There's a decent argument to be made around whether we should allow our identities to be defined by our "generation." Millennials, Gen Z, Boomers: We're all just here together, trying to figure things out.
As a proud member of Gen X, I've always felt relatively immune to such nonsense. We are individuals! We actively reject the things you tell us to like! But even this distancing implies a "sameness" that is faintly ridiculous. A Millennial growing up in rural Alabama experienced a very different reality than one who came of age in Quebec. My experience growing up in suburban Tennessee is vastly different from that of Ashley, the protagonist of The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed. Despite those differences, however, there are landmark events in every generation, and for us, the Rodney King beating and subsequent unrest was one.
This YA novel, Hammonds Reed's debut, is a beautiful and complicated look at growing up in L.A., and it reckons with such weighty issues as race, class, and gender. I'm thankful to Christina for this amazing book and for her time in answering these questions.
SBW: This book is about so much more than the events surrounding Rodney King’s beating. It’s about Ashley finding her way into adulthood, especially as she grapples with the evolution of her childhood friendships, her deepening understanding of her parents and their relationship, and especially about family and the ways we can hurt one another even as we love one another. There’s a lot here! The book also briefly mentions Bill Cosby’s response to the unrest, and I thought about the Cosby Show and the idea of the Model Black Family sold during this time. What would you hope readers would see in Ashley’s family, especially in response to the “Cosby” effect?
CHR: For so long, Black people have had to fight to be seen as human, and usually that meant needing to appear perfect, almost a pleading of “see we’re just like you!” Respectability politics dictated that everything about us should be crafted to be palatable to white people: so you can get ahead, so you can live in “their” neighborhoods, so you can fit in in “their” spaces. There’s a psychological burden that comes along with having to constantly prove your humanity, or the fact that you aren’t somehow a threat, that you belong. Perfection isn’t a reality for any family and certainly not when the legacy of intergenerational racial trauma means that there are a number of ways that trauma maps itself out on your body and in your relationships - both within the family unit and outside of it. Black people in stories should be able to be just as human, just a flawed, just as delicate, just as sensitive as white people are allowed to be, not just pathological or perfect. I think we’re very slowly but surely advancing towards a place where Black creators are empowered to push back against/explore respectability politics in our narratives.
SBW: I’ve read a few interviews with you, and I’m shocked that they haven’t been asking you about music! Music seems to fill every corner of this book, and it is part of what brings the time and place so fully to life. I even made a playlist of all the songs in the book (I hope I didn’t miss any!). For sure, some of the songs are NSFW, but they are so full of life! How did you go about threading the music into this story?
CHR: I love love love your playlist!!! And I love love love music! It’s very much a part of who I am. It’s very much a part of my family story. Also, coming from a film background, score and soundtrack definitely factor into how I see a scene playing out, how it shapes or enhances the emotional beats. In film, there’s this idea of diegetic sound, meaning what’s the soundscape of either the world on the screen, what the character is listening to, or non-diegetic sound and how external music shapes our perception of the visuals. I am super conscious of how music might provide a further glimpse of the emotional journey a particular character is on. Each of the main characters in The Black Kids has a particular soundscape associated with them - Lana is very riot grrrl, Jo has this very diverse but politically minded playlist, Kimberly and the girls have this fun pop youthful soundscape, and Ashley’s on this journey where she’s taking all of these sounds in and ruminating on both them and the world at large as filtered through music.
SBW: I’m going to get into the weeds a bit here, so please bear with me if I stumble. . . .
Your book has been lauded as great for readers of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which definitely cracked open the narrative on the relationship between Black communities and the police. It brought into the light, made visible, the trauma of Black bodies, and plenty of young Black readers saw themselves and their experiences reflected there.
As I read your book, especially with the recent outcry over a cover story about “Why White Children Need Diverse Books,” I’m thinking of Toni Morrison and her insistence that if others got something from her work, that was fine, but she was writing for Black people. How would you respond to those questions of audience? Should we be concerned with what the white Kids can get from The Black Kids?
CHR: I agree with Toni in that I wrote this book very specifically for the girl I once was in some ways. For those of us who navigate being the token Black kid in privileged spaces in which we’ve felt we needed to shrink ourselves, to laugh at, or dismiss, deeply hurtful microaggressions, for those of us who have had to grow into our power and grow to love our Blackness. I think those kids are the ones who will understand this book most profoundly. It’s a very specific experience. That said, I think the book is very intersectional as we inherently live very intersectional lives. Ashley is a girl trying to be a good friend, sister, daughter, and member of her community. It’s an examination of sisterhood, gender, and class as much as race.
But also, I think that writing adage of the “specific is universal” very much holds true. Nobody ever asks what can a Black kid take away from a “white” book or a “white” movie. We’re raised with narratives of whiteness all around us. Also, more often than not “white” books aren’t compared to each other as overwhelmingly as “Black” books tend to be. Whiteness looks many different ways, as does Blackness, as does queerness, etc. Using your example, Ashley, from my book, and Starr from The Hate U Give come from very, very different worlds and tell their stories in different ways. Ashley is privileged and disconnected from the riots and her Blackness and remains so for most of the book, whereas Starr is witness to a police murder, grows up in a Black community plagued by the issues income inequality and systemic/institutional racism often bring about. Starr struggles with feeling like an outsider in her school, whereas Ashley has been best friends with and attended private school with her crew since kindergarten. Ashley’s is a story of racial awakening and a growing self-awareness. Police brutality and the impact of unequal policing is examined in both stories, but unfortunately that’s always been a reality of what it means to be Black in this country. All of this to say, Ashley and Starr are connected via the experiences of being Black in America, but even that manifests very differently for both of them. And yet nobody ever asks a white author what a Black child can take away from narratives such as Five Feet Apart or Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, or all the Lurlene McDaniel books (which I looooved as a kid) even though those are all about white kids with cancer.
Stories exist to share in something human with each other, and hopefully to build empathy along the way. So I suppose I hope what white kids get from it is a greater ability to empathize with other people so that they might be better advocates and allies, to not view Blackness as monolithic, as well as a curiosity for how our not-so-distant history manifests in the present. And hopefully the next generation will simply reach for a book and see a story with which to engage.
SBW: There is plenty of action and emotional intensity in this book. There are also sentences that are absolutely beautiful. I’m in love with this:
At five years old, I found wonder in the burning, all the animals, the ash and the exodus.
We let the weight of our history sit like so many rocks in our mouths, silencing us as we wash ourselves clean.
So, is your book a love letter to L.A. (as Brandy Colbert has called it) or a love letter to language?
CHR: Both! I grew up reading and loving writers who use language in interesting and inventive ways like Toni Morrison. My parents had one of those massive dictionaries at the kitchen table that I would just flip through when I was bored. I’ve always loved learning different languages as well, and I love the fun and lyricism of AAVE in creating a language that held on to African linguistic traditions while blending it with the language of the colonizer. All of this to say I just genuinely love words and what can be done with them lol.
SBW: On the topic of language, the word “riot” has taken on such layers of discourse of late. “The Rodney King Riots” were what the unrest in LA was always called back in the day. But what happens when we change the language around events like these? What shifts when we call something a “revolution” or a “protest” or an “uprising” instead of a riot?
CHR: It truly gets to the heart of how a narrative is created around certain events and that old saying “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” How does who is controlling the narrative determine how something is framed in history books? An uprising or revolution connotes a struggle against unjust forces - which is exactly what happened in 1992 and what the protests last year were. What does it mean when property destruction causes people to be more upset than the destruction of the Black and brown body?
There’s a very purposeful reason why I included the Tulsa massacre in the book, because it is technically also historically referred to as a riot. But one that had up until recently been lost to history, as had many of the riots that involved white racialized violence against Black communities. What happened in Tulsa was a terroristic attack on Blackness and Black economic development that set Black families back generations. History is still very much present, and if we’re to advance at all, we have to examine how language influences whose grievances are given legitimacy and subsequent restitution/lack thereof and how that shapes our political landscape as well.
SBW: Besides the hefty conversations around race, this book also wades into conversations surrounding gender and the intersectionality of the two. LaShawn’s sister is a relatively minor character, but the moment of contrast here is powerful:
Her brother says I want the world, and her mother does everything in her power to give it to him. She says I want the world, and everyone -- including her own mother -- tells her that’s too much.
And then there’s the scene of harassment at the book’s opening, and then this at the close (bookended by those neon bikinis!):
In this moment, there’s ocean in our hair, and we’re awash in the glitter of possibility. We’re girls in neon bikinis laughing. Soon, the world will crack wide open before us, and we will be women. Here we are.
So, what do you hope young women take from this story?
CHR: In regards to LaShawn’s sister, I wanted to look at the ways in which boys and girls are treated differently, sometimes by their own parents, even when they show an aptitude for the same exact thing. It’s a maddening aspect of our lack of gender equality and pay parity. In early 1992, there wasn’t yet a WNBA for his sister to aspire to. Even now that there is, in 2021, the money isn’t even remotely the same. Success for a super talented male basketball player looks very different than it does for a female athlete of comparable talent. So what does that mean for the girls who got and still get left behind? The challenges of gender inequality are only compounded by race and class and sexuality for Black girls as they move through this world.
The book is also very much about the power of sisterhood, the power of finding your tribe, and the power of letting go. Our female friendships and relationships are so important to our sense of self and how we approach womanhood at that age. I hope that readers learn it’s ok to realize when friendships no longer serve you, and to seek out those that do, but also that it’s ok to not have all the answers and to learn and grow from past mistakes and allow for that growth in others.
I used to hear growing up, “oh I don’t get along with girls. Or “I’m more of a guys’ girl.” Or “women are so catty.” It’s definitely something that we hear less and less these days, but there’s so much power to be had in female friendships when women lift each other up. If you haven’t found friends that do that for you, or function in that way, it’s not because there’s something inherently wrong with girls themselves - it’s because you simply haven’t found your people yet (and probably have to examine how internalized misogyny has impacted how you form relationships with other women).
SBW: Maybe because it’s L.A., but I keep imagining this book as a movie. I read where it was optioned, so where does that project stand? How soon might we get to celebrate the film version?
CHR: It’s in progress! I’m not sure how much more I’m allowed to say, but they’re definitely working on it, and I hope more big announcements are on their way later this year!
SBW: Ok, here’s the lightning round. Make whatever recommendation comes to mind first! There are no wrong answers!
Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
“Every Single Night” by Fiona Apple
Sound of Metal Dir. by Darius Marder
“I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp White Background: An Elegy” – by Morgan Parker
Girl Scout cookies! (I just put a hurting on a box of Samoas)
Each Sunday, I post a brief introduction to a collection of poetry I've been loving. I include one poem that I think really sings. No review. No need. If it's here, you'll know I recommend it. If you have one to recommend (yours or someone else's), send it along. I'll do my best to be here every Sunday.
If ever you doubted the wonders still available to you for next-to-nothing, you might find reassurance in the poetry section of a used bookstore. Here, again, I am drinking deeply from that well on a gorgeous Sunday, reading this copy of Four Testimonies by Kate Daniels. In one hand is the crumpled price tag, offering this collection for 75 cents, and in the other is Simone Weil and Eugène Atget and the heart-wrenching fragments sifted from the 1989 freeway collapse in Oakland, and all this covered in a richness of detail and delivered with an almost disarming directness. Then, too, there are the more personal and physical poems, those dripping in mother's milk and sex and violence and loss. The series on domestic violence is raw and full of hurt, but it also houses such moments of triumph as this:
How can I tell I gave birth
to the universe, what a god
I was, how omnipotent, how
large. You stupid man,
what can be said about making
a creature, a living creature,
from a homely, mortal body?
While I relate to her reflections on being a mother and a poet, the opening section with Weil at its center is my favorite, especially this long, building bit about being a woman:
full of tenderness as any
woman, soft at the core, turned
on the same lathe of negative
space, dark tunnel
tuned vulnerable, delicate
honeycomb, chambered but tough.
... To be a woman ---
the one they recognized ---
was so absurd --- hanging back
instead of plunging forward, denying strength,
keeping hands soft and gloved and clasped
in the lap, not staring
anyone in the face, not speaking, not
thinking, not being
anyone at all
who owns herself
but someone who always
belongs to others, anyone
at all who affords the price,
in the way that a portrait
of a beautiful woman --- a naked woman ---
belongs to the buyer. Painting purchased,
she's as good as dead
for what remains of the actual
creature who posed so proudly,
hair lustrous, body sleek,
rare thoughts churning in her living brain.