Punk Rock, Race, and the City of Richmond: Chris L. Terry on “Black Card”

Chris L. Terry

Chris L. Terry’s second novel, Black Card, is a lot of things. It’s an immersion in one city’s punk scene, a thoughtful consideration of its narrator’s struggles with questions of identity, and an unsettling depiction of aggressions both micro and macro. Terry writes about music from his own experience, and there’s a memorably lived-in quality to Black Card, even when Terry takes the novel in more stylized directions. With the paperback edition of the novel out now, I checked in with Terry to discuss the book’s genesis, its relationship to punk, and what the (Young) Pioneers have to do with any of this. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t start out with a question about punk rock. Black Card‘s narrator plays in a touring punk band — and you yourself have spent time in bands. What were the challenges of getting the small details of a punk scene right while still writing something accessible to an audience who might not have that history with a local scene?

I believe that really specific stuff is often the most relatable, so I just went for it.

Any reader can understand that you’re not gonna be well-rested after sleeping in a van, or that it’s rude to cook meat in your vegetarian roommate’s skillet. And those are details that will help a reader understand punk culture more than if I was like, “This band sounds like Unwound meets Hoover with a touch of Shotmaker.”

Check out all three of those bands, though. They were great.

You could tell a similar story about a black hockey player, but I know and love punk and wanted to get it right. When I first started drafting Black Card, I was just listing out old inside jokes about local hippies, hazy memories of nihilistic backyard parties, and uncomfortable encounters with randos on tour. I really wanted to capture the snarky in-jokes and the ways that the punk I love can empower by glorifying the underdog. I hoped readers would see how the DIY punk scene could be a refuge for a young person who is having trouble answering some bigger questions about identity and politics. 

I even dorked out and sent Catapult, the publisher, a bunch of reference images of late ‘90s/early ‘00s record covers and DIY photocopier art by Born Against, Combat Wounded Veteran, Cometbus, etc. I really wanted that grainy, high contrast look with pops of color like we used to get from the red toner at Kinko’s. Look at the hardcover of Black Card then look at a (Young) Pioneers record. We got it! Catapult have been awesome to work with on every level, and their art department makes amazing-looking books. I’m really glad to have Black Card be part of that, and that they let me have some input instead of slapping, like, a stock photo of a postcard punk with a green mohawk on the cover.

Does writing now occupy the same place in your life that music once did?

I’m a parent now, and that shit’s time-consuming! I deal with the time-crunch by only having one “thing,” and right now, that thing is books. Besides, I’d rather be the old guy with a novel than the old guy who is still trying to rock.

I appreciate the simplicity of the act of writing. The logistics are minimal. There’s no practice space to schlep to. No bandmates to coordinate with. No noise to piss off the neighbors. It’s just me typing in my own little self-contained world.

That said, I’m quicker to identify as a music geek than a book geek. I read music sites for pleasure and Black Card’s been a great excuse to connect with some of my favorite music writers, like Hanif Abdurraqib, Tom Breihan, Martin Douglas and Jason Heller.

Since the release of the hardcover edition of Black Card, it seems as though nearly all of the real-world themes and conflicts it engages with have become even more prominent. Was there a moment when your own writing seemed unnervingly prescient to you? 

Black Card plays with the idea of Magical Negroes, Spike Lee’s term for a black character who shows up to help white people then disappears. I was trying to apply the Magical Negro concept to being “the black friend” who white people lean on for answers about all things black. I was also showing black people as having our own Magical Negroes, black angels on our shoulders who act as our conscience as black people. As Black Lives Matter really started popping in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I often felt like “the black friend” as white friends I hadn’t heard from in a while checked in. It started to feel like myself and other black people were suddenly expected to do more labor to help white people address their own racism. This was extra complicated for me because I’m half-white and I experience a lot of light-skinned privilege, and feel like this is my time to make good on that privilege and do some extra work, but it feels futile. White people have never listened to us! Why would they start now? They made this problem, they can fix it.

On Father’s Day, I was talking to my dad–my black parent–who grew up in the Jim Crow South. He was saying that it feels like nothing has changed since 1968, that we’re still going through the exact same shit. I see it!

In Black Card, I was trying to capture the oppressively racist atmosphere in Richmond, which is best symbolized by the city’s Confederate monuments. Twenty years ago, it felt like those things would never come down–legally or at the hands of the people–but now they’re coming down.

I was crying tears of joy watching it happen, but it’s an ambivalent win. Taking down the monuments is meaningful but symbolic. It doesn’t offer a tangible change. It felt like Virginia politicians were throwing protesters a bone. “You want us to hold the police accountable for the fact that they are a tax-suck that murders citizens? Hey–look over here, we’re gonna pull down a statue of a bad guy!” Fuck off. Pull down the actual, living bad guys–the white supremacist police force, the rich people who are letting us starve, the health insurance vampires who let an ambulance ride ruin someone’s life, whoever the hell invented student loans…

Black Card is a novel that deals with race, identity, sexual violence, and racism — among a host of other subjects. But it also has more surreal scenes — including nearly all of Lucius’s appearances. Was it difficult keeping these disparate elements in balance? 

Phew, it’s a lot to see it all listed out! 

Surrealness is the escape. It’s where the mind goes to process a traumatic reality because nowhere else feels safe. Reality doesn’t work, so make your own. Punk does that, too, by encouraging people to create their own small worlds. That is part of why I wanted to set the book in the punk scene.

I hope everything stays in balance in Black Card. The book is about how conflicting experiences create a complicated whole, and how tiring it can be to try and reconcile the different parts of yourself when they don’t easily integrate. On a more practical note, that means it’s hard to find a three-page chunk of the book that sums it up when I’m doing a reading.

How would you describe the feedback that you’ve gotten since the release of Black Card?

I wish I’d dedicated Black Card to everyone who’s been “the black friend.” The book’s subtitle could be “The dangers of hanging out with white people.”

So, the book has hit home hard with a lot of other people who have been the one black friend, or the Magical Negro. If you were the black kid at punk shows in your town, this book is about you.

Also, I’ve noticed that punks love stuff that talks trash about punk. Black Card sure does that! That probably ties into a bigger guilt among hand-wringing white liberals, who are aware that they are “so white” but aren’t sure what to do about it. I think that by being set in a slacker/punk scene, Black Card meets these readers on their own turf and gives ideas of white supremacy and microaggressions a familiar framework that makes it easier to contextualize and understand. Some of my most enthusiastic readers have been white Gen Xers who were like, “We thought we were onto something in the ‘90s but…wow, Lollapalooza sure was white, huh? Your book made me think.”

Do you have a sense of what your next project will be? 

A cable network hired me to write a TV pilot based on Black Card, so I’m working on that with a big-ass grin on my face. I first got that job offer when things were crapping out at my old 9-5, and I was experiencing a lot of ambivalence about applying for stable jobs that I didn’t want, so it’s really, really exciting and validating to have this career change. 

I’m keeping my expectations low and enjoying everything I get to do. Chances are that this script won’t turn into a TV show, but hopefully I can use it as a calling card to work on more scripts. Aside from supporting my family, the main goal here is to not go back to writing ads. Knowing what you don’t want to do is a powerful motivator. What’s punker than that?

I’m working on a new novel, too, but don’t want to curse it by sharing too much.


Photo:Jacob Boll

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