Finishing Banned Books Week

In one of the most oft-quoted lines in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells seven-year-old daughter Scout, “You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

That’s how I felt after reading “The Hate U Give,” a Young Adult novel by Mississippi writer Angie Thomas. It holds eighth place on the American Library Association’s “Most Frequently Challenged Books” list for 2017. The novel tells the story of Starr Carter, an African-American teenager. Starr lives in two separate worlds. Her weekdays are spent in an affluent, mostly white private school in the suburbs. Nights and weekends, she’s at home in Garden Heights, an impoverished neighborhood where drugs and gang violence are the norm. Starr manages to strike an uneasy balance between school and neighborhood until the night her childhood best friend, Khalil, is shot and killed by a white police officer who mistakes the hairbrush in Khalil’s glovebox for a gun.

The only person who knows what really happened that night is Starr, who was in the car with Khalil. What she says or doesn’t say to the grand jury and the press could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

According to the author, “The Hate U Give” was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.  “I wrote this novel to help people understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Angie Thomas said. “It seems that black lives do not matter enough. Young black men are too often presumed guilty until proven innocent.”

So what makes this book so controversial that some folks want it pulled from library and classroom shelves? The superintendent of the Katy, Texas Independent School District ordered the book removed because of its “pervasive vulgarity, drug use and racially insensitive language, not because of its substantive content or the viewpoint expressed.” The book has since been returned to the high school libraries in the district, but can be checked out only by students with parental consent.

The novel’s title is taken from a song of the same name by the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 1996. It’s short for THUG LIFE, an acronym for “The Hate You Give Little Infants F***s Everybody.”

I wasn’t charmed by this novel. It’s too long. It contains too many unnecessary scenes that do nothing to propel the plot forward. Much of the writing is amateurish and clichéd. It’s filled with negative racial stereotypes in regard to blacks, whites and Asians. And it runneth over with an excessive amount of profanity.

But it’s an important book nonetheless. A book that deserves to be read and discussed. A book that is nothing if not timely. It’s not “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but after reading it, I feel as though I’ve walked around in Starr Carter’s skin, at least for a little while.

(September 30, 2018)