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The Hill Welcomes Angie Thomas to Campus in Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

The Hill School is honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by holding programming throughout the week that reflects on some of his important ideals of racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society.

On Monday, January 16, we welcomed Angie Thomas, author of the New York Times #1 best-selling book The Hate U Give, as part of the Tom Ruth Speaker Series. Earlier in the day, students and faculty gathered to watch the film with the same name based on Thomas’ book.

“I want to ask every single one of you to change the world,” Thomas began.

To encourage Hill students to embrace that statement, Thomas shared the stories of three men who helped her find her voice and her power. Growing up in Mississippi, she had heard stories of racism, poverty, and hate crimes. When she was six years old, she read about Emmett Till in Jet magazine and was moved by his story because she saw him as someone that could have been a cousin or a brother. While his death had occurred decades earlier, his experience felt personal to her. To help her understand what she was feeling, her mother told her: “Know your worth. Not everyone will value your life based on the color of your skin.”

While Emmett Till’s story moved her, it seemed distant and “farfetched.” Thomas soon became interested in hip-hop music because “rappers told stories of what was happening in communities like mine.” While she had trouble connecting with characters in popular Young Adult novels, she felt a connection with rappers, particularly Tupac Shakur.

“His poem, The Rose That Grew from the Concrete, is about him, but it is also about me, and about so many of you,” Thomas stated.

“It’s about finding beauty in difficult circumstances. I connected with it almost on a spiritual level. I wanted to be seen and heard. I saw my value and realized maybe there is value to my dreams and my thoughts,” she shared.

Once Thomas went off to college, she soon started to lose sight of her value and morphed into two different versions of herself. As the only Black student in her Creative Writing program (and ultimately the first Black student to graduate from the program), she found herself “code-switching” to fit in with the people around her.

“I changed the way I spoke and the music I listened to,” she said. “I didn’t want people to make assumptions.”

It was during this time that she learned of the death of Oscar Grant, a young Black man who was shot by the police in Oakland, California. Like Emmett Till, Thomas was affected by his death when she realized Oscar could have been anyone in her neighborhood. Yet, she quickly saw that her classmates at school were not affected in the same way.

“I was angry, hurt, and frustrated,” she shared. “I decided to write. I wrote a short story to help my classmates understand how I felt.”

With encouragement from a professor, Thomas drew from her experiences to turn that short story into a novel and that is how The Hate U Give was born. She acknowledged that the title of the book appears to be in “text speak” and clarified that it’s an acronym for THUG (The Hate U Give) and inspired by Tupac Shakur.

While she had success in putting her emotions into words on pages, Thomas reminded students that “you don’t have to write a book or be a rapper to tell your story.”

“You have to use your voice somehow,” she said. “You have to USE it.”

She stressed the importance of being compassionate and “understanding the ‘why’ to see the ‘what’ through a different lens.”

“I hope that you – your generation – learns to change the fibers of our society. I believe you will change the world. Your voices, your opinions, are some of the most valuable in the world.”

Thomas urged students to use their collective power to cause change in their communities, and in turn, they will change the world.

“It won’t be easy,” she remarked. “The power that every single one of you has is stronger than the hate anyone else has, so use it.”

Additional programming this week includes:

Sunday, January 15: Performance from Hip Hop FundamentalsThis performance focuses on youth involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement as seen through the eyes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The dancers of Hip Hop Fundamentals will guide students through the social conditions that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement. The program explores the heroic work necessary to end segregation and the critical role young people played in winning equal rights for millions of Americans.

Thursday, January 19: Visit and choir performance from Camerata Baltimore