I’ve only read good things about this book. So, even though YA feels too young for me these days, I had to read it too. But I’m sorry. I can’t agree with all the raves out there.
Full disclosure: I’m not white. But I lived in a predominantly white suburban town outside of Toronto for most of my life, lived in a neighbourhood with poor whites, went to predominantly white elementary school, and a predominantly white public high school with kids who drove Porsches as well as kids who lived in government housing. I even went to a predominantly white, top-five university (in Canada)–all on student loans. And then I lived in a low-income neighbourhood in the city for a while, worked for years in a predominantly Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean area, fell for a guy who was charged with attempted murder for stabbing two guys in a fight and whose brother had killed a man back in the ’90s, and I tutored guys on drug charges as part of a program called Beat the Street in Toronto’s Jane/Finch area, which is one of the worst neighbourhoods in Toronto for violent crime, as well as a community with an overwhelming population of racialized minorities.
So I feel like I’m not just hating when I say the book is not nuanced enough–in a way that’s not fair to youth.
Thomas gets away with making one man in Garden Heights (with no real dimension) the scapegoat for all the black-on-black crime, and absolves every other gangbanger and youngblood she introduces to us with systemic discrimination as an excuse. The truth is that some guys don’t want to be part of the cycle, sure, but others love having the power without having to brave “white” institutions for it. And it’s not fair to show one without the other. Especially to young women, who make excuses for this behaviour more often than men do. It’s unfair not to address low literacy. Everybody’s “not stupid” in the book, it’s just that schools are underfunded. The reality is that many kids caught up in the Life struggle to read and write and some have zero interest in it. At the same time, they want the things that rich people have, but not the lives they have to live to earn them. Talk to us about the people who show no respect for others, yet are willing to risk their lives to ‘get respect’ when they feel slighted–which is really just another way to exert power over another person, and another form of oppression.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Thomas had to vilify people in the community she was writing about for me to buy the story, but don’t completely sanitize it either. Some of the same guys who I wanted to have sympathy for in my own life, guys living in poverty and enduring violence, they still turned on people in hurtful ways. Some of them were aggressive capitalists that wanted to put themselves at the top of the food chain. You can try to get some guys jobs or access to education, and they’ll act like they want it at first, but then not show up for interviews or they drop out of free GED programs. I’d like to think it’s all systemic, but having feelings for a guy who lived this kind of life, and seeing his absolute refusal to change, despite even getting into a community college program and having the funds to pay his tuition, it’s harder and harder for me to just blame the system. And I think it’s dishonest, in a novel about agency, to not also explore personal responsibility beyond calling out bad dudes on TV.
I understand the focus of the novel was not on indicting the community, but seeing justice done for a heinous act. Still, there was too much leading the witness–er, reader. The novel was slanted hard to the left to make up for media bias to the right, but it didn’t provoke thought as much as tell us what to think. I absolutely agree that any trigger-happy police officer has no business being on the force. We’ve had questionable incidences in Canada over police brutality too, even if they haven’t been as highly publicized as U.S. cases. It’s imperative to hold the police accountable for excessive force. But that should also come with acknowledging that police officers often go into communities that have little respect for them to respond to calls. They have to be dicks on duty or no one’s going to listen to them. Sometimes, unfortunately, they contribute to the escalation of a situation. And yes, of course, that should NOT be tolerated. But I think more than rioting, black communities need to start demanding that police officers interact in more positive ways with them: make it mandatory for police officers to attend community events, serve breakfast at breakfast clubs, volunteer to help with homework programs, soup kitchens, etc. It doesn’t have to be always, but demand that they start interacting with you in some capacity on a regular basis. Racist attitudes are attitudes. Policies can change through protest but attitudes can’t. Attitudes only change through experiences that challenge our assumptions.
I also wasn’t a fan of the way Starr handles Hailey at the end. You can’t punch out people because they say things you don’t like. I’m sorry, but I absolutely don’t agree with that. And this is completely dismissed by her parents too. I was also taken aback by Maya’s repeated “minorities have to stick together” lines, glossing over issues of racism between minority groups of which the black community isn’t entirely innocent. Starr also repeatedly generalizes about white people, and it goes completely unchecked and unaddressed in the book, and the way she treats her white boyfriend is borderline offensive. I also think it’s strange how she keeps saying she’s cool by default as the only black kid in her school. Growing up going to predominantly white schools, I’ve literally seen the opposite. The few black kids used to hang out together, along with a minority of white kids who were into hip-hop culture. And yes, my experience isn’t the only experience, but it’s too easy a generalization for Starr to make, and ignores the struggles of minority students trying to fit into a world in which they’re often bullied or ignored or treated like mascots. The book also further contributes to this idea that blondes are always the enemy, being perceived as the whitest whites, and foregoes comment on the fact that white middle and working classes vastly outnumber white elites in the United States. I’m actually getting sick of seeing books solely concerned with positioning poor minorities amidst white elites in order to explore issues of race. We need to stop acting like there aren’t any white people struggling to make ends meet out in the world, that they all have pots of gold and hold hands while they laugh at the rest of us, or apologize for all the wrongs they’ve committed against us, confused, because they’ve lived inside a pillowcase their whole lives.
There’s a great deal of emphasis in the book on judgment, and how we shouldn’t be doing it. But isn’t demanding justice demanding a judgment on the accused? As a society with a court system and a penal system, we can’t ignore the fact that we do believe in some types of judgment. Judgment is sometimes what keeps people from committing harmful acts and saves people from falling victim to them. We’re all entitled to judge an act, but we are not all entitled or entrusted to respond to those acts with anything but our voices. And it’s a dangerous message to tell people they have the right to express their anger, even at the expense of those who aren’t involved and yet can still be hurt by it. Who cleans up after a riot? The rich elite? And how is someone who’s white and sympathizing with injustice against black people supposed to respond to this (from a BLM Toronto rep):
Where do we draw the line?
There’s also a cop-out near the end, where we learn Khalil’s only selling drugs to pay off his mom’s debt and that he may have been a day away from getting out of it. It doesn’t do much for the argument that a person should not be treated violently by the police, even if he has committed criminal acts. Strong writing could have had us sympathizing even with a highly controversial figure, but I’m noticing a new trend in publishing where we’re being spoonfed ideas instead of being provoked to think critically about them.
And hip-hop. Let me just say that Tupac was my favourite rapper too, once upon a time. But listening to him made me really angry–at everybody I thought was responsible for me being unemployed at times or struggling to get by–and that anger and self-pity did not help even a little. And I couldn’t admit to myself, either, till much later, that Tupac and several other popular gangsta rappers were also exhorting violence and misogyny and greed in their music (“Hit ‘Em Up” is one of Tupac’s most famous tracks), even if they turned around once in a while and made an introspective track to compensate for it. I still like some hip-hop to this day, but I can’t listen to most of it. And I’m not trying to blame this all on black artists, because even Eminem has a whole song about torturing women (“Same Song and Dance”). Whether they’re being ironic or realistic or whatever excuse they have, we have to stop cherry-picking when we talk about them.
I appreciate the fact that Thomas tried to write the side of the story we don’t always get to see, and it’s not that I think she tried to manipulate public perception or anything ridiculous like that. I just think empathy for what’s happening to black communities in the States makes it difficult for writers to take a more balanced approach at exposing the underlying conditions that both inspire and contradict the BLM movement. Maybe we’re too close right now to do the topic justice.
Or maybe I don’t know shit about shit.
But I couldn’t like the book, even if I’m the only person out there.