/In ‘On the Come Up,’ Angie Thomas shows us that freedom of speech isn’t free for some girls

In ‘On the Come Up,’ Angie Thomas shows us that freedom of speech isn’t free for some girls

T.H.U.G.’s Starr taught young adults that they have a voice. Bri Jackson, our “Come Up” protagonist will help them amplify it. Bri is a rapper, who views her dream of hip hop greatness — her “come-up”– as an opportunity to feed her family. As a 16-year old, she worries about her friends, boys and shows off her knowledge of Star Wars and Black Panther Marvel Comics. (Look out for many other pop culture references in the book that make it feel like a gold-paved walk down a hip-hop Hollywood Walk of Fame). Bri is certain she has the talent and heart to succeed, but she still lives with the ghost of her father, a local legend who was killed when Bri was a child. She also struggles with the anxiety that comes from her mom’s rocky addiction recovery. Bri sees rapping as both a way to escape grief and a way to get out of a painful neighborhood. As her rap career grows, Bri realizes that success has strings attached. T.H.U.G. Thomas was introduced to us by T.H.U.G. “On the Come Up” is where you really get to know Thomas. Thomas rapped before she started writing novels. However, she says that it was her writing and spitting rhymes which helped her realize that she had something worthwhile to say. Thomas writes in a way that only someone who has experienced loss intimately can. Thomas understands grief and all its dimensions. Thomas’s prose is like grief. It flows and ebbs, influencing the gray space between sadness and growth. She can knock you off your feet with unexpected waves. Yet, despite all this, you continue reading. “On the Come Up” is a continuation of Thomas’s first book. However, it is on a smaller scale. It shows how one our culture’s core principles, that young people should have freedom to express themselves, does not always apply to Bri. Music is for her a way to understand and escape the vicious cycle of violence, poverty, and addiction that has affected her family and others. To her authority figures, however, it’s only violent noise that must be muted. Thomas explained to the New York Times that Bri finds it harder to assert her rights to free expression, and falls further into the “angry, black girl” stereotype. This is because society has decided that freedom of expression is not an option for poor girls from the hood. The novel pays tribute to Thomas’ hometown, Jackson. Scenes take place at Midtown Arts High School, Sal’s Pizza spot, which could refer either to a neighborhood or popular eatery in the capital, or to the protagonist’s name. Some other references to Mississippi are more serious and reflect some of the most controversial debates of the period. Bri’s efforts to navigate a predominantly white charter school highlight the school-choice debate. The book also discusses the social and environmental factors that affect health, education disparities, and racial profiling. Bri’s Garden Heights neighborhood (also the location for T.H.U.G) is similar to where Thomas grew-up in Jackson’s Georgetown neighborhood. She told us last year that it is “unfortunately well-known for all the wrong reasons” because of the high level of drug and gang activity. Thomas reminds us all to be aware of our surroundings and to lift up others. Never let anyone reduce our agency. Young women of color may feel overlooked or lumped in. Thomas sees you and knows what you are. This is what you have. You got this. Lemuria Books Jackson has set up a Thomas reading for February 28th. However, the location has yet to be announced.