Last year, Angie Thomas, author of the bestselling young adult novel The Hate U Give, moved to suburban Jackson, Mississippi, with her mother. Her reasons were twofold. One, the book — which follows the political awakening of a black, 16-year-old girl who witnesses the murder of her unarmed friend at the hands of a police officer — gave her the means to do so. And, two, Thomas wanted to get away — get a little space, peace and quiet, and a greater degree of safety than her old neighborhood could not offer.
Thomas didn’t just move to the suburbs. She moved into a gated community: a slice of that booming sector of residential development historically known for being overwhelmingly white. In doing so, she experienced some culture shock. “My neighborhood is really two neighborhoods,” she says. “Like you come into a gate to get into my neighborhood and then there’s another neighborhood gated off inside the gate.” She laughs. “Which is like: Are you guys that paranoid?”
This is a beautiful neighborhood, and yes, everyone seems nice, but there is an underlying threat for a young black man if someone takes him the wrong way. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
I’m familiar with Angie’s culture shock. From 2007 to 2009, I traveled 27,000 miles, living in lily white gated communities across the country as a black man with a youthful style to research my book, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America. I found these places to have a bizarre ambience of smugness and paranoia, and I was curious what Thomas’ experience had been so far. As it turns out, it’s complicated.
Medium: So, what’s the name of your gated community?
Angie Thomas: I can’t put that out publicly!
Just for my safety’s sake. It’s a small area. People would know.
Okay, what’s your gated community like?
It’s actually more diverse than a lot of the gated neighborhoods in the area. There are several black families right around me. There are white families. There are Indian families and Chinese families. It’s real diverse, which surprised me. [laughs]
Why did that surprise you?
Because in Mississippi, neighborhoods like this are usually mainly white. An unfortunate thing about Mississippi is that so often race lines and socioeconomic lines are parallel. So when I found this neighborhood, and it was so diverse, I chose it. I didn’t want to be the only black person in the neighborhood, you know? [laughs]
I’ve had a couple of neighbors come up and they’re like, “You wrote that book, didn’t you?” And if they’re not black, I have that tense moment where I’m like, “How is this going to go?”
How would you describe it socioeconomically?
You know, I’m still getting to know my neighbors. Everybody really keeps to themselves, which is totally different from my old neighborhood. But I’m finding out a lot of people, they work in finance, and there are doctors and lawyers. Everyone is pretty well off. It’s really a stark contrast from where I grew up.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a neighborhood called Georgetown, which is the ‘hood. That’s where I lived right before I moved here. I would hear gunshots at night in my old neighborhood; I don’t hear that here. It’s super quiet. But one thing I did love about my neighborhood growing up was the sense of community. I knew my neighbors. I knew their families. My mom grew up in the neighborhood, too, and there was always this sense of community. It was always this sense of, “If you don’t have it and you need it, even if it’s the last I have, I’m gonna hand it to you.” Whereas here in my new neighborhood, everybody is cordial and friendly, but nobody is trying to get to know one another, because there’s nothing happening. There’s no problems. Nobody has a reason to communicate with each other. Sometimes you almost feel isolated.
Besides diversity, what else inspired you to move here?
Well, it was several reasons. One, privacy. Two, safety — because, like I was saying, my old neighborhood was unsafe. Three, location. I love being out here. I love the amenities. And honestly, it’s a positive thing to not have people in my business [laughs]. I have neighbors who do know who I am and what I do, and they leave me alone. There is nobody messing.
When you talked about not wanting people to know where you live before, were you referring to white nationalists?
Well, in my old neighborhood the safety concern was that people thought I was richer than I am. [Laughs] But in my new neighborhood: Oh, absolutely. I do have that fear. I’ve had a couple of neighbors come up and they’re like, “You wrote that book, didn’t you?” And if they’re not black, I have that tense moment where I’m like, “How is this going to go? I do not want to have a discussion with you on my front lawn about why black lives matter,” you know? [laughs] There is always that slight fear, and that comes with living in Mississippi. Because let’s be real: My state is known for all the wrong reasons. I often tell people it’s known for racism and writers, and I happen to be a writer who’s known for writing a book about racism. I’m always on edge about it.
I’m definitely dreading election season [laughs] because if I see a sign supporting you-know-who come 2020, I don’t know how I will take it. He has a lot of support in this county, and you never know who lives next door to you, or who lives across the street from you. It’s definitely something I’m conscious of.
Tell me a defining experience in your gated-community life so far.
So my next-door neighbor is black, and she has a teenage son. She brought him over so we could see him and wouldn’t think he was suspicious. Or call the cops. When people move into the neighborhood, she will take him to their house and introduce him, like, “This is my son. He lives here.” [Pause] It breaks my heart. My mom said apparently some of the other black moms in the neighborhood do it, too, because they don’t want a mishap.
You don’t have to live in the ghetto, you just have to give a damn. And that’s something I had to tell myself as I was moving.
For me, that’s been the worst experience so far — realizing that yes, this is a beautiful neighborhood, and yes, everyone seems nice, but there is an underlying threat for a young black man if someone takes him the wrong way. It really stayed with me. It tarnishes the neighborhood in a way. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
Has living there affected your work at all?
I’m working on my second book right now, and I can’t lie, there was a struggle at first. One, I’m following up a monster of a book. And then two, I’m writing about a young girl who’s in a neighborhood like the one I left. And you have this sense of: “I’m removed from it now. Am I still of the authority to write on it?” It’s kind of like what Biggie was talking about. Before he died, Biggie was saying, “I can’t rap about street stuff no more, I’m not in the streets.” For me, as a writer, it’s like, “Am I gonna start writing about the suburbs now?” I’m not broke anymore; I’m not stretched anymore. So when I write a story like the one I’m working on now, how do I make sure I’m still coming at it from a place of understanding? And not a place of, “I’ve changed, my circumstances changed, so you can, too.”
It’s been a struggle. But I’ve found it hasn’t affected me like I was afraid it would. I see these new things, and I see this nicer area, but I’m still aware of what happens in the community I used to live in. And I’m still aware of the things that happen to young people in situations like my main character. I try to stay grounded and focused on who I’m writing for — and that’s for these kids.
I get to go around and do book signings, and speaking engagements at schools and at libraries and stuff, and I get to meet young people. And we get to talk — not just Black Lives Matter — but racism and poverty and all of these things. And that gives me so much hope. These kids are gonna be all right. We’re the ones screwing up. They know things. They’ve figured it out much better than we ever have.
How do you think The Hate U Give reflects those issues so important to the country, and so personal to you: class, place, and community?
Well, for one, at the end of the book Starr’s family realizes, you don’t have to live in the ghetto, you just have to give a damn. And that’s something I had to tell myself as I was moving. It was really weird because my life was so similar to how Starr’s family situation was in the book. But I hope that if nothing else, the book shows people how important community is, and how these neighborhoods are more than what you see on the news. They’re more than what you see in passing. There are actual people here with actual dreams and hopes and aspirations and lives. They’re human beings, and they deserve our respect and they deserve our empathy just as much as anyone else.