In 2014, professional football player Richard Sherman gave a postgame interview heard around the world, an exuberant and adrenaline-infused declaration that he was the best after a miraculous play in a championship game which prompted approximately 623 unique individuals to go on television the following Monday and call him a thug. It seemed that for many, he was too loud, too angry, and too black. When challenged for their racist characterizations of Sherman, critics claimed they weren’t racist, but rather that Sherman had been acting like a thug. But what is a thug? There are copious dictionary definitions: ruffian, assassin, gangster, but what are the cultural definitions? On the evening news and subsequently in our American consciousness, “thug” is synonymous with Black. It is never explicitly said, but it is understood. Any attempt to pretend otherwise is downright dishonest. It is an understanding that determines how Blackness is viewed in America. It is one-dimensional and all-purpose.
Angie Thomas derived the title of her debut novel, The Hate U Give, from a quote by rapper Tupac Shakur: “The hate u gave little infants fuck everybody.” This was Tupac’s philosophy, that from seeds of hate, hate sprouts. His philosophy grew into a movement: T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. In many ways, Tupac saw himself as an activist giving voice to the voiceless through his music and his spoken word.
In The Hate U Give, or Thug, our narrator Starr witnesses a cop murder her unarmed friend. This event incites the inevitable debate about activism and justice. Was her friend Khalil a thug? Does it matter? We are all too familiar with Khalil’s story. His death is etched in the American cultural memory: cop kills unarmed Black man, cop is placed on administrative paid leave, media unearths criminal and otherwise suspicious background, cop is found not guilty and repeat. Tupac’s concept of T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. was shaped by the perpetual lack of justice for whom he deemed “little infants” or marginalized groups in America.
Thug Life is to be Black in America. Thug Life is to be both Black and American. It is to be marginalized in the country of your birth. Angie Thomas understands double consciousness; she likely lives it, as all Black Americans do as they balance their race and nation, two entities that are so frequently at odds. What W.E.B. Du Bois meant by double consciousness was this: “it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…One ever feels his twoness,-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”. Angie Thomas questions whether anyone can make that choice, to be one or the other.
It’s called code switching now; when a person intentionally or unintentionally alternates between two or more languages or varieties of languages in conversation. Some call it an art, others call it a necessity. Starr understands that it might be necessary for her to maintain two selves, one for Garden Heights, her predominately Black neighborhood and one for Williamson, her prep school where she is daily reminded of her conspicuous Blackness.
“My voice is changing already. It always happens around ‘other’ people, whether I’m at Williamson or not. I don’t talk like me or sound like me. I choose every word carefully and make sure I pronounce them well. I can never, ever let anyone think I’m ghetto.” And ‘ghetto’, like ‘thug’, is in the American lexicon; the term is synonymous with ‘Black.’ The linkage of ‘Black’ and ‘thug’ has been caused by hundreds of years of social conditioning through media campaigns and political stump speeches about law and order and super predators.
But who are the real thugs? Was it Tamir Rice playing in the park? Or Eric Garner selling loose cigarettes, surely a crime worth losing his life over. He couldn’t breathe, but he was a thug, so maybe it didn’t matter. Richard Sherman was called a thug on every major American new network, but he got to keep his life, so there is that.
The hate you give little infants fucks everybody. Starr realizes that the little infants are “Black people, minorities, poor people. Everybody at the bottom of society,” the citizens of a not-so-post-race society. They are the people yoked with the burden of institutionalized discrimination. “The ones who get the short end of the stick” are the ones they fear, the thugs, little infants born into a system that strangles them and then castigates them when they try to come up for air. Little infants ingest racism, but not just any racism, an “entire system designed against [them].”
Throughout the novel, there are small moments where Starr’s double consciousness seems to waver, where her two selves converge and the sum total of her Blackness and American-ness becomes one living, breathing entity. Both sides inspire her activism. They are no longer warring but in congress, one soul in one body.
“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug.” The truth is, he was both. What about the little infants who grow up and go to Stanford and Harvard? And Starr –us? What determines how the world sees us? Is it our race, our nationality? Is it both? Then maybe we’re thugs too.
Tupac’s T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E philosophy, on the surface, seemed to be wrought by cynicism. In his song “Changes,” released posthumously, Tupac mourns that “some things’ll never change.” And yet he admonishes his listeners to make the changes themselves, not only as a means of survival but as a means of activism. He turned the word “thug” into a rallying cry. He reclaimed the word thug as a means of protest and as a reckoning between two consciousnesses. It is a means for transforming hate into something else…hope.