An Interview with 2021 Morris Award finalist Christina Hammonds Reed, author of The Black Kids

The William C. Morris Award is awarded each year to a debut YA publication. After considering the wealth of excellence each year, the committee selects 5 finalists, announced in December. From these, the winner is chosen (2021: Kyrie McCauley’s If These Wings Could Fly) though all of the finalists demonstrate unique greatness in every page.

Finalist Christina Hammonds Reed is a force, and her debut The Black Kids offers a compelling portrait of a young Black woman growing up in Los Angeles, coming of age just as the city erupts after Rodney King’s beating by police and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved. At the 2021 Morris Award Celebration event, Hammonds Reed pointed out that her main character, Ashley, and the city of L.A. were on “parallel journeys of self-reckoning.” This book is beautiful and complicated, and we are so thankful for Christina for participating in this wide-ranging and thoughtful interview.

author photo by Elizabeth T. Nguyen

THE HUB: For those of us who were teens in the 90s, this storyline doesn’t feel like historical fiction. The beating of Rodney King and the unrest in L.A. filled our television screens and dominated the news for a brief season. For today’s teens, this story might be totally new to them, but it will – tragically – feel like current events. How did you balance the past and the present as you dove into this story?

HAMMONDS REED: I think that’s very much the tragedy of the riots is how deeply contemporary they feel. I purposefully set out to write a narrative that used the past to hold a mirror up to the present. I had no idea just how much 1992 would mirror 2020 with the swell of protests and uprisings in response to unequal policing and multiple deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of police. Past is very much present when it comes to grappling with issues of racial inequality and the legacy of systemic and institutional racism. Until we as a country 100% acknowledge how pervasive and persistent racism is and how it shapes all of our interactions, there’s no real reckoning to be had. So I suppose the answer is I didn’t really have to balance much at all, unfortunately.

THE HUB: Similarly, your characters feel both of their moment and of this moment. Was that intentional?

HAMMONDS REED: I think of The Black Kids first and foremost as a coming-of-age story, and many of the things that Ashley is dealing with are the same things that teens have always dealt with emotionally – toxic friendships, parents who just don’t understand, feeling disconnected from a sibling going through mental health struggles, unearthing family secrets.  All of these very traditional coming-of-age elements are compounded by race and gender and brought into clearer focus by the riots and everything else going on politically around her, whether it’s the dirty wars in Latin America, the AIDS crisis, or the post-war experience of refugees.

I think we’re definitely always informed by the landscape of our specific era but also in how that builds on everything that’s come before us. That said, I think certain things about adolescence don’t change much – such as the longing to belong – and the riots serve as a catalyst for Ashley’s reexamination of to whom she wants to belong/where she finds that sense of community. Likewise, the war in Vietnam/Civil Rights era might have done the exact same thing for teenagers a generation or so before her – and today’s teenagers might have found themselves asking those same hard questions in the wake of the George Floyd protests.  

THE HUB: Landscape, setting, the power of place. These are all terms we hear a lot in the discussion around books, but in this case, L.A. plays a very real role in telling this story. In your acknowledgements, you even write, “To my fellow Angelenos, I love you even when you suck.” And Brandy Colbert (the lovely and talented!) calls The Black Kids a “love letter to Los Angeles.” So, what is it about L.A. for you? What does this place mean to you?

HAMMONDS REED: I love Brandy so much! L.A. is so often misrepresented in popular culture as either solely the vapidity associated with a certain Calabasas clan/influencer culture, or this (usually offensive) caricature of South L.A. pathos. In reality it’s incredibly diverse – socioeconomically, ethnically, religiously, even geographically. That diversity is what makes it so special to me. There’s so much beauty in the fact that people come from all over to dream and create lives from those they left behind, whether it’s as grandchildren of The Great Migration, as immigrants, or as queer kids from small-town America who dream of finding community. Like I mention in the book, L.A. is founded by afro-latinos and one of its largest streets is named after an afro-latino!  Not to mention the beauty of the indigenous culture that existed long before L.A. in its current permutation. The L.A. I know and love is so rarely depicted on screen in all its beauty and pain, and I wanted to do my small part to create a more honest portrait of the city that birthed me.

THE HUB: I’ve never been to L.A., but you’ve really made me want to visit! What about the title: how’d you land on The Black Kids

HAMMONDS REED: The title really is representative of Ashley’s journey from viewing “the Black kids” as “they and them” to “us and we.” We start off with her watching them across the quad, assuming she has very little in common with them because of her internalized racism, and we end with her truly finding a sense of community in these same kids. It’s about her breaking down her preconceived notions of Blackness and finding the beauty in their shared experience. It’s also been my experience that in PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions), “the Black kids” are often lumped together, and I wanted to dismantle that concept and showcase the individuality of that experience as well. We’re not a monolith. Ashley’s struggles are different than Jo’s, are different than LaShawn’s, are different from his sister’s, and vastly from the experiences of her grandmother as a child many years ago.  So the title gets to the heart of “what does it mean to be one of the Black kids”? And for a non-Black reader, how does Ashley’s experience differ from the narrative that you might’ve been expecting with whatever preconceived notions you had when you picked out a book titled The Black Kids?

THE HUB: Those are really good questions. Besides provoking such good thought, 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.

And this:

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. or a love letter to language? 

HAMMONDS REED: 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. 

THE HUB: 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 L.A. was 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?

HAMMONDS REED: 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.

THE HUB: The book does such a good job of describing and defining the emotional weight that so many carry: anger, fear, hopelessness, fatigue, frustration. It was true in 1992; it’s still so true today. By contrast, the book offers moments where Ashley feels weightless – the trampoline, a love that feels “like feathers, like flight.” How do you manage such a balancing act, the return to hope even in the midst of difficulties?

HAMMONDS REED: I think that’s just life itself, and my goal is always to capture something truthful. Even in the midst of some of the most traumatic experiences of my life, there has been levity or humor to be found (even if said humor is of the darkest varieties). Humor is a beautiful coping mechanism and a beautiful way in which we share in the delight and absurdity of being human sometimes. And as cheesy as the sentiment is, love is what makes it all worthwhile. I’m perpetually in awe of fact that even in the midst of slavery and the antebellum and pre-Civil Rights era South, people like my ancestors found each other and dared to fall in love and create families and friendships and forge connections even in what many of us nowadays would consider an utterly hopeless situation. Yes, there was unspeakable trauma, but even then, there was beauty and comfort to be found in love.

THE HUB: What’s next for you? Do you have projects in the works? 

HAMMONDS REED: I’m at work on an adult novel that looks at a family aspiring to be like the Jackson Five that examines the ways in which entertainment has functioned as a path to the American Dream for Black folks, but also the ways in which society takes from Black performers. Also, what does that pursuit end up doing to the family itself? At the end of the day, it’s very much about family and finding home. Hopefully I pull it off!

Thanks again to Christina for her time and for The Black Kids. Want to hear more from Christina? Member-manager Sara Beth continued the conversation, tackling more on race and gender and family!