Black Card by Chris L. Terry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You ever read a book that you’re just happy was written? ‘Black Card’ is one such book for me. I mean, there have been a couple of those this year, but this one in particular felt timely and important. I read about this book long before it was released, and admit I was somewhat disappointed that it was going to be satire. I like writing, thinking, speaking, reading about race and identity, race and politics, race and relationships … and it feels weighty, but like it deserves that weight. It feels like we don’t often contemplate its meaning seriously, and hide behind platitudes like, ‘race is a social construct’ or ‘race is a fiction’, neither of which acknowledges that quite apart from the physiological or biological, race can and does have real significance. So anyway, because of that, experimental treatments of the subject usually wind up making me annoyed. But Chris L. Terry, I know, was writing in part from personal experience as a biracial man who pursued life choices not considered “Black enough.” Because of Chris Terry’s own experience, I understood why a satirical approach might give him both the distance and freedom to express what he wanted, no matter how outrageous others might find it. And also, he knows things about this experience that I cannot, so I can only approach his treatment of it with a completely open mind.
In ‘Black Card’, our unnamed protagonist is a punk rocker. As an aside, Chris Terry, like the protagonist, was a punk rocker, a choice which helped him inadvertently ‘pass’ as white at times. He notes that punk grew from ska, a Jamaican music form that is very much Black, but yeah … since most people don’t know that, punk gets labeled as white when its roots are not. Anyways, I digress. With his Black father and white mother, the protagonist never experienced what he believes is “real Blackness.” He doesn’t walk correctly, use the right slang, wear the right clothes, look completely identifiably Black (except to Black people who he says know how to recognize each other in a hostile world — I say that all the time!!), nor listen to the “right” music. But thankfully he has “Lucius” his Blackness spirit guide who helps him earn his Black Card by critiquing his responses to occurrences both routine and exceptional in his daily life.
What would a Black man say? Do? Think? in each circumstance? Our protagonist doesn’t always know, so Lucius coaches him. That coaching is by turns comic, stereotypical, tragic and poignant, distracting us from, then eventually leading us to understand both the complexity of the biracial protagonist’s existence (Black, yet not; white, yet not) and the way Blackness seems to exist both within him (his father’s blood) and outside of him, in the belief systems of people around him about what Black people are like.
Lucius is his externalized Blackness come to life, illustrating all of the stereotypes about Black men from the verifiable to the ridiculous (e.g., high swagger quotient, pronouces ‘motherfucker’ MUH-FUKKA with emphasis on the MUH); but he is also the sage who will lead our protagonist to a core realization about who he is, and what it means to be Black.
I enjoyed this book. But, if you don’t enjoy experimental devices in fiction, you could find it exasperating. Almost all of the characters are there to illustrate a point about race, so it might be frustrating when their “storyline” is not tied up neatly, or even much developed beyond their utility to make that point. Nevertheless, I highlighted a lot of this book, and recommend it. It satisfied me, completely.
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