What Does It Mean to Be “Black Enough”?
Chris L. Terry's "Black Card" grapples with biracial identity
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Chris L. Terry’s Black Card is a fascinating meditation on race, with a head-nodding soundtrack that moves from funk LPs to punk CDs, Guns N’ Roses to Outkast. The novel follows an unnamed protagonist, a college drop-out who works as a barista in Richmond, Virginia, and plays bass in a punk band. His bandmates are white, along with the majority of the punks he encounters at house parties and shows, but he’s mixed-race, with a white mother and Black father.
All his life he’s been unsure of his Black identity due to his light skin tone and red hair, attributes that read to white people as “racially ambiguous.” His father tells him not to doubt his Blackness, yet this confirmation comes off more as a warning not to get too comfortable around white people, and, like most kids when receiving advice from a parent, he doesn’t really take it to heart.
Enter his Black friend and guru in Blackness, Lucius. As the novel opens, Lucius provides the narrator with a “black card,” proving that he is, without a doubt, a Black man. And still the narrator doubts his bona fides. When confronted by racism, in acts both micro and extreme, he finds himself unsure of what to say or do. But when an incident has the police suspecting him of a crime he didn’t commit, the protagonist is forced to grapple with his Blackness, especially in the eyes of white men in positions of authority.
Terry’s novel explores what Blackness means to someone who feels both a part of and alienated from community, and in so doing it confronts whiteness as it attempts to erase or dictate Black identity. Terry lives in Los Angeles, where in addition to writing he works freelance and is raising a son. I had the pleasure of talking with him about the challenges in writing Black Card, the inspiration behind it, and how he captures the many small ways in which whiteness attempts to assert supremacy.
Brian Gresko: When discussing your previous book, Zero Fade, you said that you deliberately made the main character 100 percent Black instead of biracial, so as to avoid having to write about some of your own identity issues as the son of a Black father and Irish-American mother. This was so interesting to hear, because from the first page, Black Card is all about identity and race. Process-wise, was it different writing Black Card than Zero Fade? And what about emotionally?
Chris L. Terry: I worried that I’d never finish a book if I tried to tackle my identity issues while also writing a novel for the first time, so I wrote a book about something else. Kinda spells it out, huh? It’s easier to write an entire novel than deal with your own baggage.
While I was working on Zero Fade, I was also writing nonfiction pieces about mixed-race Black identity, and they helped get me to a place where I felt ready to address race in Black Card. Since Black Card is more autobiographical than Zero Fade, I had a harder time finding the story. If your whole life is potential fodder, which parts do you use for a particular narrative? Lucius ended up being the character who helped me form the story. Without him, there’s no beginning or end.
A lot of the insecurities around creativity are the same from book to book. I went from, “What if I don’t ever write a book?” to “What if I don’t ever write another one?” I’m working on my third now and that worry won’t go away.
BG: Lucius is a fascinating character, especially as the novel progresses and the narrator’s relationship to him becomes more complex. How did he come about?
CT: I wrote a fast and sloppy first draft and realized that my narrator was spending a lot of time thinking about race while alone. He needed someone to talk to, so I added Lucius.
I hope that Lucius and Mona show different layers of a Black person’s relationship to Blackness—the tension of being an individual, who is part of a group of individuals, that is seen as a monolith by the world at large. When the narrator asks Mona invasive questions about her Blackness on their date and when the police seem dismissive of her assault because she’s a Black woman, Mona is forced to represent her entire race. Lucius moves in the opposite direction. When Lucius decides if the narrator’s actions are Black enough, he’s the narrator’s conscience as a member of the Black race, giving him the burden of being an individual in an oppressed group. In this book, I wanted to expand the definition of “magical negro” to include the times when Black people represent Blackness to other Black people.
BG: What other sources helped bring you to these revelations? Either writers, filmmakers, or musicians who make similar inquiries in their work that played a part in how you represented these questions in the story?
CT: Danzy Senna and Mat Johnson are both mixed-race Black authors who are making vital work now. Reading their books when I was first getting serious about writing gave me permission to tell stories about an identity like mine. Before that, I just knew Harlem Renaissance Passing Narratives, nothing new.
Paul Beatty’s work reminds me that absolutely nothing is sacred, and that you have to love something if you want to do a good job of making fun of it.
Queer coming-out stories really move me, as well. I just listened to the audiobook of Bob Mould’s memoir See a Little Light. There’s a section where he talks about getting to know himself as a gay man when he was in his late 30s. He starts hanging out at a cafe in the West Village in New York, just being around other gay men, and learning their stories, and the neighborhood’s history — from Stonewall, through the initial AIDS epidemic, and forward. He’s giving himself a context that he never felt allowed to have before. It’s touching. I know it’s different, but I see some parallels between Mould’s story and my own experiences with racial identity. I had a similar feeling when a couple of my friends came out as transgender. It’s beautiful to watch someone become who they want to be, and move forward.
BG: I recently had the chance to talk with Kiese Laymon about his memoir Heavy, and he spoke about the role readership plays in his process, how he thinks about writing to and for a Black audience. Did you imagine a readership for this book when writing it? Does that idea help or hinder or have any value to your process?
CT: Black Card is a story about identifying the feeling of being a non-white person in a white supremacist country. I hope Black people and other non-white people will read it, relate, and have a few laughs at the narrator’s expense—”It took him this long to figure it out? Come on!”
I hope that white people will read it and gain a greater understanding of the ways that their actions and attitudes can hurt the people of color who they claim to have accepted.
I’ve also noticed that white liberals like poking fun at the superficial aspects of their own whiteness, like that Stuff White People Like blog from 2008. I hope I can appeal to that same masochistic urge in white people, but dig in deeper, past the jokes about NPR tote bags and running marathons, and chip away at the underlying privilege.
I find that in-joke style of white guilt to be off-putting because I don’t see enough action behind it. Don’t get me wrong, white people should feel guilty for every bit of privilege that they’ve had, but I want to see that guilt turned into something constructive. Don’t just joke about how you’re “so white” for dropping $200 at Whole Foods. Talk to your peers about what can be done to help other, less-privileged people access organic food. Stop wringing your hands and put them to work.
BG: You’ve done an amazing job illustrating how the white supremacist culture so often dictates, or tries to define and thereby limit, what Blackness is in America. One moment this came across was when the word “wigger” comes up, when the main character is in high school. I attended an almost entirely white Catholic middle school in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, and we used that word to describe the rapper Vanilla Ice. In Black Card, the main character feels like “wigger” describes him, to which his white friend says, “You don’t act Black,” essentially wrapping his racism in a perceived compliment. This led me to reflect on that shameful part of my past, a time when I was breathing in white supremacy and had no space to imagine a more enlightened and diverse environment.
CT: I’m glad that you’re thinking critically about these memories. A big part of what I’m trying to show is the way that these minor bits of racism combine to create an oppressive atmosphere. Those microaggressions are a death by a thousand cuts.
Racism isn’t just a guy in a KKK hood calling someone the n-word. It’s more insidious than that. It’s calling Vanilla Ice a wigger (which made me chuckle), or the way one of the white guys at my old job would slip into a blaccent when talking to his Black coworkers. Those are both subtle ways of othering Black people. They enforce white supremacy, and that should not be sugar coated.
Your Vanilla Ice memory reminds me of the skepticism I faced as a hip-hop fan, living in an affluent white area in the late 1980s. Other kids would ask, “Ew, why do you like that music?” I liked rap music because it was exciting art and because it gave me more of an idea of myself as a Black person, but I was way too young to explain that. At the same time, experiencing this resistance to Black culture made me feel like I did not belong in that supposedly desirable suburb—a place with highly rated schools and a low crime rate. Everyone deserves safety and quality education, but I was indirectly made to feel like I did not.
BG: How did the decision to never name the narrator come about? This choice encouraged reading the story as autobiographical, since some of the details you include in your bio align with the character’s life in the novel.
CT: Ah, crap, I was going for the opposite. While the book obviously has some autobiographical elements (I was a punk rock barista in early 2000s Richmond), it’s definitely fiction. The street names and feelings are real but, that’s about it.
Also, the unnamed narrator is a nod to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. At one point, I wanted to write a mixed-race Invisible Man, but in writing Black Card, I realized that the invisibility the narrator feels when people see their prejudices before they see him isn’t just a mixed-race thing, it’s a Black thing. My narrator is sorting through those forms of alienation, figuring out their sources.
BG: Has fatherhood changed your writing in any way? Either in terms of what you write, or how you get your writing done?
CT: When my wife was pregnant, I was worried that I’d never write again when our baby was born, but that has not been the case. Sometimes I miss those childless weekends when I had all day to write. Then I remember that I spent most of those days jogging and fooling around on the internet and only really wrote for an hour or two anyway. I can still write for a couple hours after my kid goes to bed. I just try to write a little bit on a regular basis so the ideas stay fresh in my head—build brick-by-brick and soon enough, you’ve got a house.
I’ve matured a lot since becoming a parent (I swear!) and I worry that it makes younger mindsets harder to access in writing. But that could also just be because my youth was officially a long time ago.