I was about five or six years old and I was at the park near my kindergarten. My mother had taken my sister and me to the park to play, and there was a white family there. Somehow, I and the white boy in that family ended up playing together on the swings, in the tire rounds where the dirt was, etc, until his older sister came up to us with a scowl on her face and said to her brother, "You shouldn't be playing with her!" We both looked at each other in confusion before his sister grabbed his wrist and yanked him away. I went up to my mother bewildered by the whole thing, asking her why was that girl so mean and why couldn't I play with my new friend, and she murmured nonsense to me and guided me with sister in tow to the car to leave.
This is 1988/1989, over twenty years after the end of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
I often cite Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as the book that made me want to be a writer, which is true. But when I was answering a similar question during my readers session at RSJ 2011, I realized one of the reasons why I was drawn to the book was because it humanized an interracial friendship that really shouldn't have ever happened in the 1930s South. Jeremy Simms, a white boy, was always friendly with Cassie Logan and her family despite the entire rest of his family being almost beyond racists. Even when I was reading it the first time, Jeremy intrigued me because I wanted to know how he avoided drinking the Kool-Aid while the others in his family seemed to be drinking free refills of it every fifteen minutes or so. He was such a sweet, pure soul, and I remember praying and reading with not a little trepidation that he would end up just as racist as the rest of his family, as Uncle Hammer had portended. I think I would've cried some ugly tears had that happened.
So, Roll of Thunder planted the seed; then Maniac Magee was the fertilizer. I loved this book. I had it constantly checked out of the library, and it was a change of pace because now the protagonist was a white boy instead of the black girl from Roll of Thunder. He was similar to Jeremy in many ways--a loner who didn't really care about conventions and just "did him". He didn't care about the "rules" of the society because he lived outside them, and with that was a certain freedom to take people as they come and make decisions based on that.
You know, like Martin Luther King said he wanted us to do one day.
And actually, I have more thoughts about this particular line in a very long and insightful speech is always co-opted but never really practice but that's for another time.
I went to an all-black school from the age or three to the age of 11, with a brief interlude at Catholic school for first grade. There was pretty much not a day that didn't go by without us hear something about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks, or Harriet Tubman, etc. I knew much about my history and was taught to be proud of it; but I could never understand why white kids didn't attend our school. I'd even asked my mother why couldn't white kids go to my school; she said they couldn't they just chose not to attend. I couldn't understand that at all, because I thought my school was boss; and then I'd wonder if all white people were just really light black people or if all black people were just really tan white people.
I do find it notable that of all the characters who are allowed that particular freedom in those early books were white and male. Of course at the time I wasn't savvy enough to notice such a nuance, but I suppose it has to be them because white males are at the top of the societal ladder, which means they have a freedom of mobility those below don't generally have--particularly black females. And actually, it's only now as I write this blog that I even realize just how early my interest in interracial relationships in literature really was. These two books were among my very favorites as a child, and they had me scouring for more books that highlighted interracial relationships among kids, and see how they bridged that racial divide.
As I became older and started thinking a boy's cooties weren't necessarily a bad thing, my interest became more inclusive and almost predominated by romantic interracial relationships featuring black women (or actually, relationships that featured black women, period, because those shows were just going off the air right when I needed them most *clings to Living Single and bemoans the fact her non-cable having self couldn't access Girlfriends because living in the country meant no UPN without it*). In fact, I'd wondered if one of the reasons Jeremy was so different from his folks was because Jeremy was or would end up a little in love with Cassie, but Ms. Taylor decided to pair Cassie with Moe instead (I liked Moe...Moe *snuggles him*). But I still thought of the "what if?" possibilities had Ms. Taylor decided to go the other route. Then the more I consumed media (mainly TV and movies) and started to have crushes on teen stars (who were usually white) I began to create my own stories where girls who looked like me could get some love. It took a while for me to put those stories on paper, and even then those black girls started to look less like "the most beautiful of beautiful ever" to be worthy of said man to just "regla" girls who could be the most beautiful of beautiful for their man.
Thus sprouted my interest in writing interracial love stories featuring a black woman and a nonblack man. Of course, this choice raises several eyebrows, particularly for those who know me personally because I'm very much proud to be a person of African descent and I'm very much advocate for black love in real life and the media--to the point I get ridiculously excited when I see a black couple being loving to each other because that's something you just so rarely see in the media. But that's the problem--it is as if it is mutually exclusive to be proud to be black/to see black love while at the same time being open to dating/loving outside one's race. And no, it's not good enough for a black couple to be together just because both parties are black; color as the foundation of a relationship will never be strong enough to have that relationship last. One of the reasons I focused my studies on interracial fiction in college because I wanted to see how interracial relationships (not strictly of the romantic variety) were handled through the ages. There were some very, um, interesting ideas (my "favorite" is an actual black and white striped child of an interracial union from like the late 16th century), but there was still an element of...I don't want to say fetishism, but the inability for a story to be told in such a way where the story didn't end tragically or in such a way that I was frustrated with one or both of the lead characters.
I'd decided for my thesis I would write my own interracial fiction--Reconstructing Jada Channing was the very first original story I gave a serious attempt to writing...and then I thought this was crap and decided to start writing Being Plumville. Reconstructing Jada Channing garnered high praise in my departments, to the point it was named the best thesis on African-American Literature at my alma mater for the 2004-2005 school term; and Being Plumville has opened so many doors for me I cannot count. Now, I have several publications out, all of which the main focus is a black woman loving and being loved, because in the end, that's all that matters. And in many ways, giving the heroine a hero who is different from her racially and/or culturally forces her to learn more about herself in the context of not only a black woman, but a member of humanity (and the hero, too, for that matter. And to get one's characters to that plane of "love is love" is my ultimate goal of all.
(Note: Felix Reynolds in Being Plumville is definitely inspired by Jeremy Simms and Ronnie Bass from the film Remember the Titans. If you're not acquainted with either, I highly recommend you check out Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Remember the Titans. RtT is an automatic stop-and-watch at my house, I don't even care. My sis and I quote the mess out of that film. Oh, and one more thing--Gerry & Julius = O.T.P.)