Making the political personal: “The Hate U Give” author discusses art as activism

In 444 pages, Angie Thomas’ debut novel, “The Hate U Give,” addresses issues of race, family dynamics and class.

She said the novel began as a short story she wrote in college exploring the aftermath of a shooting of a young, unarmed black teenage boy by a police officer. From there, Thomas decided to use the art of writing as her form of activism, turning the short story into a novel.

Thomas addressed FSU students and Framingham community members during the first author talk in the “Olivia A. Davidson Speaker Series” in DPAC on April 2.

In her speech, “Making the Political Personal,” Thomas discussed the inspiration for her novel, the importance of connecting and empathizing with others and how she used her own life experiences to create the world in which the main character Starr Carter lives.

Thomas addressed stereotypes about her home state of Mississippi. “I’ve never seen a KKK member in my life. … I’ve never been told to go sit on the back of the bus in my life.”

She joked, “Honestly, when I was growing up, if the KKK came to my neighborhood, us kids were so bad we would’ve scared them, and they would’ve run. Some of us would have snatched the sheets off their heads and put them on our beds.”

Thomas and her mother both grew up in the neighborhood where activist Medgar Evers was murdered by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. “When my mom grew up, she lived in the same house that I grew up in. She actually heard the shots that killed Medgar Evers.”

Thomas recounted the story her mother told her as a child of the day Evers died. Thomas’ grandmother received a phone call informing the Thomas family the KKK was in the neighborhood and not to leave their home.

Thomas said, “My mom remembers my grandparents having her get down on the floor and they’re sitting on the floor with the lights out in the entire house and they see flashlights being flashed into the house as pickup trucks come through the streets.

“They hear deep southern drawls saying, ‘Where all the n****rs at? We wanna have some fun tonight.’”

Thomas added, “I heard that story growing up. I heard a lot of stories like that growing up about Mississippi.”

She said because that was the past, she hoped things were different. However, one story has stuck with her – the murder of Emmett Till.

His story was a significant inspiration for the novel. “It’s one of the reasons I am here in front of you today. I still remember the first time I saw Emmett Louis Till.”

Thomas recounted how she was first exposed to Till’s story when she was 6 years old when reading a feature about Till in Jet Magazine. She saw a picture of his body after it had been removed from the lake where it had been thrown.

In the picture, she said Emmett “did not look like a human being. To me, he looked like a prop from a horror movie.”

She said at the time she thought, “Wow, that could’ve been my brother.”

“That day, my mother said something that stuck with me all these years: ‘Know your worth, but also know that not everyone values you the way I do, simply because of the color of your skin.’”

She discussed the importance of telling the stories of young people like Till and how brutal deaths like his can be used to make the issue of racism in America personal. “It felt personal. Decades after his death, I found myself mourning the death of Emmett Till like it had happened the day before.”

She said she was inspired to use stories like Till’s as her motivation for activism, and while she took his death personally, it still felt “far-fetched,” and like a part of history she didn’t experience.

Growing up, Thomas’ neighborhood was often painted as one filled with crime. She said the media focused on stories of drug dealing, gang violence and police officers abusing their power. “My neighborhood was known for all the wrong reasons.”

When asked by an audience member how to change the attitude of residents in her community who aren’t willing to address and discuss racism, Thomas reminded the audience not to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to community activism. “There are organizations around you that are doing the work that need you. If you need to take some of your affluent friends with you to those organizations, you do that.”

Thomas said a difficult transition in her life was the one she made from high school to college. On her way to college every day, she would cross a bridge from the part of Jackson where she grew up to the “rich” area. She said the bridge felt like a divide between the two sides of her life.

She had gone from a part of Jackson known to have the worst schools, run-down buildings and a high crime rate, to a part of the city where the houses had maids and chauffeurs. “I immediately thought I had to be someone else in this very different world.”

On her first day of classes in college, Thomas began “code switching” – changing the way she spoke and acted to fit in with the other students, the majority of whom were white. “When I left my house, I was playing Tupac – when I got to school, I was playing the Jonas Brothers.”

She said in college she was exposed to people who were unaware of micro-aggressions and she had to advocate for herself because “a lot of people like that don’t know their errors.”

She said a girl she went to college with inspired the character in her book Hailey – a close friend of Starr Carter. Hailey and Starr’s relationship is strained throughout the book because of Hailey’s micro-aggressive behavior, and a big part of the novel is Starr realizing she has to advocate for herself and others.

Thomas said in her first few years of college, she had a hard time advocating for herself and did not voice her opinions when issues of race were discussed. “There was one experience when I could no longer just say the bare minimum.”

She said she realized she could no longer stay silent when she witnessed oppression and racism in her daily life after she heard about the shooting death of Oscar Grant. She said Grant was just like the people in her neighborhood. “He was one of us.”

Grant was killed on New Year’s Day in Oakland, California in 2009. He was shot in the back by a police officer. “It was caught on tape. It showed Oscar lying on the ground, doing absolutely nothing when the officer pulls out his gun and shoots Oscar in the back. He got away with it.”

She said many of her white classmates couldn’t understand why there were protests and riots after Grant’s death because they couldn’t “wrap their heads around the idea” of the injustice the Oakland community was feeling.

Thomas knew she could use her own writing to make issues like police shootings of African Americans into a subject people from all walks of life could understand. “I decided to make the political personal.”

Thomas said she doesn’t condone rioting, but it proves there are citizens who are angry enough about a social issue to destroy their own communities in response. She suggested speaking to people who have chosen to participate in riots to see why they did. Often, their anger was in response to miscarriages of justice. “There’s power to making the political personal.”

“As a writer, I personally believe books are one of the best ways to create empathy,” she said. “Empathy takes listening to someone who isn’t like us. Actually listening without speaking to reach that point of empathy.”