Angie Thomas’ love of Hip Hop fueled her passion for storytelling, and just like the rappers she admires have sought to perfect their art form, she has sought – and succeeded – at doing the same.
Her debut novel is her evidence, and when the movie version of the book hits the big screen in October 2018, her desire to give voice and humanity to a sector of Americans who often feel they have neither is expected to reach fever pitch.
Thomas is the bestselling author of the award-winning New York Times bestselling young adult novel The Hate U Give. In addition to reaching the No. 1 spot on the New York Times list, the book is being sold in more than 40 nations, and Thomas has traveled the globe to expound upon its themes, including the narrative that Black Lives Matter and that every child deserves to be heard and valued.
In late July 2018, several hundred residents of metro Richmond, Virginia – including teens, librarians, book club members, readers and writers of all backgrounds and ages, and me – converged on the Chesterfield County Public Library‘s North Courthouse Branch to see Thomas and hear wit, wisdom and words of encouragement pour from her lips.
Time seemed to stand still during her 90-minute talk as she mesmerized the audience with the story – her story – of being a 6-year-old girl reading Jet magazine (which she called that era’s “Facebook for black people”) in her home and stumbling upon the picture of Emmett Till in his casket – an image her mother took time to explain in depth, leaving Thomas with the message to “know your worth, but know that not everyone values you the way I do, simply because of the color of your skin.”
She also shared her memory of being an 8-year-old enjoying the swing set in her not-so-safe neighborhood park when she heard Hip Hop lyrics for the first time, in the verses of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message, which described the very reality of her hard-knock life. Then, there was her pivotal memory of seeing the late Tupac Shakur for the first time, in news coverage that cast him as a rebellious yet intelligent rapper. Soon after, she heard his music and his commentary, including the explanation for his THUG LIFE tattoo: The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody. “Meaning (that) what society gives us as youth, bites (society) when we wild out,” Thomas explained during her talk.
While acknowledging the downsides of Hip Hop – its often controversial and profanity-laden lyrics and many verses that disparage females – Thomas still gave a nod to the musical genre for waking up generations of people who often feel invisible, forgotten and frustrated, and helping them (including her) find their voice.
Throughout her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, she heard stories of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in his own front yard, not far from where she lived; and in 2015, as the reality of Florida teen Trayvon Martin‘s killer being acquitted of murder stunned her spirit, so did her desire to become a social justice warrior.
Rather than pick up the weapons she so despised for their role in harming people of color, she decided to model the rappers she had long revered and use her words as her sword. The Hate U Give was born as a short story for a college senior project, then grew into the novel we know today.
Thomas’ captive Chesterfield County library audience thanked her for her willingness to write a story that scared her; and one Caucasian middle school student asked for advice on how she could encourage her friends and classmates to read the book and try to understand kids who differ from them in some way.
Thomas told her to keep being herself – a brave “book recommender” – and serving as an ambassador for what it looks like to be accepting of others.
It’s a path that Thomas is determined to continue walking, with each new story she births and each new audience she introduces to her personal experience of being a little girl who had everything going against her until she heard herself reflected in lyrics (musical storytelling) that legitimatized her existence.
Because she believes “books can change the world,” Thomas intends to be that light for a whole new generation of young minds – whether they read her novels, watch her movie, hear her speak or encounter others who have been transformed by the messages in her words.
Her library talk was an invitation to everyone in the audience to individually and collectively become literary citizens who create meaningful paths to knowledge, understanding and connectedness.
– Stacy Hawkins Adams