I listened to the audio book of Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, narrated by Bahni Turpin. It’s so good. I’ve read a bunch of really great books this year, this one will stick with me for years.
As I have sat with this review, two things have stuck with me. One is weapons, and the other is the Third Commitment Of Ethical Culture.
We choose to treat each other as ends, not merely means.
To enable us to be whole, in a fragmented world, we choose to treat each other as unique individuals having intrinsic worth.
Every character in this book has a weapon of some kind. Some use their weapons to harm, and some to protect and defend. Some weapons are obvious – guns, fists, and fire bombs. Others are more subtle – truth, education, the authority of the State, and personal authority. The police officer uses his weapon of authority to pull over Khalil and Starr. He uses his gun to kill Khalil, and then he uses the state to protect himself from consequences. Other police officers use their authority to intimidate and harass. Highlighting the realism of Thomas’ portrayal, a Police Union in South Carolina recently asked that The Hate U Give be taken off a summer reading list because, “it’s almost an indoctrination of distrust of police.” As if the years of videos of people being harassed, beaten, tasered and shot by the police doesn’t create an atmosphere of distrust. The most powerful weapon the police have is the authority given to them by the state.
Starr is encouraged to use her weapon – her voice. She courts danger from the police and within her own community if she speaks up. She is also afraid of how her friends, classmates, teachers, and others will treat her if they know she was the witness.
I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve Tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”
Starr finds her voice and and uses it to shield Khalil from further demonization and as a weapon against the state which protects cops from accountability. While I was reading, I knew there would be no Justice for Khalil just as there has been no Justice for Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or any of the other black men, women, and children who have been killed by the police. Starr uses her voice and tells the truth, and the official outcome is the same. But the point of Starr finding her voice isn’t the outcome, but the act.
For the reader it would be nice if an impassioned speech from Starr lead to an indictment and eventual conviction of the cop that killed Khalil. That is not what happens in the real world, so Thomas shows the impact – a traumatized teen girl, an angry community, and protests that become riots. The state does not listen to Starr’s voice and they don’t listen to the peaceful protests, and they don’t listen to the riots. It leaves the tension unresolved, forcing the reader to come to terms with it in their own way.
Which is why the Third Commitment has stuck in my head – we choose to treat people as ends, not means. Khalil was a person of intrinsic worth to Starr, but not to the police officer. Throughout the book, Thomas allows Khalil to unfold as a person. We know he did nothing to deserve being killed during the traffic stop. The narrative of these kinds of incidents usually begins to revolve around the criminality of the person who was shot. The police and the media quickly jump on the rumor that Khalil was a drug dealer. Being a drug dealer makes him a thug and a threat, even though he was not pulled over for dealing drugs. Starr tries to reconcile the boy she knew with the drug dealing thug that is being portrayed in the media, but the real Khalil is too complicated to be just a thug who deserved to be killed. I remembered the many justifications given for the shooting of Michael Brown, how he was quickly portrayed as a dangerous thug, and so deserved to be shot in the back.
At the end of The Hate U Give, there is no resolution. The reader is left to decide how they will move forward. How we move forward is critically important right now. There is an overt racist in the White House who has surrounded himself with even more overt white supremacists. We can and should take all the political actions we can to get them out of power. We can also choose to treat people as having intrinsic worth. We can choose to challenge people who do not treat us, or others as if we have worth. We can feel compassion for someone who is acting out of pain, but also not allow them to inflict more damage on us. We can stand up for people who are not perfect victims. We can get this book into the hands of as many people as possible.