The New York Times bestselling novel “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas presents a collection of rich, complex characters, most of whom are African American, navigating lives in inner-city communities and suburban private schools, experiencing systemic racism and police brutality. A year-and-a-half after the book was published, the film version of the story was released in theaters.
For Valerie Adams-Bass, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development, whose research focuses on negative media stereotypes of African American youth, the novel and movie provided a unique teaching opportunity.
The protagonist in “The Hate U Give” is Star Carter, a high school student living in Chicago’s Garden Heights, a lower-class, black neighborhood. She and her two brothers are students at a nearly all-white private school in the suburbs.
One night, Star leaves a party in Garden Heights with her childhood friend, Khalil Harris. They get pulled over by a police officer, and Khalil is shot and killed. The story unfolds in the wake of the killing.
We sat down with Adams-Bass to discuss how she used the book and film this spring in her course, “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity,” and what her students learned.
Q. How did you use “The Hate U Give” in your course? What was your aim?
A. The class was assigned to both read the book and watch the movie. They were then asked to select a character or characters to analyze in a relatively short paper, six to eight pages long.
The aim of the assignment was for my students to identify the stereotypes associated with black characters who are introduced in this story and to consider how media content can add to the assumptions, expectations and pressures placed on African American youth. They were also asked to address distinctions between how the characters they chose are represented in the book and the movie.
Consuming both the movie and book offers unique opportunities for discourse about contemporary issues. Visual media is easily accessible and the messages are persistent. Books require a different cognitive processing and take more time to digest. Even fast-paced books require more reflection and consideration of the plot presented, compared to movies.
For this reason, books such as “The Hate U Give” are ideal for media education lessons.
Q. What did the students learn?
A. The students discovered significant scripting adjustments to the movie that flattened the depth of characters they considered important. Specifically, they expressed some disappointment and frustration because of the on-screen script changes that flattened out characters that, in the book, helped to offer opportunities for discourse about police brutality.
For this class, I rely on the definition of positive and negative media stereotypes about black people created by scholars Richard L. Allen and Michael Thornton. Positive stereotypes are defined as black characters possessing a “special acumen” and have both ethical and moral insight. Negative stereotypes are defined as black characters that include a penchant for music and for dance, exhibiting sexually seductive behavior and a struggle against tendencies toward dishonesty, laziness and hedonism. These definitions are the backdrop for black character archetypes.
In relationship to these characterizations, the students found persistent negative stereotypes, but also a number of places where they were disrupted. Common negative stereotypes about black men were featured prominently – such as the violent neighborhood drug dealer – but were balanced or countered with positive stereotypes, such as a present, caring and protective father. Some characters embodied multiple stereotypes; those are the characters that contributed an uncommon depth to the on-screen story.
More broadly, the students recognized that the complexities black youth must navigate as adolescents are many. While some students identified Starr as a “tragic mulatto,” a stereotype of a mixed-race individual who struggles to fully fit in as either black or white, others elected to analyze her evolving racial identity through the crisis of Khalil’s death and her friendships with white and Asian American youth.
Q. Why should we be paying attention to the messages featured in these different media forms?
A. Understanding these on-screen storylines relies on memory recall; we can complete stories without seeing the end. For viewers with low intercultural exchange, these scripts become reality. Representations of black children, youth and families are often negatively influencing viewers’ racial bias and traumatic encounters.
Without context or the ability to interpret the text and subtext, media can be dangerous because of its influence. Media can also serve as an entrée into conversations about social norms and assumptions about black people that are likely impacting their lives in schools, in their communities and other social spaces. These kinds of conversations develop critical analysis skills and media literacy, which are especially important because of the viewing preferences and the high number of hours black youth spend watching TV daily.
Q. Why is this kind of analysis important?
A. Both the movie and book, but especially the book, offer opportunities for discourse about contemporary issues of urban poverty, systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, adolescence, family values and more.
For students and readers who are unaware or uninformed about racial bias, this book is an opportunity to learn, to question and become aware.
For readers who can relate to the story of Starr or Kahlil, their experiences are validated. “The Hate U Give” offers an outlet and opportunity to discuss the complexity and responsibility associated with being smart, urban black teenagers.