“Oh. My. Jesus!!!!” was Angie Thomas’ response when she found out that her debut novel, The Hate U Give had landed at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult (YA) hardcover books.
The novel was barely a week old when it took the top slot, which is par for the course of Thomas’ breakout success. The book was published by Balzer + Bray after a thirteen-publishing house bidding war. Its film rights were optioned by Fox 2000 prior to publication, with George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor) signed on to direct and actor Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) to star.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give follows a 16-year-old girl named Starr, who grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood and now attends a suburban prep school. After she witnesses a police officer shoot her unarmed best friend, she tries to speak her truth as her existence in two very different worlds becomes a challenge.
In this EBONY interview, the Jackson, Mississippi, native talks about the inspiration for her main character, how her Southern roots have shaped her as a writer, and why YA needs more Black girl stories.
EBONY: When I found out that you were from Jackson, and that as a teenager you were an emcee, an André 3000 quote came to mind: “The South got something to say.”
Angie Thomas: As a Black woman, I feel like I have a unique experience that we don’t often see in media portrayals of the South. When you say, “Southern” or you speak about a Southern accent, there’s always that drawl and usually from White people. That’s what people associate with the South.
But we’re all different. The Black Southern accent is different. It’s small things like that, and then big things like being from Mississippi, specifically, and hearing the stories about Emmett Till, and being familiar with that from a very young age. Or knowing that I lived maybe three minutes away from Medgar Evers’ home, and that my mom heard the gunshot that killed him. Knowing that I live in a state where whenever somebody would fight for my rights or speak up for me, they were automatically deemed the enemy by the majority.
Growing up with that kind of mindset and knowing that, as a Black woman, I have to be twice as good to get half the respect, I have to prove myself even more in certain circumstances. This frames me as a writer in so many different ways.
EBONY: How did this extra load on your shoulders influence the kind of writing you did in college and beyond?
Thomas: I wrote The Hate U Give as a short story while I was in college, at a mostly White school in conservative Mississippi. But before that, I was [only] writing fantasy. And that’s not to say anything’s wrong with fantasy, but at the time I did not think that my experience mattered enough for anybody at my school to care when I wrote about it.
But I had a professor, an older White gentleman, actually, and he pulled me aside one day and told me, “You know, there’s nothing wrong with maybe paying attention to your surroundings.” It wasn’t him saying, “Ok, you’re the Black girl. You need to write about black experiences.” I was having an honest conversation with him, and I said, “I don’t think anybody cares about what’s happening in my world when I leave here.” And he said, “There are stories there that need to be told and heard, and there are voices there that have been silenced. And if you want to, you can have the opportunity to give those voices a platform through your writing. Give those stories some visibility.”
And I think as a writer, sometimes you do worry, “Am I just writing, or am I putting the burden of African-Americans on my shoulder and carrying it?” But if we just write the stories that we’re supposed to write, that’s when we have the biggest impact.
EBONY: What led you to expand The Hate U Give from a short story into a novel?
Thomas: It was part of my senior project when I was in college, and every week I would have to turn in a little sample here and there to show my professor that I was actually working on it. And he would always say, “You’re going too far, darling. This is just supposed to be a short story. You’re making it into a novel.” I was adding too many plot details and too many characters. But he also said, “Maybe one day you could write it as a book.”
But after college, after graduation, I put it aside because it was such an emotionally taxing story to write. It would sometimes put me in a bad head space. But after Trayvon Martin happened, after Mike Brown happened, after Tamir Rice, and then Sandra Bland—those four cases really pushed me. When you hear politicians and others on television basically blaming somebody for their own death, when you see Trayvon Martin being put on trial more so than George Zimmerman, when you see Michael Brown being put on trial more so than the gentleman that killed him, you’re seeing Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child being blamed for his own death … you get angry and frustrated and hurt. And the only thing I knew how to do was write.
So I picked the story back up in 2014, 2015. And another thing that really got me was Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel and the criticism that young lady received because people didn’t think she presented herself the proper way, whatever that’s supposed to be. I remember being so angry because people were more focused on how she was saying things than what she was saying. And I wanted to write a young Black girl who, by their standards, presents herself the way they think she’s supposed to present herself. It was kind of like my middle finger to all of the critics. We can present ourselves well, if you want to call it that, and we can play your game how you want us to play it. But you probably still won’t listen.
EBONY: So you centered this young Black woman, Starr Carter, in your book, and not a young Black man. Did you experience any resistance to that?
Thomas: I didn’t. And it was surprising to me because so often the focus [with Black Lives Matter] is on Black men. I expected someone to say, “Why don’t you give us some stuff from Khalil’s perspective?” or something like that. But I felt strongly about it being from Star’s point of view because Black girls are so affected by this as well. And they get ignored. You see a lot of organizations—and this is not me criticizing, I’m thankful for these organizations—but you see a lot of organizations cropping up that are offering mentorships and emotional support for young Black boys in response to what we see, but Black girls are affected as well. Young Black girls are being criminalized as well. Young Black girls are more likely to be suspended than White girls. We’re seeing young Black girls attacked by police officers while they’re sitting at their desk at school.
So I felt, as a writer and as a young Black woman in this country, I had to channel even my own fears and frustrations into this book, because it’s important.
And I don’t see a lot of Black girls [as characters] in YA. They get overlooked so often, and they are frustrated. But you know what? They are also speaking out. I’m seeing young Black girls start their own movements and organizations and activism. For instance, Marley DN and her #1000blackgirlbooks book drive. That’s activism. We’re seeing Black girls find their voice, so why not give them a mirror to see themselves?