#ReadBannedBooks

I heard about The Hate U Give when it came out last year. I intended to read it sometime.

Then my son started reading it in his 8th grade literature class. I intended to read it soon.

Then my son came home saying the teacher was told to stop teaching this book. I ran out to buy my own copy the next morning and talked my friends into reading it. Funny how banning a book can make it urgent and exciting

The Hate U Give felt familiar and strange, laugh-out-loud funny and tragic and hopeful. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in Garden Heights, a poor black neighborhood, and goes to Williamson, a private school in a wealthy white neighborhood. We readers glimpse how she navigates those two worlds and the tension between them.

At a party with her peers in Garden Heights, Starr feels self-conscious about fitting in. She tries to be unobtrusive. “I slip my hands into my pockets. As long as I play it cool and keep to myself, I should be fine. The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don’t have to ‘play it cool’ — I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden Heights. … Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until its hard to be black.”

What a true and terrible sentence! I am white and even I understand this.

The same careful self-awareness is with her at her prep school. “Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang — if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her ‘hood.’ Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the ‘angry black girl.’ Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is non confrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone reason to call her ghetto.

“I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.”

It’s normal for teenagers to try out different identities. But the heavy blanket of race-based assumptions that Starr must respond to is exhausting. Her image is carefully curated because it has to be. The choices she must make bring the color line into the light. Our society is organized by race and Starr’s life reveal the costs of that division.

Reading fiction lets see inside the life of someone whose experience is completely different from our own. Our ability to imagine the possibilities of someone else’s life expands. We need big imaginations if we’re going to love all our neighbors thoughtfully and well.

I suspect banned books are often like this. We ban them because we feel uncomfortable, or somehow threatened. The discomfort, the perceived threat, hints that these books also have the capacity to broaden our perspective in significant ways.

The teacher who assigned this book is one of the few people of color on the school’s faculty. She told me that this is the first book she’s read where she saw herself. I was stunned. I’ve read SO MANY BOOKS with protagonists who are like me!

The student population at this school is about half Hispanic, one-fifth Black, one-fifth White. We all need to see ourselves in books. And movies. And TV. In politics, in the pulpit, in lab coats… Representation matters. 

The Hate U Give is back on that teacher’s syllabus this year.

The American Library Association keeps a list of the 10 most banned books by year. A decade ago, it included many titles we now consider classics: Of Mice and Men. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. All the Harry Potter books.

Read a banned book or two. The Hate U Give is a good place to start, especially because then you can see the movie.