He should be celebrating his 23rd birthday. We shouldn’t even know his name.
But Trayvon Martin is forever 17. And Monday, as we memorialized him on Twitter, we also celebrated #AngieThomasAppreciationDay. It makes sense. Last February, her debut novel, “The Hate U Give,” dove into police brutality, identity politics, code-switching and coming of age in the era of Black Lives Matter — a movement born out of Trayvon’s death.
Unfortunately, the hashtag party for Thomas was inspired by an ugly truth: Kian Lawley, the white YouTube star who co-stars in the upcoming film adaptation of the novel, has been outed for making racist jokes. In a video, he’s seen laughing and calling himself black, using the N-word and talking about drinking purple Kool-Aid and eating fried chicken.
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And it took a movement to get him fired. Thomas may have written the book, but the film is out of her hands. Unhappy with the situation, she subtweeted about the incident — never once saying Lawley’s name. Instead, she tweeted a Ta-Nehisi Coates interview about white people using the N-word. And for that, his fandom (over 6 million followers on Twitter) attacked Thomas.
If this were a #MeToo situation involving a famous white woman, he’d have rightfully lost the movie role when the video popped up a few weeks ago. Headlines would have been made. I believe in #MeToo. I just want that same concern for people of color. But this is not the country we live in. If those riots in Philadelphia after the Super Bowl would have been Black Lives Matter protests, everyone would have been pepper sprayed, in jail or on an FBI watch list. They definitely would have been called thugs.
When we’re talking about protecting black life, the public reaction is always complicated. The backlash isn’t instantaneous. We have to fight about it and hope for a resolution. When we are in pain, why are we always expected to give passes, be quiet and peacefully move on? This type of silence is what Thomas is trying to break.
“That’s the problem,” says Starr, the book’s main character, brought to life by Amandla Stenberg in the movie. “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?”
It would take all Monday morning, noon and into the evening of #AngieThomasAppreciationDay for our concerns to be heard. Lawley has been fired.
“Due to the controversy surrounding his past comments and behavior, Kian Lawley will no longer appear in ‘The Hate U Give.’ The studio plans to recast the role of Chris and reshoot scenes as needed,” a spokesperson for 20th Century Fox Films told Variety.
This power we have, our voices? This is what Thomas is all about. Books, she told Epic Reads, are a form of activism. “The Hate U Give,” often referred to as “THUG,” is a title inspired by Tupac Shakur. His signature thug life tattoo stood for The Hate U Gave Little Infants F***s Everybody. Meaning, the racism we are born into, that we grow up with, destroys society. The book, about 16-year-old Starr coming of age during the Black Lives Matter movement, was initially a short story.
Thomas was moved to write when Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old, was shot in the back by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009 in an Oakland train station. But then Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012. And then came Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice in 2014. And the names and hashtags keep coming and coming.
The short story grew into a novel, showing the humanity of the people beyond the dead bodies and telling the story of those left behind.
I wish this book existed when I was a teen. I’m grateful to gift it to the kids in my life. Because black lives matter, and seeing yourself in a book like this helps drive that message home. I think that’s why this poignant, timely, must-read book spawned a 13-publisher bidding war.
“THUG” still sits at the top of the New York Times best-sellers list for young adult hardcovers. It’s been on the list for 48 weeks, maintains a 5-star rating on Amazon and is a fave of KidLit king John Green. Thomas is gearing up for her next book, “On the Come Up.”
Yet schools in Texas and Springfield, Mo., are banning it. They can’t stomach the message. Perhaps that’s why the people who call on us to lift our voices when we’re fighting for women’s rights are so silent on days like this when a black woman and her art are facing adversity.
Everybody loves black culture until black people want equity and justice. Black Lives Matter isn’t a trendy hashtag you can jump into when it suits you, make money and hop back into your privilege.
Trayvon Martin should have been 23 years old on Monday. He was killed because someone feared his blackness. And I’m not sure if a racist, joke-telling white kid would have been fired from a coming of age Black Lives Matter film without us telling folk its wrong.
Six years after the movement was born, my heart stings because on days like this I have to wonder: Do black lives really matter to anyone but black people?
Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist, @jeneeinkc