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Keynote speaker 'Starr' of Diversity Conference

by brockportnews
Tue, Sep 25th 2018 10:00 pm

This year, The College at Brockport celebrated 18 years of holding it’s Diversity Conference, the college’s annual showcase to celebrate a plethora of cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. The event took place Thursday, Sept. 20, in various locations throughout campus. There were many panels available to the students who chose to participate in the day’s events.

Every year the college highlights a keynote speaker at the conference. This year the campus welcomed Angie Thomas, author of “The Hate U Give,” the summer reading book assigned to incoming Freshmen.

Thomas opened her address with a joke about her height.

“I have to address the fact that, yes, I have to stand up here on this little stool thing so you all can actually hear me,” Thomas said. “ I am a chronic sufferer of short people problems.”

Thomas was able to get the attention of everyone in the room as soon as she spoke, and was able to tell her story along with the story of the book itself.

Thomas claimed that because she was a millennial she had to “put this on the ‘Gram’.” She took out her phone and recorded the crowd cheering for her.

Originally from Mississippi, Thomas grew up with stories of people who  died and those who had been killed because they wanted a change. The stories of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till helped attribute to how Thomas lived her life.

Both stories are about black men who were killed because of their race, just like the character Khalil in Thomas’ book. Despite not knowing either of the men, Thomas took both of their situations personally.

“Know your worth, but also know that not everyone values you the same way I do and some of them will devalue you simply because of the color of your skin,” Thomas said, quoting her mother.

Thomas explained that Till’s death was made political because of how horrible the circumstances were and she stated that one reason Rosa Parks did not give up her seat was because she thought of Till. 

This did not make Thomas afraid, though she was not scared of the Ku Klux Klan or any other white supremacists.

“Honestly the kids in my neighborhood, we were so bad, had the KKK come rolling through our neighborhood, we would have snached those sheets off their heads and made ghost costumes out of them,” Thomas said.

Thomas was worried about the gangs, the gun violence, the drug dealers and other more modern fears. She was almost shot at six years old when she was caught in a drive by shoot out situation. This shaped Thomas and helped influence her book.

When Thomas got to college, she was met with a challenge. She would leave her house listening to Tupac and would show up to school listening to the Jonas Brothers. Because of this she felt as if she had to be two different people.

In her book there is a character Hailey, who is racist but does not know it, and Thomas based her off of someone in her life.

“Fun fact: real life Hailey did not realize she was real life Hailey,” Thomas said. “Real life Hailey read the book, called me and said, ‘oh my god is some one like this,’ I went ‘yeah’ [she went] ‘oh my god who,’ and I said, ‘look in the mirror.”

Thomas had many altercations with “real life Hailey.” Once at a Christmas party where everyone got gag gifts, Thomas got a drug book and a water gun and “real life Hailey” made a racist comment. A separate occasion Thomas was in the car with her.

“We were in the car approaching the bridge that separated where my neighborhood was and where our school was,” Thomas said. “As we approached the bridge ‘real life Hailey’ hits the breaks super hard because she is dramatic as all get out, and goes, ‘we can not go over there that’s where all the criminals live.’ I said, ‘that’s where I live.’’

That is the first time that Thomas had ever stood up for herself, and she couldn’t be happier. She said she was angry that she did not say anything earlier in life. Thomas had also hoped, for a second, that one of those criminals were in “real life Hailey’s” car. Thomas wanted her to think about her words and how they can affect people.

One of the main reasons that Thomas decided to write “The Hate U Give” was because of the death of Oscar Grant, who died because a cop shot him in the back. That cop was not charged, which caused many riots and protests, also leading to many people saying that he deserved it because he was a “thug.”

Grant’s death played a major part in Thomas’ inspiration for the book, as she wanted to help bring to light that people can mourn an ex-con. It was because of that Thomas decided to make “the political personal.” Turning to what she knew best, writing, she wrote a short story about a boy named Khalil, who was much like Grant, and a girl named Starr, who lived in two worlds like Thomas did.

What started out as a short story for college later turned into a New York Times Best Seller. She was asked by a professor to turn it into a novel, but Thomas originally said shot down the idea because she thought that Grant would be the last. Sadly, she was mistaken. She decided to use her art as her activism and turn her short story into a novel.

“As a writer I personally believe that books are one of the best ways to create empathy and make people more aware of the world around them and problems around them, that they probably didn’t know about,” Thomas said. “If you spend 300 or so pages in the shoes of a character, especially one who isn’t like you, I’d hope that by the end you can’t help but feel empathy and walk away with some understanding.”

Thomas also said that you do not have to be a writer to have a voice, telling those in attendance that “[they] are some of the most powerful people in the world.” She urged students to use their voices and reminded them they are powerful because they have the right to vote.

According to Thomas, she has had people come up to her and tell her that her novel encouraged them to speak up.

“I’ve had children of white supremacists write to me and say now they understand why we say “Black Lives Matter” and that this book has opened their eyes,” Thomas said.

Thomas has come to see that her book has made what many view as political became personal after reading it. She would like to have everyone be active, and while they do not have to be an activist, she just wants to see a change happen.

At the end of the day, in order to turn the political into the personal, Thomas urges those who will listen to care. 

“My challenge to you is to find your voice, find your activism, get involved and create the change you want to see,” Thomas said. “We can change the world, but we have to start by changing the world around us.” 

The address ended with a question and answer session, where students asked Thomas about the movie and other questions about how the book came to be.

At the very end one of Brockport’s acappella groups, Sonore, sang “happy birthday” to Thomas, and then they finished by singing “Rise Up” by Andra Day. The act brought Thomas to tears.