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“On The Come Up” Review: a close look at racial tensions and gang violence in Angie Thomas’ new novel

Book cover of Angie Thomas’ novel On The Come Up

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On The Come Up is Angie Thomas’ second novel. Her first, The Hate U Give, was a runaway success and was also adapted for film. Thomas’ first novel was amazing and the outstanding reviews and its reception from around the globe are a testament to her writing abilities. With that kind of first-time success, producing a second novel might seem daunting. I honestly didn’t know how Thomas’ was going to top it, yet she is a woman who has something to say and has an amazing way of saying it. On The Come Up is set in the same neighbourhood as Thomas’ first novel, Garden Heights (or simply called The Garden), and even makes reference to the first novel. However, On The Come Up is not a sequel. It follows a Black teenager called Bri, who has a dream of becoming a rapper. Yet this story is more than just a rising-star coming of age novel. Thomas is able to weave teenage angst, gang violence, gender relations in rap, negative Black stereotypes, loss, and drug addiction all into one amazing novel.

As someone who grew up in Australia, the kind of neighbourhood relations that Thomas touches on throughout her novel are hard for me to personally relate to. Yet, I never once felt like I didn’t understand it and that is a testament to the way Thomas is able to articulate the multifaceted nature of Black neighbourhoods. I would argue that Thomas is extremely anti-gang and also anti-Black-on-Black (community) violence. This is evidenced in the way that she shapes Bri’s character and also in her previous novel. Bri’s father was killed in through gang violence and whilst she doesn’t want to claim a side, she is forced to deal with gangs in her everyday life.

Through hardships and often times a desire to become successful, many people are drawn to the opportunities that gangs can provide. They seem to offer a family for those without one and also provide an income so people can support their friends and families. Although, nothing comes for free and being a member of a gang also means a lot of illegal activities as well as living life in the line of fire. At times, the gang-related violence can feel like frontier wars as each side tries to maintain ‘territories’ and ‘monopolies’ on city spaces and drug markets. For many people who fall into gangs—and I am loathe to use the word ‘choose’ because I really don’t think that it is really a choice for many people—it can feel like their only way out of poverty. Even when people do the right thing like Bri’s brother who did well in high school and went to university, they do not reap the same successes of those from a different ethnicity or socio-economic background. For example, Bri’s brother ends up working in a pizza shop and struggles to pay his student debts. It is hard to escape the socially enforced constraints of Blackness.

To touch more on the ‘constraints of Blackness’ I wanted to talk about the stereotypes of Blackness and how this both internally and externally enforced. What I love about Thomas’ characters is that they are, as they should be, all multi-faceted contradicting people. Bri loves to rap, but she also loves Star Wars. Her brother wants to work in mental health, an oftentimes taboo topic in Black communities. The idea that Blackness equals X list of stereotypes is a disservice to the diversity of Blackness. I love that Thomas challenges these stereotypes in her novels and shows that Blackness is more than T.V. cliches.

One of the major stereotypes Thomas challenges in this novel is Blackness as aggression. That is to say, that anything a Black person does or says will always be interpreted as aggressive. This is brought up several times with Bri’s interactions with her teachers and other school staff at her high school. The security guards think she is selling drugs and physically assault her, which is the trigger for her song, and title of the book, ‘On The Come Up’. In this song, Bri raps that people think she should act a certain way and respond to things in a certain way because of her Blackness. That violence and aggression are inherent in Blackness. Even people in Bri’s community struggle to understand this and also fear that her message will be twisted to serve as an example of Black’s behaving badly for the white community.

Even though Thomas’ novels are deemed Young Adult fiction, I would argue that these are novels for all ages. I can see how important these novels are in a North American context as they provide a different discourse of Blackness. However, these novels are valuable for all communities because as the world becomes more globalised, so too does Blackness and discrediting these harmful stereotypes is the only way forward.

Angie Thomas’ novels are so easy to read and I cannot wait for more of her writing. She is a gem in the literary world. What Black authors are you loving at the moment? As always, share the reading love.

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