From the lyrics of hip-hop to the teachings of the Black Panthers, language in The Hate U Give is a tool for education, justice, and speaking truth to power. Starr is initially hesitant to speak out about what she witnessed, fearing retaliation against her family and worrying that she is not worthy of speaking up for Khalil. Throughout the novel, however, she comes to understand her voice as the most powerful tool she possesses. Kenya calls Starr a coward for “staying quiet,” reiterating that the best thing Starr can do for Khalil is speak on his behalf. Similarly, activist April Ofrah repeatedly tells Starr that her voice is her strongest “weapon” in the fight for justice for Khalil. Towards the end of the novel, while standing atop a police car during the riots, Starr observes that her “bullhorn is as heavy as a gun. Ironic since Ms. Ofrah said to use my weapon.” The crowd shouts encouragement for her to “speak,” echoing the power that her voice has in that moment.
Thomas further suggests that if language is a form of power, then silence is a means of control. When Maverick gives Starr “the talk,” he insists that she “only speak when” police ask her to, a point that feels especially pertinent to Starr given that her father “has the biggest mouth of anybody I know.” Thomas also repeatedly mentions the stigma associated with snitching on other members of the Garden Heights community. Ratting someone out is considered the ultimate betrayal, a fact that King—the biggest drug dealer and gang leader in Garden Heights—uses to his advantage, terrifying much of the neighborhood into silent submission. When Garden Heights residents confirm to police that King set fire to Maverick’s store, it is thus an act of rebellion. Similarly, when DeVante agrees to turn witness against King, he is using his voice to better his community: “And that lady said our voices are weapons,” he says. “I should use mine, right?” Thomas is suggesting that fear breeds silence, and that silence is a tool of oppression. The way to fight back, it follows, is to speak up.
The power of language also manifests in the novel’s frequent use of rap lyrics as a source of education and catharsis. For example, Chris raps the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to earn Starr’s forgiveness at prom. More importantly, hip hop is a tool to inspire and incite, as can be seen when people join in rapping NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” during the riots in Garden Heights.
Cementing hip hop’s importance to Starr’s world is the fact that the novel’s title is taken directly from Tupac Shakur’s explanation of the phrase “Thug Life.” Khalil explains Tupac’s definition of Thug Life to Starr shortly before he is killed, but Starr does not fully comprehend its meaning until the end of the novel. One of the most famous hip hop artists of all time, Shakur frequently rapped about the racism and violence facing black inner cities. By using his words to frame the novel, Thomas asserts the power of hip hop to encapsulate the black experience. Together with Thomas’ emphasis on speaking truth to power, language thus becomes the ultimate means to spur meaningful societal change.
The Power of Language ThemeTracker
The Power of Language Quotes in The Hate U Give
The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me. … “Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do," he said. "Keep your hands visible. Don't make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you."
I knew it must've been serious. Daddy has the biggest mouth of anybody I know, and if he said to be quiet, I needed to be quiet.
Williamson Starr doesn't use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn't say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she's the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn't give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.
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.
“Hustle! Pretend the ball is some fried chicken. Bet you'll stay on it then.”
The drug dealer. That's how they see him. It doesn't matter that he's suspected of doing it. “Drug dealer” is louder than “suspected” ever will be.
If it's revealed that I was in the car, what will that make me? The thug ghetto girl with the drug dealer? What will my teachers think about me? My friends? The whole fucking world, possibly?
[Tupac] explains Thug Life like Khalil said he did. The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. ‘Pac spells out “Fucks” because that kid is looking dead in his face. When Khalil told me what it meant I kinda understood it. I really understand it now.
“I've tried to forget it, but I remember everything. The shots, the look on Natasha's face. They never caught the person who did it. I guess it didn't matter enough. But it did matter. She mattered.” I look at Ms. Ofrah, but I can barely see her for all the tears. “And I want everyone to know that Khalil mattered too.”
That's the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you're gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn't be?
Ms. Ofrah says this interview is the way I fight. When you fight, you put yourself out there, not caring who you hurt or if you'll get hurt.
So I throw one more blow, right at One-Fifteen.
“I’d ask him if he wished he shot me too.”
Being two different people is so exhausting. I've taught myself to speak with two different voices and only say certain things around certain people. I've mastered it. As much as I say I don't have to choose which Starr I am with Chris, maybe without realizing it, I have to an extent. Part of me feels like I can't exist around people like him.
“Anyway, Chris,” Seven says, “DeVante's got a point. What makes his name or our names any less normal than yours? Who or what defines 'normal' to you? If my pops were here, he'd say you've fallen into the trap of the white standard.”
He said Thug Life stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” We did all that stuff last night because we were pissed, and it fucked all of us. Now we have to somehow un-fuck everybody.
It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It's about way more than that though. It's about Seven. Sekani. Kenya. DeVante.
It's also about Oscar.
It's even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first—Emmett.