The story of 16-year-old Starr Carter began as a short story assignment in one of Angie Thomas' college classes in Jackson, Mississippi.
Like Carter, the author had navigated two completely different worlds — the lower-income black neighborhood in which she was raised, and the upper-class white community in which she was educated. That short story eventually became a New York Times best-selling novel called "The Hate U Give." It appears on reading lists for high school and college students and even led to a film.
On Monday, Thomas told a packed Sottile Theatre in Charleston about her decision to use art as activism. One of her biggest inspirations, she said, was the rapper Tupac, whose tattoo "thug life" spells out "The hate u give little infants ---- everybody."
Thomas said she felt inspired to write the short story after learning about the 2009 death of Oscar Grant, a black man who was shot and killed by police on New Year's Eve. Even though her professor encouraged her to turn her story into a novel, Thomas hesitated.
The writing was so emotionally taxing, she said. And she also hoped that after Grant's death, things would change. But the bodies piled up: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio. Rice could have been her brother, cousin or neighbor, Thomas said. That's why she started drafting "The Hate U Give."
"It’s one thing to look at Tamir Rice and say, 'I feel sorry for his family,'" she said. "It’s another thing to look at Tamir Rice and say, 'He is my family.'"
The story is a fictional account that echoes stories in the news, but the Charleston-area police advocacy group believed it would lead to an unfair anti-police indoctrination of students.
"This is putting in their minds, it's almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we've got to put a stop to that," Lodge President John Blackmon said in an interview with WCBD News 2.
In the second chapter of "The Hate U Give," a white police officer shoots and kills an unarmed young black man named Khalil. The protagonist and narrator, 16-year-old Carter, sees it all happen from the passenger seat of Khalil's car.
"Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God," Thomas writes. "His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us."
In 2015, a North Charleston man named Walter Scott was fatally shot by Michael Slager, a white police officer. In 2017, Slager was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The success of "The Hate U Give" has not come without backlash. Last summer, the Fraternal Order of Police chapter, Tri-County Lodge #3, protested the novel's placement on a reading list for freshman at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant.
The group also called for the removal of "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, which also dealt with police brutality, from the summer reading list. Both books had received honors from the organizers of the Coretta Scott King Book Award.
Teachers ultimately decided to keep "The Hate U Give" and "All American Boys" on the list, while adding an additional four books as options for students.
During her talk on Monday, Thomas did not discuss the Charleston controversy, but she did weigh in on the censorship battles that have occurred as a result of her book. (For every time a school moves to ban her book, she said, five new activists are born).
Thomas has also noticed that many of her book's challengers are white parents. If the contents of the book make those parents uncomfortable, she said, then perhaps those parents should take time to imagine a black parent telling their nine-year-olds about a police shooting.
Books like "The Hate U Give" are one of the best ways to create that kind of empathy, she added.
"If you spend 300 or so pages in the shoes of a character — especially one who isn't like you — I'd like to think by the end you can't help but walk away with some empathy," she said. "That's why 'The Hate U Give' was born."