When I started writing stories four years ago, I knew, in a very vague but urgent way that I wanted to tell “my story,” or at least the stories that were important to me: stories about the people I knew and loved, black and brown people, first-generation kids and our parents, poor people and working-class people and barely-middle class people trying to find meaning and connection and comfort.
So when I was presented with the chance to write Blacktop, a book series about a group of teenage misfits who find each other through basketball, I felt excited and ready. I’d written about basketball before, and I’ve played since I could walk. One of my earliest memories is of my six-foot father blocking my shot into a patch of wet grass.
The trouble started on the first page. I sat down, ready to catch all the great ideas coming down the creative flume, and instead I got a bunch of questions: Who was this story for, this story about a black kid playing basketball? And isn’t this kind of cliché? Or maybe the assumption here is that black kids will only read if there’s a ball involved? And so am I, by extension, by writing this series, encouraging the idea that black people are only interesting or important or valuable in relationship to our athletic skills?
This kind of thinking isn’t unique to me. Writers are natural parsers and over-thinkers. Plus I’ve known for a long time that as a black person, some white people expect a performance from me, something that might confirm what they think they know about my identity. That’s why “You don’t really sound black” actually means “I’m measuring everything you do and say against my very dim understanding of blackness.” Take all of this as understood. What surprised me was that these questions took up so much imaginative space, and did it so quickly, and were in fact so large and puzzling that they stopped me from writing anything.
This article addresses something that has been heavily on my mind as I engage with writing interracial love stories and contemporary fiction.