Through the Eyes of Starr Carter – A Discussion About “The Hate U Give”

Also published in the Wakefield Daily Item hard copy and on Wakefield Patch.

“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?” ― Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

The Wakefield Human Rights Commission (WHRC) and the Lucius Beebe Memorial Library hosted a timely discussion on the book The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, at the library on Thursday evening, October 11, starting at 7:00 p.m. The discussion was preceded by a multi month-long campaign that invited members of our community to read this novel that addresses current issues through the eyes of a black teenager.

Karen Stern, Beebe Library’s Readers’ Advisory Librarian, provided the welcome, introductions, and discussion guidelines, followed by discussion expertly led by local resident Kevin Dua, 2017 Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year as awarded by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, WHRC MLK Service Award recipient in 2018, and current member of the WHRC.

For those not familiar with this book, here is the Publisher’s Weekly starred review from November 28, 2016:

“At home in a neighborhood riven with gang strife, Starr Carter, 16, is both the grocer’s daughter and an outsider, because she attends private school many miles away. But at Williamson Prep, where she’s among a handful of black students, she can’t be herself either: no slang, no anger, no attitude. That version of herself—’Williamson Starr”—doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.” She’s already wrestling with what Du Bois called ‘double consciousness” when she accepts a ride home from Khalil, a childhood friend, who is then pulled over and shot dead by a white cop. Starr’s voice commands attention from page one, a conflicted but clear-eyed lens through which debut author Thomas examines Khalil’s killing, casual racism at Williamson, and Starr’s strained relationship with her white boyfriend. Though Thomas’s story is heartbreakingly topical, its greatest strength is in its authentic depiction of a teenage girl, her loving family, and her attempts to reconcile what she knows to be true about their lives with the way those lives are depicted—and completely undervalued—by society at large.”

Throughout the evening’s conversation, Dua used the novel to parallel race issues such as police brutality, Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric, and other current events. In turn, the participants were presented with opportunities for immediate and long-term reflection as to our differing journeys and how we perceive racism as it affects all members of our society and how we each can address injustices.

To couch the discussion, Dua presented a number of examples, beginning with the words our President’s used during a speech to law enforcement officials in Brentwood, New York on July 28, 2017 in which he used the term “thugs” and encouraged officers to “please don’t be too nice” and “’you can take the hand away.’ OK?” in reference to protecting the head when putting a suspect in the paddy wagon.

Also noted was the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old by holding a toy gun in Cleveland in November 2014, and the ongoing enforcement of “stop and frisk” policies in our cities.

Dua then asked: “What do you hope to learn here tonight that will help you move beyond where you were when just reading the book on your own?”

One participant replied: “I want to learn more about stereotypes and how to dispel them.” Another expressed a desire to learn of other people’s perspectives, and another said, simply: “How to make peace.”

Dua then asked folks to raise their hands if they thought things were more divisive as to racism these days, with most raising their hands. He then asked how many thought racism has been with us all along. That was his pick, along with that of a few others, reflecting the fact that racism has indeed been here all along.

However, it was pointed out by many participants that it is more “okay to hate” these days.

The focus of the discussion then moved directly to Starr Carter, the book’s heroine, and why she felt the need to create separate personalities for each of her two worlds, the white school she attends and her black neighborhood. Also discussed was the discomfort her White friend Haley had as Starr gradually presented more of her “black” self later in the book. Dua summed up this part of the conversation by stating: “As blacks, we have to live through a white lens.”

The conversation then moved on to the shooting of Starr’s friend, Khalil Harris, during a routine traffic stop. Dua asked: “Why did it happen and how could it have been avoided?” Of note was that the majority of “what not to do” suggestions put the responsibility of the young man who got shot, although it was also mentioned that better training for police officers would be of help.

Dua then moved the discussion to the ending of the book, pointing out that some people are uncomfortable with Starr’s participation in rioting via getting on top of police car and speaking with a bullhorn; it could be taken as being in support of violence and that her words inspired more violence—and violence is bad. But, Dua noted, her speaking out gave people courage to fight the drug lord that had terrorized the neighborhood for years.

The irony of eschewing any support of violence to effect change was pointed out by a participant who teaches in Boston and whose school has field trips each year to the site of the Boston Tea Party and other Revolutionary War historical markers, all reminders of the violence our country’s founders used to overthrow the British Crown. In fact, we celebrate the results of this war each July 4th with, as Dua wryly pointed out, fireworks and hotdogs, indicating that the value of violent acts is in the eye of the beholder and depends on who gains from it.

Dua introduced the final discussion point by asking the group to imagine that everyone in Wakefield has been given tickets to a Red Sox game. He then added this caveat, saying: “Imagine that you and I have become good friends and I am sitting with you at the game. As the National Anthem is announced, I tell you that, as a black man, I am going to take a knee. Now that you have read this book and have had this discussion, what would you do?”

Dua then pulled out his phone and asked the participants to respond as they would if at a ball game with their “good friend Kevin.” He then played the Whitney Houston signing the National Anthem.

As Dua kneeled, at least two thirds of those in the room stood, many with their hands over their hearts, while the others stayed seated or, if able, kneeled.

When the song was over, Dua asked everyone to stay as they were and for everyone to look around before all were again sitting down. He then asked everyone why they did what they did. Peer pressure, and also fear of how others might react, including fear of violence from other fans, was one of the main reasons those participants who chose to share gave for standing. Another was, simply, habit, to the extent that at least one person had a hard time refraining from singing along. Others cited their respect for the armed forces, especially people who had or have close relatives who have served or are in the service. One participant expressed their frustration with those who have co-opted the flag as a symbol, citing the country music culture.

The teacher who shared the field trip story earlier in the evening shared another example that perfectly summed up the discussion specific to “taking a knee.” At a pep rally last spring at which a group of 20 or so of the students would be singing the National Anthem, the principal of the school was careful to make it clear to everyone in the school that no one was to judge another and each was told to do “what is right for you.” The event was a success, starting off with some taking a knee, including some of the students singing the National Anthem, some standing, some holding hands, and some with their hands on the shoulders of those kneeling as the National Anthem was performed.

As the discussion was winding down, one person said: “It seems some people hate democracy and diversity.”

To sum up the conversation, Dua asked “What about Starr? She went from ‘I can’t breathe’ to ‘I won’t keep quiet.’ What message should people take from this book?”

In general, the consensus was that seeing issues through the lens of Starr was “eye-opening,” and reading The Hate U Give made participants more aware of what is going on in the lives of people of color. One participant asked “What can my daughters do instead of just accepting things as are they are?” Another noted that there is “so much I don’t know…about what it is like to go through life on a daily basis being black.”

Other comments included “We should learn to agree to disagree and honor and respect each other,” “Be more aware,” “The hard part is to take away the fear,” “and “We are all human beings – one race.”

One participant noted that, as a black person, she did not notice racism as much growing up but said “Trump has brought it back to life.” Her biggest fear is that HER children will hate. She shared that she puts “Human” on forms asking for race, adding that “we had great leaders – but now we have to be accountable. We have to keep moving.”

As the evening came to a close, Pina Masciarelli, WHRC Chair, encouraged people to attend the next WHRC open meeting on 10/16 at WCAT which will feature a speaker from the Anti-Defamation League, and also invited all to Our Stories, Our Lives: Stories From Transgender People, taking place at the Savings Bank theater at Wakefield High School on October 17 starting at 7:00 p.m.

Sue Hertz announced a class she is leading called White & Awake in Wakefield that will look at being white and issues of racism in a safe, nonjudgmental setting. The classes will run for five Mondays from 7:00 – 9:00pm (10/15, 10/22, 10/29, 11/5, and 11/19) in the Trustee’s room at the library. It is currently wait-listed but for more information, you can contact Sue at susaneherz@gmail.com.

At the end of the evening, David Watts of the WHRC shared information about a new group forming that is addressing the lack of civility, and the importance of civics, and comprehensive education in our current society, adding: “We [should be able to] discuss anything and come up with a solution that benefits many not just a few.”

For more information about any of these and future events and opportunities, see http://www.wakefield.ma.us/human-rights-commission and find them on Facebook.