Angie Thomas, author of ‘The Hate U Give,’ speaks to massive McCain crowd

Angie Thomas, author of "The Hate U Give," visited Kansas State University and spoke about the power of artistic expression in McCain Auditorium on Thursday evening. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

“It’s a powerful moment when someone acknowledges you,” Angie Thomas, author of “The Hate U Give,” said as she acknowledged the large crowd gathered in McCain Auditorium on Thursday.

“The Hate U Give” was the 2018 Kansas State Book Network common read, and the book’s film adaptation has also been shown at campus events. The book was on The New York Times’ best-seller list for 50 weeks after it was published in February 2017.

Thomas addressed the audience about “finding activism and turning the political into the personal.”

Originally from Mississippi, Thomas began her lecture by thanking the audience for their warm welcome.

“It was snowing when I left my hotel, and I am a southerner,” Thomas said.

Thomas connected her talk to Mississippi’s history. She said when she was six, she found a picture of Emmett Till’s beaten face in Jet Magazine.

“I thought it was a prop from a horror film,” Thomas said.

Her mother turned the page and showed Thomas a picture of Till laughing. Thomas said she realized he could have been any boy she knew.

While discussing activism, Thomas explained that Rosa Parks’ activism was inspired by Till’s death.

“She made something personal out of something political and changed the politics of this country,” Thomas said.

Hip-hop was Thomas’ first introduction to art as a form of activism, noting that she saw herself in the stories told by hip-hop artists.

When Thomas was in middle school, she was introduced to the hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur when she saw a clip of him storming out of a courtroom. Thomas said Tupac was one of the first artists who really spoke to her through art.

“He scared me, but he was cute, so I was in love,” Thomas said.

Much like the main character in her novel, Thomas went to a private, mostly white high school. She said attending the school made her realize that she had to change who she was.

While Thomas was in college, Oscar Grant, a black man, was shot by police officers in Oakland, California. Members of Thomas’ community called Grant one of their own, while some of her white classmates considered that perhaps he deserved it.

“I wanted to burn the school down,” Thomas said.

Instead, Thomas started to write.

“I wrote a story about a boy named Khalil and a girl named Starr,” Thomas said. “There’s power in making it personal. The key is to use that power for good, like Rosa Parks did.”

Much like Tupac, Thomas said her art has become her activism. Thomas said she thinks books are one of the greatest ways to learn empathy because they provide readers the opportunity to spend the duration of the book walking in someone else’s shoes.

Thomas encouraged the audience to read books about people who are different from themselves in order to cultivate empathy. She emphasized the importance of recognizing and embracing difference.

“Ignoring color is comfortable, and we’re not uncomfortable enough to see the issues that affect people of color and fix them,” Thomas said. “True change comes from discomfort.”

Thomas said she is still amazed by the success her book has achieved, and she never anticipated the effect that speaking from her heart could have on anyone outside her own neighborhood.

Thomas challenged the audience to change things and speak out about issues around them, urging them to look harder for issues if they do not see any right away.

“We can no longer afford to be silent, to sit in our comfort,” Thomas said.

Thomas then spoke directly to high school and college students, telling them that they were some of the most powerful people in the world. She encouraged them to use their power and their privilege for good.

“If you have privilege, we need you to use it for the benefit of others,” Thomas said. “Privilege is not a bad word.”

Tara Coleman, chair of the K-State Book Network, said Thomas is one of the most popular authors the university has ever hosted.

“The demand for tickets was amazing,” Coleman said.

In addition to K-State students and members of the Manhattan community, the event had roughly 350 other school groups in attendance, with some driving for as many as six hours to attend the event.