Amandla Stenberg has no desire to be the voice of a generation. “There should not be one singular voice for my generation – there should be millions of voices,” reasons the 19-year-old actress and activist whose preternatural wisdom and poise have, paradoxically, catapulted her to the very position she occupies with some reluctance.
Having worked as an actress and model since the age of four, Stenberg got her big break at 14 years old, when she was cast as Rue in The Hunger Games. She was taking some time off from acting when she inadvertently became a fresh and timely voice for women of color. As part of a high-school assignment, Stenberg made a video entitled Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows. “I was really interested in pop culture and how race, gender and sexuality play a role in things becoming a part of culture,” she recalls. The video is a lesson in the thorny issue of cultural appropriation, and ends with Stenberg posing the question: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as black culture?”
When she uploaded the video to Tumblr, it went viral. The Ms. Foundation for Women named her its Feminist Celebrity of the Year, Time magazine crowned her Most Influential Teen for two years in a row, and plaudits flooded in from the likes of Gloria Steinem. Oprah Winfrey invited her to speak at her SuperSoul Sessions – the Oprah equivalent of a TED Talk – and Beyoncé asked her to appear in a video on her album, Lemonade.
I was really interested in pop culture and how race, gender and sexuality play a role in things becoming a part of culture”
Now, Stenberg’s latest film underscores aspects of her own journey. The Hate U Give, adapted from the bestselling YA novel by Angie Thomas, follows its 16-year-old protagonist, Starr Carter (Stenberg), as she witnesses the death of her unarmed black friend by a white policeman – an event that becomes a catalyst for her activism. The story was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and the subsequent formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Starr is growing up in a lower-income black community, but attending a predominantly white private school across town – that was an experience I had too,” says Stenberg. “I quickly learned to code-switch between different environments and to compartmentalize myself in order to fit in.”
Stenberg – whose first name means ‘power’ in Zulu – grew up in South Central Los Angeles, “on the edge of the hood”, in a family that she calls “eclectic”. “My mother is black, my dad is Danish – he was the only white dude on our block – and both my older sisters are biracial [one is African American and white; the other Danish and Taiwanese]. So I had conceptions about identity and diversity really early on.” Try as she might to deny it, Stenberg’s is a voice we should all listen to.
The Hate U Give is out October 26. Read the full interview with Amandla Stenberg in PORTER’s Winter 2018 issue
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