How Angie Thomas’s 'The Hate U Give' Embodies the Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance
At the turn of the twentieth century, a new movement was on the horizon. The Harlem Renaissance — known during that time as the “New Negro Movement” -- was a reflection of the changing times. It was a period of unapologetic, artistic expression and birthed literary, political, intellectual, and creative icons.
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Nearly 100 years later, a new generation ushers in the next wave of revolutionary art. From television and film to music and literature, the same spirit that birthed the Harlem Renaissance rises and manifests into new millennium artivism.
Among the society of new generation creatives is New York Times best-selling author Angie Thomas. Her debut novel, The Hate U Give or T.H.U.G., is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and Tupac Shakur’s truthful and prophetic acronym T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. (The Hate U Give Li’l Infants, F* Everybody).
The riveting tale is about a 16-year-old named Starr who witnesses her childhood friend get killed by a cop. As Starr navigates the two worlds she lives in — her poor neighborhood and her affluent private school — she struggles with the effects of witnessing the death of a childhood friend.
Not only is T.H.U.G. a timely message in today’s society, but it’s a story loaded with themes that generations of the past could relate to. In fact, here are a few ways in which Thomas’s novel channels the spirit and message of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” -WEB Dubois (Souls of Black Folks, 1903)
Although this essay was written several years before the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, the quote by Dubois is a pre-cursor to the brilliance to come. It's also worth noting that Starr's experience in The Hate U Give solidly parallels Dubois's analysis of "double-consciousness."
One of the major themes in T.H.U.G. is the “two-ness” that the main character faces. Although she is from a poorer neighborhood, she attends a private school in an affluent area. Because the dialogue surrounding Khalil’s death may take on two different perspectives depending on Starr’s location, she must deal with the complexities of mourning her friend’s death and trying to protect her identity. Thomas illustrates this by referencing the show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Like Will Smith, Starr finds herself in unfamiliar territory. However, Starr struggles to completely be herself, adding to the stress and complexities of her educational experience.
“If we must die, let it not be like hogs, hunted and penned in an inglorious spot. Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.” -Claude McKay (“If We Must Die”, 1919)
McKay wrote this famous poem after “Red Summer” in 1919, when anti-Black riots broke out in several cities (Gates, McKay 1997). Like McKay’s notable poem, Khalil’s death brings civil unrest. Thomas does a fine job of displaying the various ways in which the community responds to the tragedy. “Fighting back” is not necessarily a physical action. It also represents fighting unjust systems through education, enlightenment, communal bonding, and economic empowerment.
“We have unscrupulous men and organizations working in opposition to us. Some trying to capitalize…some are trying to set [us] back from seeing the hope of [our] own liberty. But [we] know what propaganda means.” -Marcus Garvey (The Future As I See It, 1923)
Thomas shows the major role that media propaganda plays in highly publicized, controversial cases. She addresses the elephant in the room when it comes to media coverage and the portrayal of victims at the hands of police brutality and other unjust killings. Thomas asks the question: is an unarmed person’s killing justified because of the person’s socio-economic status, at-risk label, or troubled past?
“I am not tragically colored.” -Zora Neale Hurston (How It Feels To Be A Colored Me, 1928)
Although Starr struggles with her “two-ness”, it doesn’t take away from her sense of pride. Starr and her brothers are taught to memorize the Black Panthers’ 10-point program (the organizations’ call for equal rights), uses a blog as a form of activism, calls out people for using insensitive, racial jokes, and realizes the importance of her family’s business. Starr goes through a transformation where she expresses her love for self, community, and history.
“I, too, sing America.” -Langston Hughes ("I, Too", 1929; 1959)
Thomas makes it known that Khalil’s untimely and tragic death is a reflection of other unjust killings. Not only does she acknowledge those names which are forever inscribed in our hearts, she echoes the sentiment that all Americans have equal rights under the law. Although the de facto law may suggest otherwise, we, too sing America. We all have every right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I urge everyone — book reader or not — to consume this text in some way. Whether it’s through a physical book, digital book, audiobook, or even the soon to be movie starring Amandla Stenberg, support this amazing project and the new wave of revolutionary art. Let’s continue to build as the next generation of the neo-renaissance.