Chris L. Terry’s satirical, novel Black Card delivers with dark humor an unexpected examination of identity in America. When I first read Chris’s manuscript, I knew what he was up to and immediately wanted to publish the novel. As the novel’s editor, it was my pleasure and joy to work with Chris, to speak with him in great detail and depth about this novel and life itself. To celebrate the paperback release of Black Card, Chris and I share a part of our conversation here as a Black writer and Black editor discuss a Black novel in this moment in American history.
Mensah Demary: Give us your best elevator pitch for Black Card. What is it, what’s it about, why is it so relevant now?
Chris L. Terry: Black Card is a novel about a mixed-race punk rock musician who goes on a mission to win back his Black Card, the physical manifestation of his credibility as a Black person. In the process, he is accused of a violent crime and is forced to reconsider his identity and his Black imaginary friend.
Black Card’s set in Richmond, Virginia, and takes place in the shadows of the city’s Confederate monuments, which are now coming down. It’s about how small bits of racism, especially those coming from seemingly progressive whites, can create a suffocating atmosphere. It’s about being “the Black friend” who is often on the front lines with white liberals.
It touches on police violence and raises questions about the types of people who are allowed to become cops. It asks what happens when emotionally stunted young men who can only relate to one another through barbed humor are confronted with things that they can’t laugh off. And it talks trash about punk rock and Richmond in a way that confirms that I am obsessed with them both.
MD: So it’s been a year since we first published Black Card, and as we commemorate the paperback release, the first thing that comes to my mind is the new cover. I know you loved the original cover, but I’m curious to know your thoughts on this new one.
CLT: Catapult makes awesome-looking books but, going in, I had two fears about the art.
I’ve heard horror stories about publishers putting pictures of white people on the covers of books by Black authors, to give the book “broader appeal.” Not that Catapult gave me any reason to worry, but I was scared that I’d get an email like, “We’ve decided to go with this stock photo of a white girl in a forest. It’s at the printer now. Bye.” Like they say in The Five Heartbeats, “crossover ain’t nothing but a double-cross.”
On a geekier, lower-stakes front, I also worried that the cover would misrepresent my little corner of punk. A lot of people hear the word “punk” and picture, like, someone with a green mohawk and a safety pin through their nose. I worked hard to get punk right in Black Card, and the stuff I was writing about has a more understated aesthetic with grainy photocopier art and dry-transfer letters.
I did entirely too much and sent Catapult a PDF with record covers and prints by Steak Mtn. and Neil Burke that captured the look from the book. It’s ironic that Black Card makes fun of myopic punk rockers and there I was, being a myopic punk, but the cover turned out so well! I love how the hardcover splits the difference between the punk flyer art I came up on and contemporary book design. Shout out to the GOATs Nicole Caputo and Zoe Norvell.
Same thing for the paperback. It looks like one of the in-house flyers from Twisters, the Richmond all-ages club I went to every weekend as a teenager. Plus, the rip gives it such a cool sense of motion and I want to smear that fuchsia all over myself. It’s an eye-catcher.
MD: I admit, the stark look of the original cover took a little getting used to, at first—like, I knew it fit, and I liked it, but I pay extra attention to any and all book covers in my work as an editor, as part of staying connected to what works visually and what doesn’t. The original cover had a retro feel, part punk and part Black Arts Movement. It just felt at once old school and fresh. Same with the paperback cover.
CLT: I’ve been lucky. I love the covers of Black Card and my first novel, Zero Fade, and was fortunate to have some say in the way they look.
MD: We’ve talked offline about your regret over not including a dedication in Black Card. When I speak with authors whose books I acquire and edit, I’m often asked whether or not a dedication should be included, or if it’s necessary. In response, I defer to the author’s wishes, and I think I said something similar to you. Why do you regret not including it? Does its omission create sort of a “missing piece” to the book as a whole?
CLT: I figured that the dedication was handled in the acknowledgments in the back of the book. I didn’t think about how a dedication can be broader than a couple people’s names, how it can be a compass that directs the story toward a certain group. Black Card is for anyone who’s been leaned on as “the Black friend,” or felt erased yet all-too-on-display as the one Black person in the room. I’d like to dedicate it “To all the Magical Negroes out there.”
I idealize centering Blackness, or decentering whiteness, in art and conversations about Black experiences. We’re more than the racism we experience. But it’s impossible to decenter whiteness in a book about being a Black punk rocker. The subtitle could be “The dangers of hanging out with Caucasians.” Ironically, I think this made the book appeal more to the punky, alternative white people who are shaded throughout the story.
I wrote the book for me. I wasn’t thinking too hard about the audience. I just hoped that someone else would like it, that I’d handle the sensitive stuff about race and violence in a thoughtful enough way to not upset anyone who’s already been a victim, that punk rockers would get a kick out of being roasted, and that people in Richmond would enjoy seeing their city on the page.
MD: What caught my attention when I first read the manuscript was its refusal to aspire toward some kind of blind hope, which to me put the novel squarely in harmony with the works of many other Black novelists, past and present. It’s not a cold book, but the novel is certainly matter-of-fact, even in its surreality, which is never explained (thank God) but must be accepted as the price of entry.
In any case, had I known you wanted to dedicate it “To all the Magical Negroes out there” I would’ve made sure of its inclusion! I’m still learning where it’s appropriate for an editor to pull back and be nice and collaborative with the author, and to be more forceful, for lack of a better word. At minimum, I could’ve asked, “Man where is your dedication? You gotta have a dedication!”
CLT: Give me one good reason to have any blind hope!
MD: When editing the book, we discussed the character Lucius and how Black Card plays with and subverts the “magical Negro” trope. To me, your intentions were obvious, but less so perhaps to some readers and reviewers, and consequently there can be some misunderstanding around Lucius. Maybe this is a good place for us to do a writer-editor “postmortem”—I wonder if you think there was anything you would do differently around the treatment of Lucius.
CLT: I was playing with the idea of the Magical Negro: the Black person who exists only to help white people. The narrator—who is nameless, in tribute to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—treats Mona like one by dumping all of his insecurities about Blackness in her lap, the bandmates treat the narrator like one by making him stand in for all Black people when they have questions about race, and Lucius literally is one—the narrator’s guide through his ideas of Blackness.
I’m adapting Black Card for TV (minor flex) and it’s been a nice opportunity to spend more time fleshing out the secondary characters. Among other things,
Black Card’s not The Sixth Sense. I didn’t want the reveal of Lucius’s imaginary Magical Negro status to overshadow everything else in the book. I didn’t want to belabor the tension of other characters not being able to see him. I might have played it too cool, though, and let it be overshadowed. I’m surprised that people are surprised by Lucius being the narrator’s imaginary friend.
MD: Without ruining the end of the book, the reader does get a glimpse of, let’s say, how expansive the Magical Negro Universe really is, in a way that makes the first pages of the novel strangely more realistic; what might’ve been seen at first as a cartoonish introduction to Lucius becomes a sort of metaphysics for the emotional and psychological world of the unseen, the unfolding, imaginary world where Lucius, or any Magical Negro, takes up space and the point from which he would peer into our world.
CLT: I love how you put that. Blackness is rich and varied, even in the ways it lives in our collective consciousness. I hope I showed that with that scene, and showed the ways that Black portrayals of pop culture continue to touch our senses of ourselves. We’re balancing what we know as individuals with our sense of obligation to our communities, while measuring it all against what we’re shown of ourselves on TV and in movies and music…literature, too. I hope this book helps expand the strange outer limits of Blackness and help other Black weirdos accept themselves.
MD: Black Card is set in Richmond, Virginia, and we experience the narrator’s disgust for the Confederate statues and the city’s clear economic split down racial lines. I think Richmond acts as another mirror reflecting the narrator’s shifting identity crisis, and I wonder if this is a deliberate choice, an appropriate reading, or the off-base musings of an editor who, by profession, perhaps reads too much into what’s on the page.
CLT: It’s a parallel! At the time, Richmond was a Black/white city. Black Card’s about a Black/white person living there, who feels like they have a foot in both “sides” of the city. In my life, I try to focus on the positives of my ambiguity—I sorta fit into a lot of places.
Black Card, the city is incomplete to the narrator. He has shut himself out of his Black side, and therefore has shut himself out of his home, and feels the spaces he inhabits closing in on him as he becomes more aware of the world at large, and as white Richmond’s racist atmosphere and glorification of its Confederate history feels more and more dangerous.
MD: Related: I think I’ve asked you in passing, but now we can document it here because it’s important, craft-wise, to think about the novel’s point in time. That is, the book largely takes place in 2002 which, again when I first read the manuscript, I thought was a brilliantly odd year to situate the book. From the music to the technology (and thankfully no social media), setting it in 2002 instantly made Black Card a millennial book, something deeply relatable to me, a novel that spoke to me on an intergenerational level. The description of Outkast’s
CLT: My first book Zero Fade was set 20 years in the past and some places listed it as historical fiction. Made me feel my age!
For Black Card, I had a lot of fun writing text messages from before people had keyboards on their phones and you had to hit the 4 key three times to get the letter I. Texts would be like, “wgats vp?”Since the police have a long history of violence against Black people, there’s a long history of Black art about police violence.
So, Black Card is semi-autobiographical and the main character is around my age. It felt easiest to pull from that time because social media and smartphones hadn’t popped yet, which allowed for a greater sense of isolation for the main character. Plus, the punk subculture was a lot whiter than it is now.
This was pre-Obama, pre-AfroPunk (shout out to James Spooner), peak “hipster racism.” The ways that we talk about Blackness have developed since then, thank goodness. So, Black Card’s sort of a time capsule, but I knew I could share it accurately and, hell, it’s not like racism has up and disappeared since then.
MD: And in what ways do you think Black Card speaks to and connects with the real, current world? There are the more overt connections, like the narrator’s relationship with John Donahue, a police officer with whom the narrator went to high school, for example, but I think your novel recenters any questions and conversations on Blackness away from the white gaze, and illustrates logical consequences based on this recentering. These are just some ways the novel speaks to “the current climate,” but I wonder what’s been on your mind about Black Card in 2020.
CLT: Over the last few years, since Trump got elected, it’s become impossible for white liberals to believe that racism is over or that white supremacy doesn’t exist. I hope that by meeting white progressives on their own turf by setting Black Card in the ostensibly progressive white punk scene, I can show these people what kind of atmosphere they’re creating. The “a bunch of white people against racism” vibe is a little fishy, ya know?
Since the police have a long history of violence against Black people, there’s a long history of Black art about police violence. I tried to bring something new to the topic by giving the cop and the main character some personal history. I hoped that would provide commentary on the types of terrible people who are allowed to become cops, and add a personal touch to the bludgeon of hundreds of years of white supremacy that comes down on the main character.
Chris L. Terry’s novel Black Card is out now in paperback.