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.