: From a student named Helen Chen: “Do you think violence is a righteous process to attain progress?”
Thomas: I have to go to the Dr. King quote: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” And as somebody who is totally against capitalism, part of me, at times, is like “You know what, burn it all down.” But what does that accomplish? I look at people, too, who are like, “these looters are causing all this damage,” and I say, let’s look at how much damage big corporations like Amazon are causing by not paying taxes, and other things like that. I think that’s far worse than somebody breaking into a Target. I don’t condone it, but I always understand the anger. I always understand the frustration.
Guernica: We have a question from another librarian, Alicia. She thought your portrayal and insight about grief was very well done, and she’s wondering: Why was it important for you to include that as a part of Starr’s story—what role does or can grief play in activism?
Thomas: Grief plays a huge role in it. Why are people willing to get out there in the middle of a pandemic and shout the name George Floyd, shout the name Breonna Taylor? It’s because they’re grieving. Why are people willing to burn down parts of their communities? Because they’re grieving. That anger is fueled by grief, and we don’t talk about that enough. I never met George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, but I cried for them like I knew them. And that’s grief; that’s a big part of Starr and her speaking up and speaking out. It fuels her anger and then, in a way, it crafts her fear. She saw what happened to Khalil and she doesn’t want it to happen to her. She doesn’t want it to happen to her little brother. She doesn’t want that grief to reach anybody else. A lot of the time, that’s what activism is about.
The reason I speak up and speak out is because I don’t want another mother to have to bury her twelve-year-old child like Tamir Rice’s mother did. I don’t want another family to have to have that grief. There was a young man in Los Angeles who was killed by police by the name of Ezell Ford. Only after his death did I find out he was my cousin, and I had to grieve for a cousin I did not get a chance to meet. We have to use all of that and find a way to make ourselves heard—to not let grief define us, but let it fuel us.
Guernica: Bridget, who’s an educator, asks: “I believe the battle ground for changing minds, ideologies, and racist ideas and policies, while planting seeds of reform and revolution, is in the classroom. What do you believe needs to change in our country’s education system to create a space where Black and Brown lives can exist and learn freely?”
Thomas: Well first of all, shout out to all the educators here. Thank you so much for the work you do. You are the true super heroes of our society, and you don’t get nearly enough credit. I can honestly say some of the biggest influences in my life were my educators.
I think one important thing is this: introducing into classrooms a wider range of “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors,” as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop would say. That’s what books are—mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. A lot of what is being taught is not accurate. A lot of what is being taught has been whitewashed. A lot of things have to be rewritten to reveal the truth. We have to rebuild the ugly bitter truths of this country in order to have young people—who will lead this country—lead it in a better way than we have. We have to start revealing the uncomfortable truths of our history, because to not repeat it, we have to know it.
It’s also important to create classrooms in which young people of color—Black, brown—can make themselves heard, can feel as if they do belong in that space, as if they do have a voice. To create safe spaces in these classrooms, and also allow students to be wrong—allow white students to be wrong. So, it’s about creating those spaces, talking about the uncomfortable ugly truths, and giving them more accurate windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. That will go a long way in changing things.