Angie Thomas’ Concrete Rose Advocates For Black Men & Boys The Way Society Won’t

Photo: HarperCollins
Angie Thomas didn’t plan on writing a prequel to The Hate U Give. But as Starr's dad, Maverick “Big Mav” Carter, became a favorite among her readers—and as Black men continued to be mistreated, murdered and demonized across America—the New York Times-bestselling author felt called to fill a void.
“I’m gonna sound like a bad parent, but Maverick is my favorite of my characters,” a beaming Thomas tells me over Zoom. “He was the one that I was asked about the most, too. Everybody wanted to know how he became the father and man we see in The Hate U Give.”
It’s no secret that Black people, especially Black men and boys, are too often stripped of their humanity by society. We’ve seen it countless times when they are wrongly accused of criminal acts they did not perform. We’ve seen it each time they’ve been killed at the hands of police, labeled as thugs and criminals, and therefore deemed “deserving” to be robbed of life. When Black men and boys are lynched, the justice system barely bats an eye. But these Black men and boys are human. They have hopes. They have aspirations. Black men and boys matter.
“We’re at a point in America where we're asking people to humanize Black boys. They’re not things that go bump in the night,” Thomas says. “I know Maverick. I know these young men. I know their lives, their stories. They deserve the respect of being human beings just like anybody else.”

We’re at a point in America where we're asking people to humanize Black boys. They’re not things that go bump in the night.

Angie Thomas
Concrete Rose takes us back to 1998-era Garden Heights, where Maverick—son of the former leader of the King Lords gang—is just 17 years old. With his father currently incarcerated, he’s left to take care of his family on his own, including a three-month old baby boy. As his mom struggles with bills and things get more difficult, he turns to what he knows best: selling weed. Meanwhile, he’s given the chance to turn his life around for the sake of his son, but when the King Lords run in your blood, and responsibilities mount high, the path to ascension quickly becomes a daunting one. 
“It’s a coming-of-age tale about what it means to be a man in a world that often tries to define it for him,” Thomas shares. “We get to see Maverick as a young dad to Seven. We get to see him and King and their friendship and how that developed. We get to see him and Lisa and their relationship. We also get to see what it’s like for a young person to have an incarcerated parent, and the responsibility that young Black boys so often take on when it comes to home life and family.”
“Books are definitely mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors, to quote Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop,” Thomas continues. “I hope Concrete Rose is a beautiful mirror for the real Mavericks out there. I hope there’s a sliding glass door for everybody else to step into his life and reevaluate the way they’ve seen these young Black men.”
Congratulations on Concrete Rose. In the prologue, you stated that you never planned to write a prequel. Why was it important to go back and tell Maverick’s story?
“Maverick is one of the few characters that has been with me since the very beginning, since the short story I did [back in college] that eventually became The Hate U Give. There are three characters from that short story that made it to The Hate U Give: Maverick, Starr and Khalil. So I’ve known this character and his backstory for a long time now. But I did not realize how loved Maverick would be by my readers. I love him.
Russell Hornsby’s portrayal of him in the film just added another layer to the character and made him that much more fully realized, so in talking to Russell and my readers about Maverick, they were all asking me some of the same questions about who he was and how he came to be. I started to ask myself these things, and I felt the best way to answer their questions was to write a book. 
I realize that through a character like Maverick, who, from the outside looking in, you would assume he’s the stereotypical hood black boy. He’s in a gang, he sells drugs, blah blah blah—he is the thing that goes bump in the night according to the majority. But I know Maverick. I know these young men. I know their lives, and their stories, and they deserve the respect of being human beings just like anybody else. 
At the end of the day, it’s not a story about Maverick or his issues. It’s a story about a Black boy in America that, even though it takes place in 1998, is still relevant to right now.”
What was the timeline for this book?
"I wrote it and revised it mostly during quarantine. I’ve been working on this book during COVID and Black Lives Matter reigniting. I was working on this book when Mr. George Floyd lost his life and when Ahmaud Arbery lost his life. So in a lot of ways it was an escape, because going to 1998, there’s no COVID, there’s no social media or any of that. But it was a reminder of the fact that things haven’t changed very much. It took about a year, and to write it during a pandemic, I think, was a blessing and a curse.”
Talk to me more about that. The writing process can be difficult on its own, but here you’re writing a coming-of-age story about a Black boy growing up into a Black man. Meanwhile, we’re at home, in quarantine, watching Black men like Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd get killed. What were some of the things you were feeling?
“I’m not gonna sit here and act as if police brutality just started in the 2000s. There’s this conversation in Concrete Rose where Maverick is getting ready to take his mom’s car and drive on the highway to do a college visit by himself. And she reminds him, ‘You know you’re gonna be a Black boy going down the interstate in a nice car. Do not give the cops a reason to pull you over. And if they do pull  you over,’ he tells her, ‘I know, keep my hands visible, no sudden moves, only speak when spoken to,’ that sort of thing. 
I had a moment of realizing where I was like, ‘This is a talk that has been passed down from generation to generation in Black families. This is not new at all.’ The only reason we probably wouldn’t be talking about the name Maverick Carter if this were real life is because nobody had a camera [back then]. 
Recognizing the power that I have as a storyteller to, again, humanize Black boys and show people who they are and who they can be. We’re still failing them as a society. There’s also a scene in the book where Maverick gets on an elevator with a white woman and she pulls her purse closer, and there’s a line where he says, 'People are way more afraid of me than they ought to be,' and I think that’s relevant to today. That’s relevant to all that we’re talking about and all that we’re dealing with. 
I love Black men and I want to celebrate them in any way I know how, but I also want people to be aware that the game, the rules are totally different for them. The world is totally different for them. We cannot talk about reform or any of these things until we address the fact that we have a society where they are viewed as a threat before they are viewed as a people. And I purposely wrote a young boy who’s involved in all the wrong things because I wanted to show, ‘Yes! He’s human too! He’s a person, too! He deserves a chance, too!’ He does not need to be the perfect student or the perfect citizen for us to give him that. Can we at least give him the same benefit of a doubt that we give everybody else?
Summer 2020 really reinforced that for me. It really put that on my shoulders even heavier, and it made writing Maverick that much more important.

For the readers who see themselves in Maverick or any of the other young characters, I hope they walk away with some hope.

Angie Thomas
You’ve previously shared with us that you once felt like you could only write stories about Black kids dealing with struggle, but you want to leave that behind in 2020. What’s next?
“Yeah, I have to leave it in 2020 for a bit. [laughs] For my own mental health’s sake. I think those stories are obviously very important. I will never say those stories are not important. I wish publishing didn't act as if those are the only stories Black creators can tell. I wish the media didn’t act like that. Not my publisher. My publisher’s like, ‘Angie, do what you want.’ But I know that for other Black creatives, we’ve been made to feel as if there's only one story we can tell, and that’s struggle. I always wanted to fight against that by infusing so much love and joy in my stories in the midst of whatever struggle my characters may be facing. But I understand, again, that we are often boxed in and I never wanted anybody to box me in.
As a result of 2020, I’m writing now as an escape. I could not write a book set in 2020 right now. I could not. And then from a creative standpoint, I’m writing YA. Do I write that these kids are going to school on Zoom right now? Do I write that they’re having first dates over Zoom? [laughs] Of course, those books are gonna be necessary, but I don’t think I’m the person for that right now just for my emotional and mental state. So I’m working on a fantasy novel!
There’s been a whole lot of talk about Black liberation, about what a world looks like without police, without prisons, and people wanna say that’s not possible. Well I’m creating a fantasy world where that is possible. I’m creating a world of Black people where Black people are free and magical, literally magical, and they’re fully liberated, and they don’t have prisons or police. I’m writing Black kids who have never been racially profiled and don’t even understand why somebody would do something like that, and that is so freeing for me. It’s a middle grade fantasy novel. I’m really excited about it. The code name right now is ‘Literal Black Girl Magic,’ but I had to do something because otherwise 2020 was gonna take all of my creative energy.
You can’t see them on camera, but I literally have chills. I am so ready for an Angie Thomas fantasy novel.
“Yes! And I get to pay homage to our folklore. There’s so much Black folklore. There’s so much Black mythology. We’re talking about characters like John Henry and John the Conqueror. We have them already there, and so many kids just don’t know about it. So to be able to bring some of our traditions into this story in a magical way—sweeping salt out the door to keep evil spirits out and painting the porch blue and stuff like that, that’s part of who we are and that’s stuff we do and that’s stuff our grandmothers did and we may laugh at it now but I’m gonna legitimize it in this book. [laughs]”
What do you want Concrete Rose readers to walk away with?
“For the readers who see themselves in Maverick or any of the other young characters, I hope they walk away with some hope. I hope they walk away knowing that just because you may have made a bad decision or two, your life is not over, it’s not the end of the road for you. There are different ways that you can see  your dreams come to fruition. It’s still possible to dream. Still dream.
For others, I hope they look at the real Mavericks and the real Aishas and the real Kings in a different way. I hope that they give these kids the benefit of grace. I hope they give these young people a chance and stop writing them off before they even open their mouths. That’s so important to me.”

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