Black Life In The Spotlight Of Literature

The Black experience has often been not diverse in media and literature. We have been portrayed as drug dealers, drug addicts, criminals, or impoverished athletes who find miraculous success at the hands of a generous white coach. Black characters, when included, have been one-dimensional figures within white narratives. 

However, increasing numbers of Black literary minds and directors have made conscious efforts to diversify the narrative of Black people within the last ten years. Angie Thomas, a Mississippi native, has been one of the literary minds working to promote and explore the complexities of the Black experience. 

Thomas’ first novel, The Hate You Give, became widely known after its movie adaptation was released in 2018. Starr Carter, a teenage Black girl and the novel’s protagonist, finds herself caught between the worlds of her mostly Black Garden Heights neighborhood and her newer, and whiter private high school. Starr is witness to the police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil, and it is from this event that Starr’s examination of herself and the unjust society in which she was born stems.

It is an examination that most Black girls will indulge in, that I have indulged in. To fit within a white space, a space which was never meant for you, often feels like a compromising of your Black identity. It requires code switching, which we feel is necessary to survive in spaces in which we are isolated or few in numbers. When we are faced with instances of police brutality,  Black pain, and Black oppression within these spaces, we ultimately feel alone and bare. Thomas grants us the opportunity to be recognized. The opportunity to find our voices, in whatever capacity that means for us. 

Although on a larger and more traumatic scale than many of us may experience, Starr finds her voice within the novel. Being immersed in your Black identity and existing fully within a white space are not mutually exclusive. Our presence in white spaces is strengthened when we are immersed in and appreciative of our Black identity, and this lesson makes The Hate You Give a necessary read.

Most recently, Thomas continued her intricate storytelling with Concrete Rose, a prequel to The Hate You Give focusing on Maverick Carter, Starr’s father. The Hate You Give introduced Maverick as a hardworking and loving father, who works to instill these values in his three children. Concrete Rose tells the story of how Maverick overcame toxic expectations of manhood and gang rules, to become not just Maverick Carter, but a father. 

There is a common ideal of Black manhood, one that is rooted in violence and aggression. Maverick is taught, and initially believes, that being a man is tied to his loyalty to the King Lords, the fictional gang within the novel. His premature push into fatherhood drives him to reconsider his definitions of manhood, and perceive himself as the multifaceted individual that both his girlfriend Lisa and the reader see him as. 

Concrete Rose explores the safety that is often attributed to gang life, along with the limitations of it. Thomas does not reduce the members of the King Lords to criminals, she recognizes Maverick and his friends for what they are, children. Children who were not given an early enough opportunity to do something meaningful, something other than dealing drugs or engaging in violence. While demonstrating the cyclical nature of poverty, gang activity, teenage fatherhood, and mass incarceration, more importantly, Thomas showcases that breaking the cycle is possible. 

Maverick’s recognition of manhood as a delicate learning process, instead of a title achieved by an aggressive course of action, enabled him to begin the journey in becoming the man he wanted to be, and the father he knew his child needed. Manhood is a knowledge of the self. It is knowing how to be there for yourself, how to care for yourself, and it is this knowledge that allows for the caring and providing of others that is so often associated with manhood.

Angie Thomas presents the Black experience in a raw, unfiltered way. She gives the Black community the gift of seeing ourselves represented and in this gift comes a responsibility for us to self reflect. Thomas showcases Black manhood, Black girl magic, Black boy joy, and everything in between in the most descriptive and layered way possible, but she also calls out the Black community’s flaws. Angie Thomas is a critical voice for this generation. She teaches us that our Blackness is beautiful, and it is not something to hide. Most importantly, she also emphasizes that our Black community needs to grow, and that is not something to hide from.

Art credits: Princella Seripenah, @artbyprincella on Instagram