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.

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This article addresses something that has been heavily on my mind as I engage with writing interracial love stories and contemporary fiction.

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6 thoughts on “

  1. I absolutely get this. I have this kid story. I think it is finally finished, I started it about 10 years or more ago! But, after the first dozen drafts, I realised I knew nothing about the audience or the people IN the story or the time period. I stopped writing for years. I had created this child and the child was a chicken!

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  2. I love how insightful this post is and the thought that went into the journey of writing. My personal feeling is to write from and for the soul and not to worry too much about audience, but I also understand that it’s not as simple as that. It’s the “conscious” writers that stretch boundaries and understanding. Thanks for sharing this article.

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  3. I completely understand the “not being black enough” comment. As a person, because I went to college and graduated, because I wasn’t a sports star, because I don’t listen to a lot of rap music, I got that comment a lot. I think it’s worse as a writer because unless you describe your character as black or present a scenario based on black “experiences,” the stories won’t be perceived as such.

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    1. I agree and it’s very infuriating, but at this point I don’t really suffer people evaluating where my characters are black “enough” most of the time I find it comes from non-black authors questioning the voice, so instead I turn it around and ask what they think black folk are like? They usually can’t answer without getting flustered to all hell. I think the most common thing is people assume your characters are self-inserts because they see you as an “exception” not part of a varied group of people. I’d like to believe this is getting better and people will see stories for what they are in the future. I really do.

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