In his highly anticipated and acclaimed follow-up to ZERO FADE, Chris L. Terry’s new novel, BLACK CARD, presents a stirring examination of racial identity in America. Its unnamed narrator is a young, mixed-race man who longs to earn his “black card,” but soon finds that it comes with an acute and systemic vulnerability to racism. An excerpt, followed by a Q&A between the author and AFLW Fiction Editor Pete Hsu.
Holding the mic on the other side of his gut, the KJ stopped me with a hand on my arm and said, “Keep it clean, now.”
I told him, “I’ll stick to what’s on the monitor.”
He handed me the mic and disappeared into shadow, followed by the rest of the bar. When Paper Fire played earlier, the whole room took a deep breath as we counted off our first song. Here, there was chatter, and a woman laughing separate syllables, “Haw . . . Haw . . . Haw . . .” over the clink of glasses.
I eyed the torso-high blue screen floating a yard to my right. The first lyrics appeared in white, “This speech is my recital / I think it’s very vital.” There were four beats of shakers redone in dinky MIDI then I started rapping, as, letter by letter, beat by beat, the words turned yellow on the screen. I heard my voice echoing through the PA, deep and sorta nasal, always with a touch of smartassedness, a southern softness in the vowels, sounding white? Black? Maybe both or neither, like a newscaster.
I couldn’t see the crowd, but they’d gone quiet. I stared into the glare, rapping the lyrics that I’d memorized years before, remembering the green rug of my old bedroom, the neighbor’s cream-colored house as seen through the window above the spinning record. As the music faded, I churned butter with my arms, doing a quick Cabbage Patch dance, and the room burst into applause.
I was a black man dancing for the white folks. I was a white guy cheekily doing black dances from ten years ago. I was blacking up by singing a song off the record credited with bringing rap to the suburbs. Even my attempts at acting black were white.
Still, the applause made me proud of myself. But if I smiled too much, the bar would know that crushing a rap song at karaoke wasn’t an everyday thing for me. Plus, I was nervous about what would come next. I made a beeline for the bar, where I’d last seen my bandmates. Tim was smiling admiration and still clapping. Mason had that “frontman watching his bassist get attention” smirk.
I said, “Maybe we should go?” and Russell shook his head and patted me on the back, handing me a fresh drink. My dry mouth wrung water from the whiskey.
A woman began singing a slow country song. I looked for Lucius and felt a touch on the back of my neck. When I turned, a drunk blonde in her early thirties slid her hand to my shoulder like a middle school slow dance and said, “That was just great, brother.”
I started to thank her but she cut me off, “We’re signing you up for more.”
She looked to her left, where one of her friends, also drunk, was looking back and forth between the binder of songs and the sign-up sheet, pen scribbling.
I snuck a peek at Lucius. He was still in his seat, holding up a cognac glass so it glowed in the Christmas lights around the bar mirror. What was blacker? To do the bidding of these women and sing some rap songs, or to tell them to go to hell?
I broke for her friend. “Oh no, I just got done—”
The first woman grabbed my arm. “You know ‘Baby Got Back,’ right? That’s our song, and you’re gonna do it.”
The friend finished signing me up, pushed the clipboard away, and said, “My friend thinks you look like that rapper from the movie.”
I pictured a gangsta rapper in a ’90s hood flick. She waved her flattened hand a few inches above her center part. “The guy with the big hair. Dance Party or something. It’s always on cable.”
“Right,” I said. “Good movie.”
It was weird to be a black dude who’d just been told by the only other black dude at the bar that he wasn’t black anymore, and to be getting signed up for the only rap song that all white people know, by this woman who kept calling me “brother.” I assumed she could tell I was black, and I was proud. My blacking up was succeeding.
The whiskey warmed my ears and upped my confidence. I’d sung a song and not been beaten up. Most weekends, I wanted to make some drunk woman happy. Why not now?
I said, “Fine. But you gotta buy me a drink.”
The KJ handed me the mic, mid eyeroll. The Valley Girl spoken intro, “Oh. My. God. Becky. Look at her butt,” began. I stood there like a dick, then jumped a mile when hands snaked up from behind and clamped my chest. I wheeled around, arm cocked to thump someone with the microphone and what did I see? The drunk blonde, pulling her head back to avoid the mic, hands still on my chest, “It’s OK, brother. I’m just gonna grind on you while you rap,” like it was business as usual.
Have you ever been scared and horny at the same time? It takes you back to seventh grade real fast. I imagined the same overalls-wearing phantom hick slamming the tavern door open after railing some crank in the parking lot. As his tweaked-out eyes adjusted to the dim bar, he’d see his wife’s empty chair. Then his ears would pick up some horrendous jungle music and, with disgust, he’d look for the ape that’s singing it . . . only to find his wife up there doing that sexy dance they saw on MTV.
The bass line started vamping under the intro. There was rhythmic clapping from the bar, probably my bandmates. Time was running out. I told her, “I don’t think your husband would like this,” hoping that the answer would be, “I’m not married,” followed by a flirty squeeze on the chest.
Instead, she said, “Oh, he’s not here tonight.”
At least I got the chest squeeze.
The song kicked in and so did I. Like anyone who listened to the radio in the early ’90s, I knew the words to this PG-rated ode to big asses. Her crotch and butt bumped my ass and thighs, always off-beat, getting surprisingly close to the backs of my knees. During the breaks, I’d turn to see the blonde gyrating, but I didn’t dance with her. Where was her husband? Were his friends here?
Q&A between Chris L. Terry & AFLW Fiction Editor Pete Hsu
Pete Hsu: Let’s start from the start, what does it mean for the narrator of BLACK CARD to have (and lose) his black card?
Chris L. Terry: The running joke in the black community is that black people have a black card, which proves that we act in solidarity with other black people. Like the best jokes, it addresses something serious: We need to be there for each other because we live in a hostile world. I don’t like giving racists a signal boost, so let’s just say that some recent high-profile black card losses have happened when black celebs got involved with the aptly named White House.
Black Card’s narrator is pale and mixed-race and very insecure about whether or not he is “black enough.” He sees his card as an affirmation of his blackness. Throughout the story, he gains a more nuanced idea of what that might mean.
PH: The narrator and Mona experience being black differently. The narrator is mostly defined by what other people see, whereas Mona has an integrated sense of racial identity. What are your thoughts about racial identity formation in the United States? Both in 2002, when BLACK CARD takes place, and also today?
CT: In the U.S., I think racial identity is a balance of the way you look, the way you feel, the way you are treated and the way that you act. BLACK CARD’s narrator experiences some serious dissonance between the pillars of his identity: his appearance is ambiguous, which leads to him being treated in a variety of ways, which makes it hard for him to understand his own truths. He’s so busy dealing with how he’s seen that he’s not able to understand and assert who he is.
BLACK CARD is set in early 2000s’ Richmond, Virginia, a majority black city that celebrates the Civil War with monuments to Confederate soldiers. In the ‘90s, Virginia even celebrated Martin Luther King Day as Lee-Jackson-King Day, using the Confederates’ birthdays’ proximity to Dr. King’s as an excuse to oppress black people with reminders of slavery. After being in denial, Black Card’s narrator is just starting to understand the weight of what it means to be black in that atmosphere.
As long as white people control the conversation around slavery and the Civil War, and those Confederate monuments stand, and Confederate flags are not officially recognized as symbols of hate, the development of a black identity in the south will always include the painful feeling that the past can return at any time. That said, I get the sense that smaller cities like Richmond are becoming a bit more progressive, and offering more opportunities for black people to grow. They scared me off a long time ago, though, so I can’t be sure.
PH: The narrator is, I think, carefully presented as an average person, not the exceptionally good (nor great) person of color that we’ve been conditioned to root for. Instead, he seems often judgmental, reluctant and only marginally talented. How did you come to discover and then refine the narrator in this fashion?
CT: Sometimes tiny steps forward feel huge, and I wanted to capture that in this story while showing that racism doesn’t just keep talented people from being great, it keeps average people from staying afloat.
Plus, it might be the Generation Xer in me, but I love a good slacker! I spent a lot of time working low-wage jobs and playing in bands and BLACK CARD is my ambivalent-ass love letter to that lifestyle.
PH: There’s an incident of sexual violence in the book that shows how our policing system antagonizes both black victims and black suspects, in this case Mona and the narrator. What do you make of the acute vulnerability that both these characters encounter here?
CT: What do I make of it? It’s terrible! It’s another example of an oppressor dividing the oppressed so that they don’t work together to resist their real enemy. Mona’s trying to get help and she gets shamed. The narrator’s trying to help Mona and he winds up in danger. Then the narrator gets scared and blames Mona for the danger.
I hope that I did OK by Mona. She has to deal with a lot of grief in this story, especially from the narrator, who fetishizes her blackness, then is not nearly understanding enough when she’s traumatized. I tried to give her agency, and escape routes, to show just how far ahead of the narrator she is. She blows through his life and there is no reason she’d want to stick around.
PH: You’ve turned metaphors into literal realities in BLACK CARD, starting with the narrator’s physical black card and then later with actual Magical Negroes accompanying people around town. What do these tangible realities in the book represent for us in the world outside your novel?
CT: Bad thoughts usually look a lot less serious when you write them down. They can even be kinda funny. Try it! The supernatural elements of the story are the same thing: representations of people’s insecurities, left out in the light.
PH: An ongoing subplot in BLACK CARD is the idea of non-black Americans trying to adopt black personas, but in a specific way: to have all the energy without incurring any of the vulnerability. What do we make of characters like Officer Donahue or Nesta?
CT: I can’t tell the reader what to make of them, but I hope they have a good laugh at the expense of both of those guys. I get a kick out of unearned confidence, and had a lot of cringey fun writing Nesta. Even if Donahue’s a prick, I hope that people feel a bit bad for him. He’s lost, too.
PH: This one is personal: Your novel is a deep and nuanced depiction of the formation of a person’s racial identity. How does your own experience as a mixed-race black man in America inform your art?
CT: I see my identity as an artistic advantage. I’ve got my feet in a couple of cultures, which gives me a broader world to pull from. I can code switch with the best of them, and that gives me a bigger toolbox for dialogue. I never really fit in, so I’m always watching from the outside, trying to understand people–emphasis on “trying”–and collecting observations. I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve been a lot of people and that can all show up on the page.
PH: What’s on heavy rotation on your record player right now? And why?
CT: I’ve been playing El Mal Querer by Rosalía and Some Rap Songs by Earl Sweatshirt almost nonstop since late last year. Rosalía mixes flamenco and R&B into something new-sounding, plus she makes beautiful songs that get stuck in my head, so I keep going back. Earl’s album is moody, dense and concise–a hodgepodge of sounds that work as a whole. I’m fascinated with narratives like that.
Beyond that, Huggy Bear is a slept-on ‘90s riot grrl band and my wife’s copy of their 10” is next to the record player, along with a reissue of Sugar’s Copper Blue, and a Freddie Hubbard LP my friend Mike gave me for my birthday, which I play so much that my 4-year-old goes, “Red Clay again?!” when I drop the needle. I like to write to jazz, because there are no lyrics to distract me.
PH: What’s the best thing you’ve read in 2019?
CT: I just got done with Ghost Month by Ed Lin and loved that. I’m a big fan of mysteries with a strong sense of place, and Taiwan is practically a character in this one. Plus the narrator’s a record geek chef, so it checked some important boxes for me. Next up is BTTM FDDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore.
PH: What’s coming up for you, both in regard to Black Card and also any other projects you’d like us all to know about?
CT: I’ve got book tour events coming up in LA, NYC, Richmond, DC, Philly, Chicago and more. I’m looking forward to hitting the road. It’ll be like my punk band days but with actual beds and no secondhand smoke.
Writing-wise, I’m drafting a YA book about a kid having mysterious seizures while going through a breakup, and also working with some journalists to write a political history podcast.
Chris L. Terry was born in 1979 to an African American father and an Irish American mother. He spent his teens and early twenties touring the United States and Europe as the singer in different punk bands. Chris has an MA in English from Virginia Commonwealth University and a creative writing MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His debut novel, ZERO FADE, was named a Best Book of the Year by Slate and Kirkus Reviews. BLACK CARD, just released by Catapult on August 13, has been receiving rave reviews and was selected as “1 of 7 Highly Anticipated Books to Get You Through the Dog Days of August” by Los Angeles Times. Chris lives in Los Angeles with his family. He works as a copywriter and creative writing instructor.