Angie Thomas, author of the breakout novel The Hate U Give, remains steadfast about the types of stories she wants to tell, how she wants to tell them and to whom she’s speaking.
In the poignant, powerful debut—pegged a “Black Lives Matter book”—Thomas introduced us to 16-year-old Starr Carter, a witty, complicated, code-switching black girl who is witness to both neighborhood and state violence, giving shape to how trauma affects us in ways big and small.
Thomas’ second novel, On The Come Up, also centers a black teenage girl, talented young rapper Brianna Jackson, who faces a tragedy of a different sort, and Thomas uses the poetry and passion of hip-hop to drive the story.
“It’s more than just a story about hip-hop. It’s a story about our young people; it’s a story about what they’re dealing with,” Thomas told The Root. “It’s a story about how they fight for their dreams and how they manage to try to keep going.”
Like The Hate You Give, On the Come Up has already been greenlit to be adapted into a film; it also is set in the fictional world of Garden Heights, loosely based on the Mississippi neighborhood Thomas grew up in.
“When I decided to become an author, I always said I wanted to write the books not only that I wanted to read as a teen but that the kids in my neighborhood would want to read,” says Thomas. “There are so many Garden Heights around the country, even around the world—I was in London and people were like, ‘There’s a neighborhood here that could be that place,’ and it’s like, Wow. Really? That’s the beauty of it.”
Beyond paying homage to her hood, Thomas says she returned to Garden Heights for other reasons.
“I wanted to show this young woman who also lives in the same neighborhood [as Starr], but I wanted to show that her life is totally different and that she is totally different, because I never want anybody to assume that two black girls, in the same age range, from the same neighborhood, are just alike,” Thomas explains. “And I wanted to show this community in the aftermath of what was happening in The Hate U Give.
“So often, after things like this happen in communities like this, the response from local government is, ‘Well, we need to increase police presence there to build greater community relationships,’” Thomas adds. “Brianna has a line in the book where she says, ‘You know, It’s supposed to be on some, Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood cop type-stuff, but really it’s a, Hi, we’re keeping an eye on your black ass type-stuff. So there’s this uneasiness in the neighborhood now; but then too, there’s a feeling of community in the neighborhood, and I really wanted to show that as well. And to look at how does a neighborhood recover from something like that and how do they still find joy? How do they keep going forward?”
Thomas says she also wanted to show that Starr and Bri’s traumas were totally different. When she was writing the novel, Thomas said she asked herself, ‘When I was a teenager, what was the hardest thing I ever dealt with?’
“For me, my big trauma as a teenager was when my mom lost her job and how that put my family in crisis mode, so I wanted to write a book about what poverty really looks like. I wanted to write a book for those kids who are often afraid of people stereotyping them because they’re poor or getting judged for being on food stamps.
“We live in a country where folks love to tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps—but I want to talk to those kids who don’t even have the boots to pull themselves up with,” she continued. “It was a combination of that and then dealing with my own struggles with people trying to ban The Hate U Give. And what that was like for me as a young black woman dealing with censorship attempts when all I’m trying to do is tell a story and tell it as truthfully as possible, knowing that hip hop and so many of my hip hop heroes went through that.”
The 31-year-old actually used to be a rapper herself, but because she was raised in the Church of God in Christ, hip-hop wasn’t played in her home. Thomas told us she heard joints like Master P’s “I Got the Hook Up” and “Ice Cream Man” from her peers.
“When I wanted to become a rapper when I was a teenager, it was a way for me to express myself because that’s how I thought someone like me was only allowed to express myself—through hip-hop,” she said. “And when I decided to pursue it, it really was a thing of, I want to be a voice and this seems to be the only way someone would listen to me. So that’s what really drew me to it as a teenager. And now, as an author, I think back to that, and I really wanted to tap into that feeling with this book; that this is how I express myself, even when it makes people uncomfortable.”
Of course, hip-hop can be rife with misogynoir and other rhetoric that can silence or demean black girls and women, which Thomas considers as well. But she is clear that she doesn’t want to talk down to her readers or judge them; her most important objective is to unearth the veiled complexity of young black women.
“Over the past two years since The Hate U Give has been out, the best part of the entire experience has been getting a chance to speak to black girls who say, ‘Thank you for showing me, me; thank you for telling our story; thank you for making us visible.’ And that, to me, is so powerful because so often they are made to feel invisible. Their stories aren’t told nearly as much, and that was something I dealt with as a teenager.”
She continues, “I think about that, I think about what it’s like to be a young black girl who loves hip-hop when so often you’re made to feel like you’re not enough in hip-hop. And that’s a feeling that goes into the world. So often black girls are made to feel as if you’re too much or not enough, never in between—or both at the same time. And that’s something I wanted to address. So Brianna deals with that. She often feels like she’s too much and not enough. And I wanted to talk to those girls who feel that way. So not only can they know that they’re not alone, but they can walk away feeling empowered and recognizing that they’re not the problem, but the world is. So for me, I can see myself writing about black girls from here on out.”