When I was young and someone was nasty to another person, or displayed meanness of spirit when they knew the victim could not fight back, if I could not get directly involved, I used to wish for a hidden power that would let me take retribution in my own hands. I quietly thought it would be fair that if a person was unkind, disrespectful, racist, or violent, they should experience a sudden jolt of discomfort—perhaps churning stomach cramps that caused them to double over. For extreme cases, Continue reading
I finished The Hate U Give, written by Angie Thomas, two days ago and I am still mulling over the many themes in this novel. The protagonist, Starr Carter, spends her days in two worlds, the poor neighborhood she calls home and the suburban high school she attends. Her life, already full of challenges by the time she is 16, is upended when she witnesses the murder of her best friend.
I immersed myself into her world and its characters and I did not want to leave until I was done. The conflicts Starr must face, internal and external, forced me to consider my experiences attending predominately white schools and my role in social justice activism.
There are many themes here but the one I want to focus on is central to The Hate U Give; it is friendship. On page 265, Starr talks to her mother about a friendship that has gone awry. I know the page number because this was the one page I bookmarked right away so that I could come back to it. Starr ponders her mother’s advice and the friend with whom she is at odds, and asks herself, “Our friendship is based on memories. What do we have now?”
That question stood out because I have wondered if memories are really enough to sustain a relationship, at least a close one. When I think of my deepest relationships outside of my family, there are some similarities. Some began because we went to the same school, church, or worked at the same company. One might say proximity played a role because the relationships began because we saw each other often, almost daily, if you think of school or work, and we got to know one another. But it takes more than proximity to become friends. I’ve always been a little amused by people who think that someone they work with is a friend just because they see them in the office every day. It reminds me of a story a friend told me a long time ago; there was someone he often shared a ride with but he later realized that they were not really close, they were simply going in the same direction.
If being in the same place does not make us friends, then what does? I believe shared experiences, an open heart, and a willingness to learn from each other are essential to becoming friends. I might connect with someone right away because I like something about him or her, but attraction is not friendship, or at least it might not be.
My deepest friendships have generally been a surprise; I seldom saw it coming at the first meeting. It is like a gumbo or a stew. In the beginning it seems to be a collection of ingredients, a mishmash of conversations, events, and revelations, with the occasional misunderstanding that needs to be sorted out. Only over time does the flavor deepen, getting richer and more nuanced as we let things warm up.
The murder of Starr’s friend makes her question what it means to be a friend, to be loyal, and to stand up for what you believe. Starr has a big decision to make—retreat and be silent about what she knows, or open her mouth and speak the truth despite the inevitable negative consequences and challenges to her safety and relationships. I have had one or two friendships made closer by how someone supported me in a difficult situation, but not all have required that for me to know that the friendship was special. Very often, it was because of experiences, now memories, which we share.
In the most longstanding friendships, we not only have the old memories to go back to, but we create new ones by going through life together, or talking about what we are going through—the good, the bad, and the crazy. A memory may not be enough to sustain a friendship that has gone sour, but it can be the roux in the pot that holds it together when we cannot see each other as often as we’d like.
This book made the 2017 National Book Award Longlist and is a New York Times bestseller. I hope you’ll read The Hate U Give, consider what it says about social justice and friendship, and share it with others. It’s a YA (young adult) novel, which might cause some to pass over it. Don’t—the writing is excellent and Thomas tells a great story full of characters you will recognize, if your world is as open as it could be. If not, then read it to understand another side to the many issues which are being debated and legislated these days.
In grade school at Annunciation, I had one male teacher; his name was Mr. Hall. In a school full of nuns and female teachers he had a more relaxed approach to teaching and seemed to have more fun than most of our teachers. (I know that nuns are women but I was a child then and only saw their faces most of my time in grade school. Back then, the nuns wore habits and covered their hair until I was in seventh or eight grade; later on some began to wear regular clothes.)
Up until that point in time, Mr. Hall was the only educator that I can remember expressing a particular political affiliation. This was 1972 and he was a McGovern guy. After Mr. Hall mentioned his support for George McGovern, most of us assumed he was a Democrat.
During a class conversation about government, he encouraged me to consider a political career when I got older. I was always a leader in my class and maybe he saw something else in me that suggested that I’d be good in politics.
I told him “I’d run for office except I know that I would get angry if I saw people being treated unfairly.” I guess I saw anger as a disadvantage in leadership, or maybe it was more anger than I wanted to feel at the time. I was already angry enough about the inequities I saw in my school.
“That’s okay,” he said, “we need people who will speak up and that might mean being angry sometimes.”
I didn’t have a response, but I considered that maybe there were other ways to deal with injustice, ones that would not take so much out of me emotionally. Over the years I also learned that this culture chafes when women get angry; our anger is seen as not nice, too harsh, shrill, unladylike. Sometimes women are accused of being angry when they are simply using their voice, or speaking up for themselves. That’s not anger; it is exercising your right to express your opinion, even if the volume or vehemence is uncomfortable to some.
Over the last couple of weeks, my former teacher’s words have come back to me almost daily. I am angry, and disappointed. Not being “in” politics hasn’t saved me. I now realize that the only thing that will save me is action, getting involved, and opening my mouth. My family, friends, and colleagues know that I don’t shy away from hard conversations, and I have had some very frank discussions recently.
I don’t know where Mr. Hall is now; maybe he is retired and only occasionally reflects on his time as a teacher, but his words have stayed with me. I sense that many of you are angry too, maybe afraid or concerned that our country is being led off in a direction that we did not choose. What matters is our response to these feelings, and each one of us will have to determine what that will be.
When I was a child there was a TV commercial for Maxwell House coffee; a coffeepot gave off a musical whistle when the coffee finished percolating and was ready to serve. That is the kind of simmering, brewing outrage I see in people and in the media, and it is what we talk about when we are one-on-one, or in groups. The anger is almost unseen, like the water heating up in that pot, yet it is also the kind of anger that can erupt, prompting people to search for answers rather than simmer in their rage and disbelief. If anger drives me to positive action, and forces people to have tough conversations, then maybe it will do some good. Mr. Hall was right—we might need to get angry sometimes.