When you are black and a woman in America, the struggle to know and love yourself and your community is real. From the time we enter this world as people created with promise and purpose from our Creator God, we are loved. Somewhere along the way, however, through images on our television screens and the internet, stories we learn or don’t learn in our history books, and myths and stereotypes that are imposed upon us, we learn to hate ourselves, our blackness, each other, and the world that we were born into.
If there is no continuous love, support, and truth-telling to remind us that our black bodies, our black history, and our black lives matter, then as a means of survival, we learn to hate, to build walls, to hustle, and to rely on the only person we can trust: ourselves. But eventually, those survival tactics can start to fail, and we must come to grips with who we really are and what that means for the life that we are called to live.
That’s the invitation that author, Angie Thomas, offers in her bestselling young adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” now adapted into a movie. The story was inspired by Tupac Shakur, the rapper, poet, and activist who lost his life to gun violence on September 13, 1996. Tupac had the words THUG LIFE, tattooed across his chest; it stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone.”
In an article discussing the meaning of this widely misunderstood tattoo that has become a philosophy, we hear:
…despite the moral panic and the media at the time slamming the rapper for glamourising violence and being a “thug,” the message was actually a warning: if we continue to bring up children in a negative environment, surrounded by racism, violence and oppression then the cycle will just continue.
The connection between Tupac’s tattoo and the story’s title signals that we are in for a dark, disturbing, and difficult journey. Yet it also manages to be a thoughtful and, at times, even an exhilarating story.
A Black Girl and Her Story
Starr (played in the movie by Amandla Stenberg) is a black girl who lives in the ghetto of Garden Heights, where violence is the norm. She lives with her two black parents who deeply love each other, and they want what’s best for Starr and her two brothers. For that reason, Starr goes across town to attend a private school in the suburbs, Williamson, where she is in the ethnic and economic minority, and is exposed to another world—that of privilege. In that environment, Starr becomes “Starr 2.0.” She learns to pretend, to articulate, to code switch, because she wants to survive and she doesn’t want to be seen as black or ghetto. She hates herself for it.
On the weekends, she is at home and spends time with her people. She has the opportunity to reconnect with an old childhood friend and crush, Khalil, and that’s when the unimaginable happens at a house party gone wrong. Gunshots are fired. Khalil is a gentleman who cares about Starr’s safety, so he offers to take her home. They are pulled over by the police. Khalil has not been properly trained, so he is defiant. He does not keep his hands where the police officer can see them. He is unarmed—but he is shot dead in the street.
Starr is the only witness, and her first thought is to remain silent.
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 (The Hate U Give).
She’s silent because of her fear—the kind of fear that keeps us all in bondage, and forbids us to walk in freedom. She is silent because somewhere along the way, she’s learned, like so many other black children before her, that, as I wrote in my book A Sojourner’s Truth:
There is often little grace in America for black people who insist on fighting for their freedom—who have the audacity to exercise their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Every Human Has A Story To Be Told—And Listened To
I was entering my senior year of high school when Tupac was murdered. I listened intently to the stories he told and the messages he delivered about the brokenness of our society through songs like “Dear Mama,” “Keep Ya Head Up,” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” I knew a lot of tired black mothers, black girls who had children out of wedlock. We all needed to keep our heads up.
By the time I entered the Naval Academy, I had purchased his book of poems titled The Rose that Grew from Concrete. When I was given a choice of selecting a poet to write a paper about, I chose Tupac. My white professor required that I select another poet, “someone whose poetry was more difficult.” I thought to myself that his lyrics expressed a difficulty that she would never understand.
So I wrote my paper on Nikki Giovanni instead. It was my small and defiant step to not remain silent. Giovanni understood THUG LIFE. She had listened to Tupac’s story, she heard his heart’s cry, and she tried to understand the difficulties of his life. She knew that his story and his life mattered too.
“Telling our stories humanizes us,” as Jo Saxton said on A Sojourner’s Truth podcast discussing my new book. The American story isn’t the same for everybody. Neither is the Christian story. Which is why we need to listen to stories like Starr’s and mine—to help us to understand, to influence, to speak directly to the hate that corrupts our society. Stories challenge all the ways we remain enslaved to our fears, and encourages us to choose freedom instead.
But too often, we don’t listen. We lack concern and compassion for those who are different than us, those who do not share our stories, backgrounds, or privilege. We do not always love well. We are so afraid that we run from what do not understand, not realizing that we, too, are trapped and negatively impacted when our culture and systems fail large populations of people.
As movie viewers witness the killing of an innocent, young, black boy; his friend, Starr’s devastation; the reality that in her young life, this is actually the second friend she has witnessed being murdered; and the vicious cycle that both her father and grandfather were once imprisoned because of gang activity, we cannot turn away from the brokenness of the world. We are being forced to confront a human reality that may be outside of our own experience.
As I have written:
What happens on the streets in our cities affects all of us … The learning that does or does not take place in the classroom shapes generations … And whether the American church participates, isolates itself, or covers her ears will determine the weight of her influence.
Our system, our stories, and our history contain broken or incomplete narratives. THUG LIFE. Choosing freedom requires that we face the truth.
When Starr finally musters the courage to take the stand and be a voice for Khalil, she informed every juror in the courtroom and every person on the street, that Khalil lived. He was not a Thug. He was a kid who had adult responsibilities. His father was not around and his mother was a drug addict. He was the oldest child and wanted to ensure that his siblings could eat. He lived in his grandmother’s home and when she was diagnosed with cancer, she was fired from her job. There was no income so Khalil sought the only viable job opportunity available to boys in neighborhoods like his. Khalil wanted a way out. He wanted to live. After Khalil’s character is put on the stand and the police officer does not go to trial, Starr enters the street protests and shouts from the top of car, “Khalil lived!”
Our lives and our stories matter. If we don’t want to perpetuate the cycles that are destroying the futures of infants, then we must listen to and learn from the stories of our fellow sojourners. In hearing these stories, we must choose love over hate. We must educate ourselves. We must not remain silent. We must choose freedom and justice for all.In choosing to listen to another's story, we are forced to confront a human reality that may be outside of our own experience. Click To Tweet