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Teaching Text: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (Balzer + Bray, 2017) is a book people should read.  It tells us a lot about America, now.  But in addition to being a great story with strong messages about race, crime, empathy, and more, Thomas’ novel is one you can teach as part of several different conceptual frameworks.  You could teach this book to grade 9 or 10 students as part of the main curriculum or in book circles, or you could use it as an extension text for older students.  Let’s look at a few ideas of what points it might illustrate for your students.

The book is told from the perspective of Starr, a witness to her friend’s shooting by the police.  Starr is a Black teenager from a poor, mainly Black, neighbourhood who attends a mostly white school.  Her parents are kind and loving; her father was once a gang member and drug dealer, now reformed.  The story is about how Starr and the neighbourhood deal with this death, but also how a young person can find her voice.  Below, check out my top five reasons to teach this text.

1. Concept topic: Englishes or Black English

Recently, I was working on a chapter about the IB DP concept question: How do literary texts reflect, represent or form a part of cultural practices? for our student book on the new IB Literature course (see the Publications page).  Several parts of this chapter can be illustrated by this novel.  First of all, I take a look at the James Baldwin essay: “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?”  to look at the relationship between dialect and identity.  You can find this essay online; it was originally printed in The New York Times.  

We extend his ideas to understand Black English in relation to a cultural identity in fiction and music, including Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘i’.  However, you can also use this novel as part of a unit on Englishes, including different dialects from all over the world, like Chinglish or Australian surfer.  

Here is a very brief example when Thomas uses standard English for the narration and Black English for the dialogue, much like Baldwin, Twain, and Smith.   “’Nunya,” Khalil says, meaning none of your business.  ‘What you pull me over for?’” (p. 22)  She even explains language for her audience who might not understand.  

2. Code Switching

You can further investigate the way Starr uses different language in different situations.  Because she is fluent in both ‘standard’ American English and Black English, she can move between the languages.  This is called code switching.

In the same book chapter mentioned above, I take a look at Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and the way characters use Korean or English at different times for effect, and essentially power.  Starr uses standard English in school and with police officers, in addition to her narration.  She uses Black English in dialogue with friends and family.  To some extent, everyone code switches in similar situations.  Most students speak differently with friends, family, and teachers.  Whether a different language completely or simply the use or absence of slang and swears, they can relate in this way.

Starr is aware of her code switching, which is emphasised in the settings she negotiates between a white school and Black neighbourhood.  Here is a brief example from the moment she goes to the police station to give her witness account to the shooting:

I let go of my mom’s hand to shake the detectives’ hands.  “Hello.”  My voice is changing already.  It always happens around ‘other’ people, whether I’m at Williamson or not.  I don’t talk like me or sound like me.  I choose every word carefully and make sure I pronounce them well.  I can never, ever let anyone think I’m ghetto. (P. 95)

3. #BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter or political hashtags in general can also be Concept foci for your units.  You can again investigate this focus through music, especially that of Kendrick Lamar (who happens to be on the IB list), but also others.  Further, you can look at media — both social media and mainstream — to underline the dialogue around this movement.  Investigate together how and why the hashtag is used.

Tumblr and Twitter are explicitly used in the novel to show the way a political movement, protests, or riot can start and the way perspectives are shared or even fabricated online.

4. Voice of the Youth

The use of social media emphasises the voice of the youth.  Starr expresses her opinions on Tumblr, which also creates some conflict.  Starr is aware of her voice and the power of using it or not in her instance as a witness to a crime.  Even though it is dangerous for her to speak out, she chooses to because she knows the power of that speech.  She sees the father of the police shooter speak out on television and feels silenced by not being included in the dialogue. 

The use of a child narrator is a classic trope of the American novel.  You can trace this through novels like Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and Vernon God Little.  Her voice gives her power as the narrator, and her awareness of that voice is present in many ways throughout the novel.  As a young, Black girl, her voice is not one we would normally hear through politics and media.  She is creative in the way she approaches situations and helps us to understand the world in new ways, such as the way she understands her Christian and Muslim family as “Christlims” (p. 31).  

5. Musical Allusions

Kahlil, who is shot by a cop after being pulled over for a rear light not working and who is wrongly labeled as a gang member, tells his friend Starr:

“‘Pac said Thug Life stood for ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody.’’

I raise my eyebrows.  “What?”

“Listen!  The Hate U—the letter U—Give Little Infants F—s Everybody.  T-H-U-G L-I-F-E.  Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out.  Get it?”

“Damn.  Yeah.”  (P. 17)

There are many other musical artists alluded to throughout the book.  You can look at the lyrics mentioned or understand through a different cultural context.  In addition to Tupac, we see artists like J. Cole, Taylor Swift, the Fresh Prince, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and more.  

You can look at music as poetry, investigate its healing powers, and understand it as a form of voice.  Songs can be cathartic, political, and chronotopic (telling us a lot about the time period — see Mikhael Bakhtin for more on this term).  Perhaps look at other works that use music in this way, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Another area you could investigate would be the concept of adaptation in the film that came out last year in 2018.  But I haven’t seen it yet!  Let me know what you think and if you do teach this text, I would love to hear about it on the contact page.


Vienna, April 2019

Posted 76 weeks ago

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