I finished reading The Hate U Give a few months ago. I’ll be honest and say I had initially decided not to read the book. But somehow I had evidently put myself on a waiting list for the audiobook at my local library. When the hold became available, I decided to give it a chance and I’m glad I did. The Hate U Give, especially in its audiobook format, is a treat. The story is very well written and is a very pleasant experience. Everything, from the characters and the use of language, is unmistakably situated in the context of black culture and makes for an enjoyable experience. Overall, I think the book is great and I have recommended it several times since reading it. However, I must admit that I left the book feeling a little bit of a void. I wanted more of something. I wanted more Khalil.
For those who don’t know, The Hate U Give follows sixteen-year-old Starr Carter in the aftermath of witnessing her childhood friend Khalil’s death at the hands of a police officer. In some ways, the book deals with Starr’s struggle to grapple with her friend’s death on both a personal and political level. However, Khalil’s death instead serves as a catalyst for Starr’s exploration of her place in her two worlds: the predominantly black and poor community she lives in and the predominantly white school she attends. Throughout the book we see her begin to question the sincerity of her friendships with her non-black friends as well as her ability to continue her romantic relationship with Chris, a white boy who attends her school. We also see her consider how her identity ultimately affects how she sees the incident she witnessed and how she chooses to deal with it publicly. And even with all of these artful entanglements and the author’s masterful exploration of complex ideas, something was missing. I needed more Khalil.
Now, let me get this out of the way: while I believe art can be political, I never infer a political purpose onto a piece of art. Why? Because I also believe that there is value in creating art for art’s sake. The freedom to simply enjoy a product of a human creativity is as much a gift as art that chooses to be explicit about its political values. The difference between this book and most of the books I choose to read, is its explicit political positioning. Before reading the book, you are told clearly what this book is about. The inner flap of the book describes the book as one that will speak to issues of racism and police violence. At the end of the story, the author confirms the political position of this book by listing actual victims of police violence. So in a book that goes this far, why am I left wondering about Khalil?
In the book, Khalil is Starr’s childhood friend, but also a distant one. When he is killed, it had been a moment since they hung out or even spoken. And we, the readers, are offered only a brief encounter with Khalil as he dies within the first 24 pages. The book spans 444 pages. As I continued past those first few pages, I found myself craving more of Khalil’s story, a little more of his personality, and more insight into his fears, desires, and hopes. And there was very little of that. Starr’s memories of her childhood and Khalil’s friend DeVante’s recollections humanize Khalil to some extent, but there’s so much more I wanted to know. And in some ways, I feel there is so much more we needed to know.
The question that plagues me when I think about this book is a simple one: Why couldn’t we have had more time with Khalil? Maybe it was an attempt to make the readers feel the void of his absence. The problem is, he wasn’t around long enough for his life to be significant to the reader. Maybe it made more sense for the author to focus on Starr because in some ways there is a little bit of author Angie Thomas in the character. Maybe this book was just not really about Starr witnessing Khalil’s death, but actually about her exploring her identity in a politically charged environment. There might be many reasons why Khalil didn’t have much of a living presence in this book. These reasons may be both creative and even practical. And I am in no way implying that the author maliciously marginalized Khalil in her story. But, in a world where the killed are often reduced to bodies lying covered in the street or even hashtags, I believe that there is much value in giving voice to the person facing the end of his life at the hands of one who has sworn to protect and serve.