Off the Books: An Interview with Chris L. Terry

Douglas Martin and the Black Card author have a conversation about identity, Richmond, and the themes found in his great second novel.
By    November 4, 2019

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A weird and uncomfortable experience happens when you live in a southern town and happen to be black. If it ever comes up in conversation with a friend who may have come from some such place, ask them how old they were when someone first called them the n-word. There’s an added set of identity-related struggles when you’re of African-American descent and happen to also be a punk rocker. You are immediately besieged with an frequently inaccurate perception of yourself because your presence feels alien to most people. When you’re around black people who lack a broad perspective on what it means to be black, you could be accused or made fun of for being “too white.” When you’re the only black kid at the indie-rock show, you’re looked at as some sort of curiosity. “Why’s there a black person here? Why are they dressed like a Stroke?”

It’s difficult to be an outsider when you’re young. Acceptance is what we all crave, especially when we’re still trying to find our purpose, our place in the world.

After the humorous and pretty affecting period piece which was his debut novel Zero Fade (he wrote about Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde for this site, a musical inspiration for the book), Chris L. Terry returns with another slice of life from Richmond, Virginia in Black Card. The novel follows a biracial protagonist sin nombre, a bassist in a punk rock band who daylights as a barista, through a haunted few weeks in the summer of 2002, thick in the fog of flashbacks to 1997. The latter was the year he was given a “Black Card” by his only black (and seemingly only true) friend Lucius.

The novel is delivered in a plentiful number of bite-sized chapters: Snapshots of identity confusion, friends who only hang around you when you’re alone, racist cops with their own complicated racial identity, passing for white around white people who use the n-word a little too liberally, joking with one’s white friends about doing “black stuff” and its associated guilt, a workplace crush gone awry, a late-night drunk tank at the local precinct, mortifying embarrassment at a house gig, and what happens when the things which offer you the only real joy in your life fall apart.

But at its core, Black Card is an illuminating portrait of a young man who is confronted by a world that (quite erroneously) feels his blackness and his punkness should be conflicting interests.

I know there are black punks scattered across various parts of this water-drenched rock, myself included, who wish Black Card had been around when they were nineteen and struggling with the immensely untrue notion that they weren’t “black enough.” Nearly-post-adolescent versions of themselves who listened to loud guitar music and devoured High Fidelity and wore too-tight band tees and narrow-legged jeans. More importantly, there are 19-year-old black kids today who have this striking, occasionally hysterical, uncomfortably honest novel as a document as a mirror of a life they currently live. And if they don’t have punk scenes which cater to the combination of their tastes and life experience, if they don’t have Black and Brown Punk Fests or anything like it, Black Card serves as a document proving they’re not alone in their tastes, in their struggles to connect with others, in their beautiful identities. 

I had a few questions for Terry about the themes of his book, which mirrors his experience as a biracial punk singer/barista in early-2000’s Richmond, so I asked him. He wrote the book, so he obviously had answers. — Douglas Martin



Both of your novels are set in Richmond, and both of them are set in years past. I guess this first one is a two-part question: What is it about Richmond that makes it a city you love to write about? And what is your emotional connection to living in Richmond, specifically in the period where Black Card is set?

Chris L. Terry: I can talk endless trash about Richmond’s racist Confederate monuments and the fact that you can’t step off your porch without having someone up in your business, but obviously, I’m kinda obsessed with the place. I wouldn’t be writing about it so much if I wasn’t.

Besides, there are more than enough books set in New York and L.A. Shots fired! Gimme more Baltimore novels, Milwaukee novels, Las Cruces, New Mexico novels. If you’re from a smaller city, it can feel oppressive when you’re young, but it’s a gift when you get a bit older because it’s given you a unique perspective and an unusual place to share. Get it on the page.

Richmond is a beautiful and frustrating city and I spent ten years there, from 1994 to 2004. They were formative years, high school and college, and I’m still turning that time over in my head. Since both of my novels have a coming-of-age element, it felt only right to set them in that time and place.

At what point in the process did you come up with the idea of using a “Black Card,” this Ruling Ring sort of object the protagonist obsesses over for most of the book?

Chris L. Terry: A few people have asked, “Black Card? Like the credit card for rich people?” No. Black Card like the running joke among black people, that if you’re black you’re a card-carrying member of the black race, and if you don’t look out for your brothers and sisters, you’ll get your card revoked.

Lucius and the Black Card object both came in during the second draft. I wanted to have a tangible representation of the narrator’s developing conscience as a black person — that’s Lucius — and I wanted to poke at the idea of black identity being cut and dry, so I put some rules on the card. Those are both complicated ideas that black people grapple with, and I thought it would be funny to bring them to life in simple ways that contrast their actual complexity.

As a pale, mixed-race punk rocker, Black Card’s narrator has some very narrow ideas about blackness and is very insecure about how he fits into them, so he’s obsessed with feeling like a legitimate black person. He wants it to be as easy as having a card and not having to worry anymore. It isn’t.

Did you have a Lucius?

Chris L. Terry: I think every black person has a black angel/devil on their shoulder being like, “Is this the black thing to do? What would your kinfolk and your skinfolk think?” It’s our obligation to our oppressed group. So, yes, I have a Lucius. Unfortunately, he can’t make fried bologna sandwiches.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m reading a book with a fictional band is imagine what the band sounds like. If you had to describe to someone what Paper Fire sounded like, how would you? Do you have any RIYLs?

Chris L. Terry: In the mid ‘90s, there was a great Canadian hardcore band called Shotmaker who perfected this churning, syncopated groove. Their music pounded. They spawned a lot of imitators who lacked their sense of drive and dynamics and just kinda chugged along, like driving past a long-ass corn field. Paper Fire’s bandleaders are trend-hoppers, and Paper Fire is one of those Shotmaker bands, maybe with a touch of ‘90s Dischord Records stuff thrown in–Hoover, Crown Hate Ruin, Blue Tip…

If that’s all gibberish to you, think “Fugazi without the restless talent.” Music for deadly serious dudes in little beanies and garage jackets, decades before that was such a widespread look.

The book’s protagonist is caught in situations where he’s both on the receiving end of anti-black racism and observes it from the vantage point of being a white-passing person of color. Would it be safe to say the primary creative path of Black Card was to capture the life of a young man on the outside of two different worlds?

Chris L. Terry: Yes. On the upside, he sorta fits in with both black people and white people. On the downside, he doesn’t completely fit in with either. Since he doesn’t have a strong sense of himself yet, he’s focused on the latter. I wrote this book for the other single chocolate chips in the cookie. I was trying to capture the point where that safe black person hears some “you’re not like the other blacks” nonsense from one of their white so-called friends and is finally like, “Oh, hell no.” You want whites to know that not all black people are the same, but you don’t want to emphasize your differences from other black people and be what Very Smart Brothas would call a “black unicorn” — a self-hating brother who thinks he’s better than other black folks.

Open Mike Eagle summed it up well on his song “Qualifiers:” “Fuck you if you’re a white man who thinks I speak for black folks/Fuck you if you’re a white man who thinks I can’t speak for black folks.”

At what point in writing did you know you were going to have a somewhat parallel character in John Donahue, the cop who was ridiculed in high school for being a white kid obsessed with black culture?

Chris L. Terry: I knew I had to talk about wiggers. Write that on my tombstone.

John Donahue is a white kid who is infatuated with this reductive, superficial idea of black cool. He saw a rap video, was like, “I want to be that,” then threw himself into it without further thought. He’s trying too hard to perform this cringey and offensive version of blackness, and Black Card’s narrator has, pardon the pun, mixed feelings about it. On one hand, the reserved narrator kinda admires the abandon with which Donahue pretends to be black. On the other, he sees right through Donahue’s minstrel performance, and is scared to death that if he tried to perform a more obvious form of blackness, people would think he was full of shit, too.

The Mona character seems to be a lot more comfortable in her blackness than the protagonist of Black Card. Do you feel it made the narrator feel a little inspired or even more alienated by his insecurities?

Chris L. Terry: Beyond Lucius, who is literally magical, I kept thinking about magical negroes when writing this book. That’s Spike Lee’s term for a black character who shows up just to help the white people, with no real desires of their own. Will Smith’s Bagger Vance, for example. I applied the magical negro idea to a bunch of relationships in Black Card. The narrator is his bandmates’ magical negro when he answers their dumb questions about blackness. Then he turns around and tries to do the same thing to Mona. He hardly sees her for her, just sees her as his way into blackness. Ultimately, he’s inspired by her confidence, and having her pass through his life makes him feel like he has options. He’s thinking, If she’s out there, then there are others like her. The next step is finding them.

Introducing the Mona character and getting to know her — and the scary, traumatic thing that happens to her — kind of shifts the novel from a story about blackness to a story about black masculinity. Even though nowadays the perception stands to a lesser degree than the time period set in the book, it seems like interacting with white people brings out their notions of a very specific idea of how black men generally carry themselves. Do you think there’s more of an outward pressure for black men to present their blackness very clearly to the world?

Chris L. Terry: I do think that the world expects a certain performance from black people. That’s what’s happening in Black Card when the narrator’s white friend from high school tells him that he doesn’t, “act black,” meaning that the narrator doesn’t play into the stereotypes perpetuated by pop culture. The narrator has fallen prey to those reductive images as well. He spends a lot of the book navigating the dissonance between the blackness he thinks the world expects to see and the actual blackness that he is experiencing with his family, with Mona, and in his own actions.

Do you think of the way life for your characters goes on after the novel closes? Do you think the narrator eventually finds an identity where he feels true to himself? Does he discover TV on the Radio a year or two later and think he’s doing exactly what he should be doing? Where do you see this character at, say, age thirty?

Chris L. Terry: I set Black Card in 2002 so that it could be at the end of the era when a low-income black punk in a small city would feel extremely isolated. This was before social media took off,  before poor people had ready access to the internet, before James Spooner’s Afro-Punk movie and message board started building a community for black punks, before Party Like A Rock Star, before Kanye (R.I.P.!) and Drake pushed weird/emo blackness into the mainstream for our generation. By the end of Black Card, I think the narrator is too disenchanted for TV on the Radio to feel like a revelation. He’s not gonna wait around for punk/hipster culture to save him.

After Black Card ends, I’m thinking he moves back in with his folks “to get back on his feet.” When his black grandmother falls ill, he moves in with her as a caretaker and reconnects with his black extended family. By thirty, I see him having a way better understanding of himself and his blackness, and maybe feeling ready to make some community-minded adult decisions and become a teacher or something. And yeah, he’d probably still break out his Hose.Got.Cable. records from time to time.

Since the protagonist of Black Card is unnamed, do you think you’ll ever write that mixed-race version of Invisible Man you’ve always wanted to write?

Chris L. Terry: I think this was it! The unnamed narrator is a tribute to Invisible Man. As I worked on Black Card, I had an “Oh, yeah, duh” moment where I realized that the issues the narrator has with feeling, well, invisible since people always try to contextualize him among other light-skinned black people, are close to what the narrator of Invisible Man is dealing with. It strengthened my argument that this mixed-race black shit is still some black shit.

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