Level 3 First Place: Sylvette Dupé-Vété-Congolo

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Entry from the 2018 Letters About Literature competition

 

Dear Ms. Angie Thomas,

I am a fourteen-year-old Maine ninth grader. Since elementary school, I have heard comments about who I am intrinsically: “Can I touch your hair?”, “What the heck do you ha ve on your head?” Even a teacher told me once that he could recognize me from afar because, “Your hair looks like a mushroom.” Another one of my favorite comments is, “Why is saying ‘nigga’ such a bad thing?”, “Why is it that you [meaning, ‘black people’] can say ‘nigga’ and not us?” My classmates tell me, “Why do you have to take everything so personally?”, “I was just kidding,” “Stop being stuck up!”

I know that this may sound insignificant compared to some of the horrific situations experienced in parts of the country where many can be killed, even at the hands of the authorities, simply because, like in Khalil’s case, their black body is seen as a threat. However, the accumulation and repetition of these aggressive situations experienced since my childhood is enough to create stress. I feel trapped in a box of worries, gingerly creating my path alongside my peers.

Fortunately enough, books are my haven and I have read literature from around the world . However, from my pre-teen age until now, I have mostly read American literature catering to American teenagers. Without knowing why, I always felt that an important piece was missing and making connections with a fictional character was similar to two strangers engaged in small talk. They may agree on the same thing and be mutually convivial but their exchange remains superficial.

This is where “The Hate U Give” comes to play. I am so thankful to the librarian who recommended it. I cannot begin to describe the feelings and thoughts I was inundated with after entering Starr’s world. I have had to ask myself why this experience was now so different and making me exclaim, “Yes, at last! Eureka! That’s it!” All of Starr’s struggles and her determined desire for change were crystal clear to me. Of course, her fictional life was not exactly identical to my real life but some aspects of her experience looked like mine, I mean: being constantly confronted to your own friends’ demeaning perspective on what is intrinsic to you and seeing them also constantly denying that their offenses carry racial disparagement.

I identified with Starr and, honestly, I never even knew that books like this existed. The novel was so wholly powerful that I could clearly grasp the implications of the main theme around Khalil’s death and be deeply struck by the sub-theme about the relationship between Starr and Hailey. I felt that my experience was a living example of what the novel meant with respect to the way unconscious racism works. For the first time, a novel was speaking my voice, validating my feelings, saying my thoughts, articulating the insidious facts of my experience . I knew this was fiction but I felt that my experience was being objectively acknowledged by a world larger than just my family. The way fiction brings you to get that your reality is really, truly true, is so empowering.

I have always been aware of some of the implications of my life in Maine. However, “The Hate U Give” brought The missing piece. It is in light of Starr’s situation that I realized the impact unconscious racism had on me. I could see that my experience was not an isolated case. Like mine, Starr’s friend, Hailey, often articulated racially inappropriate comments and behavior and was outraged when Starr was offended . This reminded me of my classmates who expla in to me that the discomfort I feel is made up by my “wild imagination.” The police officer killed an innocent but attempted to impart guilt on the victims. Some may say that my personal reaction is exaggerated because this story is just about the general actuality of many African Americans. But to me, this view is a trick to reduce reality to something impersonal you can easily disengage with. What moved me so deeply is that, Starr’s experience was all so real to me that it confirmed the reality of my personal case. Like a movie camera with a magnifying glass, it was projecting parts of my own situation in close-up and I could look at each detail. I felt excited, even scared and relieved . I could see the processes and how one creates divisions as much as emotional vulnerability from an early age. I am now more confident and dismiss more confidently those who claim that I interpret people’s attitude too much and that, the racial comments I pretend offend me, are all, “in my head.”

Reading the passage where Starr discusses Tupac ‘s message with her father, “Thug Life,” reminded me of my own discussions with my mother. It also reminded me of a song by Jidenna, “Chief don’t Run,” in which he says, “know my rights even when I’m in the wrong out here .” I listened to the song again and grasped even better its meaningfulness . I could see how Jidenna was suggesting that even when others claim you are wrong, you have the right to feel and think the way you do and fight for that freedom. “The Hate U Give” acted as an enhancer and a light caster, enhancing to my eyes who I am and what I have. It forced me to consider the value of all of my powers and realize how important it is to have a guide from home like my mom or Starr’s father and guidance from more distant guides. Tupac and Jidenna are in this category. And now, to me, “The Hate U Give.”

The novel marks a momentous cornerstone in my “reading career” that I can express with : “before ‘The Hate U Give’ ” and, “after ‘The Hate U Give’ .” I have read some of Richard Wright’s novels, Langston Hugh’s and Maya Angelou ‘s poetry . However, I had never read a contemporary African-American novel. “The Hate U Give” was such a discovery and an epiphany to me because it was pertinent, accurate and true to my life and the facts of our times. After the initial emotion I felt reading it and going through the thinking and understanding the novel’s role in my awareness, I became more serene. To me, it has been as meaningfal as it is useful .

 

Yours sincerely,

Sylvette Dupé-Vété-Congolo