Summary: Chapter 20

Starr testifies to the grand jury for three hours. Two weeks later, no verdict has been announced.

At school, Starr finds Maya talking with Hailey. Hailey calls Starr a liar. Hailey pulls out the media photograph of Khalil and a picture of Khalil at Starr’s twelfth birthday party. Now when Starr sees Khalil’s “thugshot,” she notices how happy he looks to have money. The birthday photo reminds her of Khalil getting sick from eating too much because he had been so hungry. She resolves to stand up for him. She says she knew Khalil.

Hailey asks why Starr lied, arguing that Starr owes her an apology because Starr accused her of racism simply because she was upset about Khalil. Maya comments that Hailey has done racist things. Hailey claims she unfollowed Starr’s Tumblr because she didn’t want to see violent photographs. Maya brings up Hailey’s other racist comments, including the cat incident. Hailey refuses to apologize for a joke from freshman year. Starr encourages Hailey to apologize to Maya because she cares about her. Hailey refuses, saying that Maya should get over it and Starr should get over Khalil. Hailey proclaims that Khalil was going to die anyhow, and One-Fifteen did everyone a favor by killing a drug dealer. Starr punches Hailey. Hailey fights back. Remy attacks Starr, but Seven defends her. Security guards arrive and pull them apart.

Starr, Seven, Hailey, and Remy receive three-day suspensions. Lisa admonishes Starr that she cannot act in the violent way expected from Garden Heights people. Starr protests that no one understands how it feels to watch Khalil die and then hear people say he deserved it. She hits the dashboard, screaming and crying. Lisa encourages her to let out her grief.

Back in Garden Heights, Starr, Lisa, and Seven are surprised to find Maverick meeting with Garden Disciples and Cedar Grove King Lords. Maverick tells them they must calm the riots if the jury decides not to indict One-Fifteen. He doesn’t want the neighborhood to burn down, especially not the black-owned businesses. He argues that their turf wars have caused the police to think they can get away with violence in their neighborhood. The gang members agree.

Maverick notices Starr, Lisa, and Seven in the doorway and asks why they’re home. Seven plays a video of the fight from social media. The gang members leave. Maverick asks why Starr and Seven were fighting. Seven says he was protecting his sister. The video playback shows Hailey’s comment about Khalil’s death. Maverick and Lisa decide that Starr and Seven should work at the store during their suspension, but do not otherwise punish them.

Summary: Chapter 21

The Carters hold a barbeque at Uncle Carlos’s house to celebrate Seven’s birthday and graduation. The whole family and many of Seven and Starr’s friends attend. While DeVante combs a doll’s hair for Starr’s cousin, DeVante tells Starr and Kenya his mother got in touch and apologized.

Chris and Maya arrive, making Starr nervous about her worlds colliding. Kenya introduces herself to Chris and Maya, and compliments Maya’s shoes. Kenya asks about Hailey. Maya launches into the story of Starr and Hailey’s fight, which Kenya loves. Starr happily realizes that her worlds can coexist.

Starr goes inside to get food when the phone rings. Security informs her that Iesha is attempting to visit. Seven asks Maverick to handle the situation, but Maverick tells him he must face his mother.

Iesha demands to know why Seven didn’t tell her about the party. Seven shouts that he’s happy when people assume Lisa is his real mother because Iesha doesn’t act like a mother. Iesha calls him ungrateful. Seven argues that he protects her from King’s violence and says that Iesha doesn’t love him. He storms into the house. Iesha crows that she cannot wait for King to attack the Carters.

Worried for Seven, Starr goes inside. Seven cries, and Lisa hugs him. Kenya wishes Iesha would leave King. Starr says that Iesha is probably afraid and needs a push, like Starr needed encouragement to speak out about Khalil. Kenya suggests they head back outside so that no one gossips about Seven. To Starr’s annoyance, Kenya refers to Seven has “her brother” and not “their brother.”

Starr attempts to fix the atmosphere by turning the music back on. She selects the same song Seven played for her the morning after Khalil’s death, hoping it will bring him comfort. Seven comes outside and smiles at Starr.

Lisa and Maverick bring out a birthday cake. Maverick praises Seven for graduating high school and reaching eighteen with a bright future ahead. Maverick explains the meaning of his children’s names: Sekani for joy, Starr for a light in the darkness, and Seven because seven is a sacred, perfect number. Seven may not be perfect, but he’s a perfect gift to Maverick.

Analysis: Chapters 20 & 21

Starr’s reaction to the two photographs of Khalil demonstrates how much her worldview has grown over the events of the novel. Originally, Khalil’s “thugshot” used by the media to demonize him angered Starr because it reminded her that Khalil had become a drug dealer. Because she now recognizes that Khalil’s drug dealing was the result of difficult circumstances, Starr can still see her childhood best friend when she looks at the photograph without judging Khalil for the mistakes the media weaponized against him. Instead of looking at the birthday party photo as being a picture of the “real” Khalil, she recognizes that even at that happy moment the debilitating effects of poverty in Khalil’s life were evident. Starr understands that Khalil was both sweet and troubled, and she can proudly stand up for him as an entire person. Because she no longer judges him, Starr no longer fears people judging her for her connection with Khalil.

Read more about how stereotypes are often weaponized against Black people.

Although Starr begins the physical aspect of the altercation, Hailey’s racist words themselves are violent and instigated the fight. At this point, Hailey has demonstrated a pattern of not caring how her racist comments affect her friends, and Hailey’s comments here only add to her track record of callousness. However, this argument escalates in gravity because Hailey telling Starr to “get over” Khalil’s murder reduces Khalil to a disposable life, erasing his personhood and value to Starr. When Hailey suggests Khalil’s drug dealing marked him for death anyhow, Hailey not only devalues Khalil’s life, but the lives of many people Starr cares about who used to deal drugs, including DeVante and Maverick himself. Therefore, Hailey suggesting that the world is better off without Khalil not only minimizes Starr’s grief, but also effectively wishes for the deaths of people Starr loves. Hailey turns the argument violent by treating black lives as acceptable collateral in society.

Maverick’s meeting with the Cedar Grove King Lords and the Garden Disciples shows that Maverick takes responsibility for his community, and reveals the humanity of the gang members through their commitment to Garden Heights. Maverick contrasts with King because both of them have authority and influence in Garden Heights, but Maverick uses his to work for the safety and betterment of the neighborhood. King perpetuates drug use and gang violence for his own profit, refusing to take responsibility for the pain he causes in the neighborhood. This meeting also shows Maverick working toward his ideals of black self-reliance by using a structure from within the community—the organized groups of men in gangs—to protect the community by appealing to their common Garden Heights roots. With Maverick’s influence, the King Lords and the Garden Disciples put their turf wars aside to help the community, which helps chip away at the cycle of Thug Life.

In Chapter Twenty-One, Starr finally bridges her Williamson and Garden Heights selves by introducing Chris and Maya to Kenya and realizing that she does not have to compromise. Kenya and Maya’s instant bond emphasizes that Starr’s two halves are not nearly so incompatible as she thought. The easy connection between Kenya, Maya, and Chris suggests that Starr’s Williamson self has not been drastically different from her Garden Heights self, but rather a toned-down version of her whole self. Maya and Chris care about Starr as a person, and therefore have no problem seeing her whole self. Kenya, Maya, and Chris’s interactions are a stark contrast to Starr, Maya, and Hailey’s tense and guarded relationship. Thomas shows us that acknowledging differences in experiences based on race does not have to prohibit people from finding common ground.

Seven’s heartbreaking argument with Iesha shows the emotional effects of him constantly acting as the responsible adult in that part of his family. In previous chapters, Seven nearly gave up going to a four-year college so that he could protect them, essentially sacrificing his future. Nevertheless, Iesha throws Seven out of the house at King’s behest and does not attend his graduation, proving that her maternal support of Seven is eclipsed by her unwillingness to stand up to King. Seven’s emotional outburst shocks the reader because for most of the novel, Seven maintains composure, even in stressful situations like being mugged by Garden Disciples. The intensity he expresses implies that this anger has built up for a while because Seven has taken care of Iesha, Kenya, and Lyric for so long. His parting shot—that Iesha couldn’t even reciprocate the love he gave her—demonstrates Seven’s vulnerability and desperate need for Iesha to be his mother.