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Amandla Stenberg And Angie Thomas On "The Hate U Give", Code-Switching, And Using Art As Activism

“I try to write fiction that’s rooted in reality, and the reality is even scarier than anything that I could write.”

As we speak, Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give is entering its 85th week on the New York Times best-seller list. It’s an incredible achievement for the writer, who began laying the foundation for the critically acclaimed book back in 2011 while she was a creative writing student at Belhaven University in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

In its first life, The Hate U Give was a powerful short story inspired by the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who was fatally shot in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day by a transit police officer in Oakland.

By 2017 the story was rebirthed as a 464-page young adult novel.

In a full-circle moment, Thomas is joined by her leading lady, actor Amandla Stenberg, who fearlessly brings the character of Starr Carter to life in her performance as the novel’s protagonist in the big-screen adaptation directed by George Tillman Jr.

Stenberg is the lead Thomas passionately defended when her casting was called into question amid the persistent colourism debate in Hollywood. Debra Cartwright, the artist who illustrated the book’s cover, expressed her disappointment at the disconnect between the darker-skinned version of Starr she had envisioned and Stenberg, a mixed-race actor of a lighter complexion.

I love the cast and the team behind it. I stand by it. I'd just ask that you support it.

Speaking at a panel during the 2018 Essence Festival, Thomas responded to criticisms and said: “When I was writing the book, I imagined Amandla.” She told the audience that she had watched the young actor’s viral video Don't Cash Crop on My Cornrows at the time and that Stenberg was the embodiment of the character she had written.

Stenberg didn’t shy away from the criticism either, speaking openly about it online with her followers. She wrote: “I want my sisters to know I navigate my industry with an acute awareness of how my accessibility contributes to the representation I am granted. I do so with a vigilance concerning the commodification of blackness and not taking up space that doesn’t belong to me.”

Along with Thomas’s cosign, it almost seems as if the role of Starr was made for Stenberg, whose name itself evokes power, literally. In the South African languages Zulu and Xhosa, “Amandla” translates to “power” and was a popular rallying cry in the days of resistance against apartheid, used by the African National Congress and its allies.

Speaking with BuzzFeed News in London on the eve of the film’s UK release, the pair appeared in unison, swapping compliments, and casting each other glances, speaking a silent language that only the two of them would understand, followed by laughter.

The Hate U Give tells the story of a teenager navigating two different worlds until the veil that keeps them separate is pulled away when she witnesses the fatal shooting of a childhood friend at the hands of local police. The killing sets in motion Starr’s journey to finding her voice on the frontline of activism.

The tone of the film is set by the opening scenes, in which we see the young Carter family gathered around a table with the patriarch, Maverick (brilliantly portrayed by Russell Hornsby), giving his children a tragic but all too real talk on how to interact with police officers. It’s a conversation designed to keep them alive. Thomas recently shared that it was based on advice she received in real life, from a cousin who was a police officer.

Fact: the talk Starr and Seven were given is based on the talk I was given by a cousin. Who was a cop. https://t.co/tNVa5AqAKp

While Stenberg can’t recall receiving a talk as explicit as the one delivered by her onscreen father, she says she always had a heightened level of awareness that became cemented through her own interactions with police officers.

She said: “I never had any conversations that was that explicit, but I had an awareness growing up. My sister would talk to me about it. She would explain to me why you had to be careful when you interacted with the cops, and then later I ended up having interactions that proved that to me, that demonstrated to me that I was not worth what my white counterparts were worth in the eyes of the police.”

Recalling her past encounters, The Hunger Games star added: “I’ve had a few instances where I felt humiliated, where I felt devalued, you know, and so it’s not a concept that was foreign to me at all, and then of course with Black Lives Matter and everything, I became a part of that movement as we all felt the reverberations of those deaths in our communities.”

For Thomas, the talk brings to mind a recent encounter she had with the police while making her way to Texas from Mississippi. She said: “I got pulled over for not following some law that I didn’t even understand, and I did everything — I put my hands where he can see them and all of these things — but it was still nerve-racking because he had his hand on his gun the whole time and it was like, why do you already perceive me as a threat?

“I was like, dang, I actually had to put it to use at that moment. It was one of things that just reminded me even as someone who writes fiction, I try to write fiction that’s rooted in reality and the reality is even scarier than anything that I could write.”

Writing for a young adult audience — in particular, a young black audience — is of high priority to the author.

Through her work, another reality that Thomas sets out to convey is the notion of “code-switching.” At the simplest level, the term is used to describe how individuals vary between languages or styles of conversation, but increasingly, code-switching has become about navigating distinctly different worlds characterised by race, class, and wealth. This is something that both women are familiar with.

“As someone who writes for black kids specifically, I never want them to feel like they’re alone and I never want them to feel like this survival tactic that they so often have to use is limited to just them individually, because that’s really what it is, a survival tactic,” explained Thomas.

“It’s addressing that fact that so often society makes black kids feel like they’re too much or not enough. Black people in general, we’re made to feel like we’re either too much or not enough, and that’s honestly one reason we code switch: It’s so that we can finally be seen as enough, and I hope that we can get away from that at some point.”

“It’s addressing that fact that so often society makes black kids feel like they’re too much or not enough.”

For Stenberg, the 20-year-old only needs to reflect on her character’s circumstances to spot the similarities to her own childhood and her present experience of Hollywood, a space in which she admits to regularly code-switching.

“There are certain rooms I have to go in, I have to command, and it’s true that there’s a level of accessibility that you have to present yourself with to these white old dudes who don’t necessarily understand who you are or where you come from,” she said.

“Sucks sometimes, but I’m also glad that I was given that tool growing up. I recognise that it’s also a privilege to know how to use it.”

Speaking on the overlaps between herself and her character, Stenberg shared: “I had an experience that was very similar to Starr’s. I went to a school that was white. I was one of four people of colour in my class — we were all girls. There were no boys of colour whatsoever. But I had grown up going to public school and I grew up in a neighbourhood that was black, and so everything I read in the book — Starr’s neighbourhood, what it looks like, what it feels like, going across town to go to school, having to change into a different person once you arrive there — was something I related to heavy.

“I got to school, there was this language of wealth and privilege and whiteness that I did not understand, but I understood that I would never be a part of. I would never be fully accepted into that community but I tried as hard as I could, you know. I tried to present myself in a way where I looked less black and talked less black, whatever that may be. Pretended to have a level of wealth, didn’t invite kids to my neighbourhood because I didn’t want them to see what my house looked like and what my neighbourhood looked like, which is dumb in retrospect but in the moment, you know, I was a kid just trying to fit in as we all do at that age.”

She credits Thomas’s novel as being key in helping her see how prevalent code-switching had been in her childhood: “It wasn’t until later in life that I was able to unpack that, and actually reading Angie’s book was really helpful in unpacking that and understanding the experiences that I’d had and why I felt the need to do this or that, and it’s been a very valuable tool when navigating Hollywood,” said Stenberg.

“I hope that eventually [Chris] becomes a co-conspirator. I hope eventually he will stand on the front lines alongside Starr.”

Getting the film across the finish line hasn’t been without difficulty. Along with the pushback against Stenberg’s casting, there was also the need to recast one of the principal characters when “the ghost of internet past” brought up some unsavoury racist commentary from the actor originally recruited to play the protagonist’s starry-eyed boyfriend Chris. He was subsequently dismissed and replaced with Riverdale’s KJ Apa.

“I will never say that Chris is woke, let me make that clear—” said Thomas, before Stenberg quickly interjected: “He’s trying his best.”

“He’s drowsy,” Thomas concluded, the pair of them laughing in unison.

Through Chris, one of the few main characters who aren’t black, Thomas makes a point about what it means to act as an ally: “He’s trying. He’s trying, and through him we see, like, the key factor in being an ally: The first thing is to listen, and that’s what he has to do. I get sick of so-called allies who dictate to me what is and is not offensive. Don’t do that.”

The 31-year-old explained: “He shuts up, he listens, and he’s on his way to getting woke, he’s on his way to becoming an ally, but I hope that eventually he becomes a co-conspirator, I hope eventually he will stand on the front lines alongside Starr. For this young man full of privilege, if he can get to the point of listening, I’d hope that other people could.”

In the form of Hailey, who is initially introduced as one of Starr’s few friends at her predominantly white and prestigious school, Thomas uses another nonblack character to illustrate the problematic traits that supposed allies often display.

“Through the character of Hailey, I wanted to show some of these white feminists what they sometimes look and sound like. Let’s be real for a second: They try to act like they’re down with us and they’re for our cause, but it’s only when it’s comfortable for them, you know, and that’s what we see through the character of Hailey. In the book even, she is very much a feminist in her mind, but she is a white feminist, she’s not crossing lines like that.”

“There’s no intersectionality, and that’s the tea,” added Stenberg.

Along with chronicling the aftermath of police brutality, The Hate U Give looks at the difficulties of achieving justice within a community that’s governed by its own layers of unwritten laws, chief among them: no snitching.

“It’s interesting to me with snitching, and the whole concept of snitching that is so looked down upon specifically by law enforcement when the fact is they follow those same tactics themselves,” said Thomas. “Tupac once said the biggest gang in America is the government, and the other biggest gang is law enforcement. And why is that? Because so often they follow those same tactics: They don’t hold each other accountable, they’re not snitching on one another, they cover stuff up.”

By way of example, the writer, the writer points to the death of Botham Shem Jean, an unarmed black man who was shot dead in his Dallas home by his neighbour, Amber Guyger, a police officer who claims she thought she had entered her own apartment. Following the incident, Dallas police reportedly refused to release Guyger’s 911 call after she shot Jean.

Here in the UK, you only need to look at the case of Julian Cole, a former sports science student who was left in a vegetative state following an encounter with Bedfordshire police in 2013. Earlier this week, three officers involved in the incident were dismissed after a disciplinary panel found that they had lied in their statements about what happened that night.

“The false accounts were intended to mislead and divert attention from their actions as they inevitably came under scrutiny,” said John Bassett, chair of the panel.

“You can’t criticise impoverished communities for also having that mindset when you are doing it yourselves, and you can’t expect people to say things if they aren’t going to be protected,” Thomas said. “People don’t understand that no snitching is a survival tactic.”

“They didn’t just kill Abraham, they killed me too.” This mother's only child was murdered ten years after he rescued a girl from a gang rape, she believes he was killed for giving evidence at the trial. Watch #Dispatches tonight @Channel4, 8pm: Witness Intimidation Revealed https://t.co/ax57XU9zGm

In March of this year, Abraham Badru, 26, was shot dead in Hackney, east London, years after he intervened in an attempted gang rape at a party. His testimony helped ensure the conviction of nine culprits, including one life sentence.

Badru was given a Police Public Bravery Award, but another result of his courage was a campaign of threats. In a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation into witness intimidation, his mother, Ronke Badru, said she believed it was ultimately why he was killed.

Thomas said: “I can’t go out and snitch on ‘Deray’ standing on the corner because y’all just going to throw him in there [jail] for a little bit, and when he gets out, who do you think he’s coming at? Me.”

Stenberg and Thomas can both talk at great length about the themes raised in The Hate U Give — not just how they’ve been portrayed on the big screen but more critically, from the perspective of how they relate to the realities of present-day America and beyond.

As far as both are concerned, activism is a path that has to be defined by those bold enough to pursue it: “I really think activism is a lens, and, I don’t know if there are required action points for being an activist,” said Stenberg.

“I think it’s important for everyone to define their own activism.”

“I think it’s a lens, and a perspective you look through when you navigate your life and it influences the decisions that you make. How you decide to act, both on a large scale but also on an interpersonal scale, what the community work you’re doing is, even if that just means being emotional support for your black homie, your black boy homie who needs a space to be emotionally vulnerable in: I think that can also be activism in itself.”

Commenting on the present state of online activism, the star who went viral for her video calling out cultural appropriation said she is happy to be a spectator, to engage and learn: “For me personally, the online media space feels a little oversaturated. I don’t think I can be helpful and contribute more within that space, because there’s a whole lot of conversation happening already. And I’m down with it, and I’m down to be a part of it in a way where I observe and I listen, but for me it feels more fulfilling to be an activist through the art that I make.”

Thomas echoed Stenberg’s sentiments: “I definitely have to agree with that. I think it’s important for everyone to define their own activism. I especially look at teenagers because that’s who I write for, and so often they’re like, what do I do? And I’m like, you find what ticks you off, you find what you’re passionate about, and you figure out how you can use yourself to better that.

“The first part of activism is being active, and you have to define how that is. We have to allow people to define that for themselves. For me, my art is my activism and storytelling is my activism, so that’s what I’m going to continue to do, and also encourage people to define that for themselves and also remember throughout this, this is not a sprint — it’s a marathon. I think we have to get back to the idea that the first act of resistance is self-care. I think that is a big form of activism right there.”

The Hate U Give is in cinemas nationwide now.