On Monday Manchester Children’s Book Festival, along with Deansgate Waterstones, co-hosted an evening with Angie Thomas, where we heard the bestselling writer speak eloquently about the systemic racism that continues to be a fundamental fault line in American society.
Thomas talked her new book The Hate U Give, which centres on a 16-year-old African-American girl called Starr, who witnesses her friend Khalil’s death at the hands of the police. The content of the book means that Angie is automatically contributing to the discussion on racism in the US, which has been brought to the surface in recent years by the Black Lives Matter movement. What became apparent however, is that this book is also a starting point for Thomas to participate in the movement outside of the literary world. Promoting it allows her to speak to and interact with the wider public on the issue, and she is already seeing the impact her book is having on young people here and in the States, who will go on to shape the movements of the future.
Thomas highlighted what racism means for young people of colour in the US today. The book talks about ‘code switching’, which is the pressure people of colour feel to change their behaviour in order to navigate majority white spaces. The destructive nature of this further comes out in her portrayal of Starr’s two father figures. One of them speaks in African American vernacular, which is often derided as ‘ignorant’ in a racist society, and one doesn’t, which could be seen as giving in to pressure to speak ‘proper’.However, Thomas wanted to make the point that neither is less black, nor less intelligent, than the other.
The constant shadow of police violence was also illustrated in a passage from the book. This detailed how there are two ‘talks’ parents have to give to their children – one about ‘the birds and the bees’, the other about how to act if you are stopped by the police. Thomas’ assessment of the current situation was that the core of the problem has not changed: the death of Emmett Till, who died at the hands of white supremacists in 1955, is fundamentally the same oppression making itself felt in the death of Oscar Grant. However, there is room for optimism in the unity of the resistance she has witnessed after Trump’s election.
The Hate U Give, has come at a time of both renewed reaction to progress and renewed resistance. Thomas wrote it partly as a response to hearing some of her white counterparts at university dehumanise Oscar Grant, and argue that he must have somehow been the cause of his own death, an argument that was echoed by politicians in the media. The title of Thomas’ book creates the acronym ‘THUG’, a moniker that is often given to victims of systemic racism, and so she wanted to “throw it back with a new meaning” and give voice to stories that have been silenced.
Thomas was also keen to redress the balance of female representation: “The Civil Rights movement was built on the backs of black women, and usually we hear about male victims – we don’t talk about female victims – when black girls are more likely than white girls to get suspended for example. I wanted to give them a mirror, and, for other people, a window into their lives. So often they’re just treated as props. I wanted to show black girls and their magic as much as I could.”
This has resonated with young black readers. There is currently a huge lack of diversity in the publishing industry; Thomas cited a study that found “only 7.5 percent of children’s books in 2015 featured black characters as the main character”, and the knowledge that the industry itself is so white made her afraid her book would never be published. This has an impact on young black people’s enthusiasm for reading “who see themselves more in hip hop than they do in books, because it tells them about themselves.” Even though, she found an implicit assumption that “black books don’t sell because black kids don’t read,” her book debuted at no.1, showing that “black books can sell if we put enough into them.”
The book, however, has also resonated with young white readers, which for Thomas is extremely important: “The black literary canon is not really taught, but empathy starts with books; we need diverse books because it influences white kids too. If we engendered more empathy maybe Trump wouldn’t have got elected.” In both ways, she believes literature is key to making progress: “Art creates empathy, which is more powerful than sympathy. Angela Davis said fiction is going to play a huge role in how we change things in America, because it acts as both a window and a mirror, it will make change happen.”
Her appeal was borne out by the audience at the event, who were largely young adults. One of the young audience members said she found the author’s words, “Extremely insightful and quite heart- warming. It was relatable and the book touches on what not a lot of young adult books do. I loved it – I’m definitely going to read it now.”
Thomas was also enthusiastic about young adult fiction, saying, “Young adult fiction will open your eyes in ways you do not know, which it doesn’t get enough credit for.”
The Manchester Children’s Book Festival have plenty more dates up their sleeve throughout the year. Make sure the FREE Family Fun Day taking place on June 24 is in your diary!