By: Emma Kolick.
Following the release of author Angie Thomas’s captivating debut book, The Hate U Give, admirers eagerly anticipated the publication of her preannounced second book, On The Come Up. With her humorous and graceful style, she continues to express the extremity of the discrimination that immerses itself into innumerable lives. Thomas narrates the life of fictional sixteen-year-old rapper, Brianna Jackson, and the numerous difficulties she faces in her attempt to overcome the prejudice that clouds her environment. While expectations were towering, Thomas succeeds in intertwining the lives of minority groups into a book that addresses serious and critical topics in a relatable and light-hearted way.
The main character Brianna, or “Bri” Jackson, an aspiring hip-hop artist, lives within the poverty-stricken, principally African-American city of Garden Heights. As the daughter of the Garden’s famed underground rapper, she dreams of embodying her now-deceased father who was murdered on the streets just before he was bound for national stardom. Driven by the ambition of achieving her father’s dream, she also desperately wishes to provide for her mother, a recovering drug addict who can barely pay their bills. Consequently, Bri often comes home to an either dark or cold house, depending on which bill her mother could not afford to pay.
While Bri is attending Midtown School of the Arts, it becomes known that in order for the school to receive grants their student population must be diverse. This requirement serves to insinuate that the majority of African-American students are only permitted to attend due to funding that the school will receive as a direct result of their enrollment.
Shortly following this, two security guards that regularly patrol her school target her because of her race. In the moments that followed, the guards throw her to the ground. She responds by immediately scribbling her frustrations into her notebook and eventually turns it into a song. When the two security guards are given their jobs back after an extremely short suspension, riots quickly break out. During these ensuing riots, the students blare Bri’s song that she wrote regarding the two security guards, entitled “On The Come Up.”
As news outlets hear of the riots, many of them claim it was Bri’s song that sparked the violence and upheaval. However, in actuality, the intended purpose behind the song was to show the various stereotypes that exist and the way they affect predominantly African-American communities in particular. Nevertheless, reporters look for any opportunity to obtain information that suggests that she is a violent criminal, thereby allowing them to blame the riots on her song instead of focusing on the way the school discriminates against students of color.
While Bri is in despair over the way her song is being perceived, her manager Supreme, who is her father’s former manager, tells her that any kind of publicity, even negative, exposes people to her name, and for that reason alone, it is a positive outcome. As Bri is confronted with the choice of either letting her activism shine or following in her deceased father’s footsteps, the book fixates on the tension that exists between African-Americans and law enforcement and the resulting stereotypes that so many citizens are pressured to conform to.
Though the book is laden with critical themes, Thomas found a way to creatively entwine a coming-of-age story into a book which conveys the cruel truth of how normalized and prevalent racial injustices are in society. This overarching theme is best illustrated by Bri’s former childhood friend, Curtis, who becomes her boyfriend, which comes as a surprise to both Curtis and herself. During a series of awkward proposals and uncomfortable Valentine’s day dates, he made numerous poor attempts in the hopes of displaying to her how proud of her he was. Subsequently, their relationship ended up being an underlying subplot throughout the book. As the story unfolded, Curtis and Bri were an ongoing saga that many could relate to.
However, this relatability falls short when Bri’s role model, Aunt Pooh, is arrested during an unplanned drug raid within her neighborhood, which was premeditated by police due to the race of the vast majority of her community. As she watches her Aunt Pooh get arrested, she becomes hysterical with Curtis at her side. While she sobs as Aunt Pooh is taken into the back of a police car, Curtis empathetically tells her he knows how she feels. The arrest of her beloved Aunt Pooh emphasizes the severity of the reality they are forced to encounter almost routinely.
In an attempt to relate to her readers and showcase the oftentimes tense interactions between parents and children, Thomas carefully developed the relationship between Bri and her mom, Jay. She refers to her as Jay as a result of Bri having lived with her grandparents for five years because her mother couldn’t afford two children and her drug obsession at the same time. There is a tense relationship between Bri and her mother that pervades the entire book that is glaringly evident in Bri’s frustration with her mother’s frequent joblessness and recurring drug addiction.
One significant flaw with regards to this book, however, takes place in the epilogue. As the book draws near to its conclusion, her mother can no longer afford the house and they are months behind on rent. Following the passage of just one year, she is living with her grandparents in a nice house in a safer neighborhood. Her mother has found a well-paying job and her brother is pursuing a masters degree after finally being able to afford it. Bri’s songs remain viral while she and Curtis celebrate their one-year anniversary. The epilogue of the story was immensely overdone with a cliché ending, which was inconceivable considering the hardships Bri and her family endured. The characters seemed to be living in a fantasy world that was unbeknownst to the readers prior to the epilogue. The book would have left a far more impactful and meaningful impression had there not have been a fairy-tale ending that was unrealistic.
While her storyline and writing are immensely compelling, the plot of the book follows the identical premise as her previous book, The Hate U Give. Although both books discuss the extremity of prejudice in mainstream culture, they tend to follow a similar pattern: a young African-American faces the effects of police brutality and discrimination from various entities and strives to protest against their actions but is then stopped due to societal influences. Though these are both important themes, the plot could be perceived as a repetitive and overdone storyline.
Despite these shortcomings, Thomas’s clever approach to handling critical topics helps to depict an enthralling tale that mirrors a coming-of-age narrative, as well as a story of institutionalized racism that overtakes the lives of millions of everyday Americans. This narrative also effectively illustrates how easily these matters can be overlooked and how many significant issues are covered up with false causes while the true sources of the problems within society are often ignored. Along with this, Thomas’s book offers a unique insight into the life of her fictional and charismatic characters and also helps to ensure that young African-American voices are never silenced.
Emma Kolick is currently a freshman at North Royalton High School. She is involved in numerous clubs such as student council, Key Club, Spanish Club, Fish Club, and STAND. She is also a member of the girls track team. Outside of school she enjoys yoga, spending time with her friends, reading and writing. After high school, she plans to attend college and possibly pursue a career in education and journalism.