Wednesday, February 7th, 2007
By Rachel Kramer Bussel
I have to admit that I almost didn’t finish David Matthews’s memoir Ace of Spades, about his childhood growing up in Baltimore in the 1960’s and 70’s as the son of a Black Nationalist father and absent Jewish mother. On page 18, a young Matthews is forced to eat a much-hated bowl of gazpacho, and winds up puking into it. Then his father’s girlfriend forces him to consume the entire “fetid bowl,” teaching him a lesson that seems unclear but horrifying. No less dramatic is the fork plunged smoothly into the child’s back.
An entire book full of such anecdotes would likely take a stronger constitution than mine, but I was lured back upon my second read by Matthews’s skillful wielding of the English language, one that’s as present a player as any of the people he recounts. A brief passage about his grandmother’s housing options in the black sections of Baltimore finds her housed at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, and only at the conclusion of the episode do we find that of their two sons, one, “Thurgood, dabbled in the law.”
For 39-year-old Matthews, these are quick jabs of his pen before moving on to another piece of the racially complex puzzle he paints, thrown in as footnotes or seemingly random asides that together pull his story above that of simply individual life and into the realm of something approaching a thesis about race, class, power, and identity. Although there is no manifesto or simplistic feel-good can’t-we-all-just-get-along message attached to Ace of Spades, Matthews weaves in political diatribes and observations, his adult self narrating through the lens of history, lived and studied, to the child attempting to make sense of his surroundings. Amidst tales of passing amongst his Jewish classmates and tossing around the word “nigger” to his father, he’ll summon an observation such as, “Racism is not blindness; it is sight that refuses to be clouded by the heart and mind.”
His father’s work in the world of African-American newspapers and friendships with the likes of Malcolm X and other black leaders is set against Matthews’s childhood insistence on shirking the reality of his black blood to endeavor to pass, a cunning verbal game he likens to chess as he’s badgered for details by suspicious classmates. Matthews goes to great lengths to distance himself from his black roots, though he is never unaware of his true racial makeup, even as he tells his father, “Some niggers beat me up and took my money,” the jagged insult heard loud and clear when his father later retorts, “You’re a nigger, too, and if you ever use that word again I’ll beat you bloody.” Positing part of his passing as a way to escape the constrictions of his father’s life, he writes, “I had to negate a man as well as a race, for the two were as intertwined as a tumor nestled among a bundle of nerves.”
Even when recounting the jarring and disturbing tale of his burning a cross in a black family’s yard, Matthews insists, “Despite the incendiary evidence to the contrary, I was not a racist; I was a hater. I hated the netherworld in which I found myself, the one that tacitly reassured me that it would shun, relegate, fear, and ignore all of me if I acknowledged half of me. Half-black, eighth-black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon—all meant black. Do not pass go, get into jail free, don’t fuck our daughters or play with our sons.” His journey from that mindset to landing as an adult in New York where “the black me and the white me came to a truce,” is one that’s by turns shocking, daring, academic, and humorous, a memoir, cultural history, and Matthews’s literary paean to, as he puts it in this e-mail interview, “those lost and lonely words that we’ve somehow decided we don’t need anymore.”
When did you start working on the book? How much, if any, input did you get from your father about it?
I started work on the book in November of 2005, and finished the first draft in February of 2006. It hadn’t been in gestation for all that long, to tell you the truth; I had always felt that my story was somewhat apocryphal in terms of race/class in the post Vietnam era, but resisted telling it until very recently. My writing the book was actually at a tangent to the plot for me in some ways, in that I had been writing (which means waiting tables) for years, but was mainly focused on screenplays. My screenplay agent and I happened to be shooting the shit in summer 2005 and I mentioned that I was black—and he didn’t believe me. I told him the thumbnail of my childhood, and he said, “Why didn’t you tell me any of this? This is a book, man.” Things moved pretty quickly after that, and with the help of my literary agent, Kate Lee, and a great non-fiction writer friend of mine, Lauren Sandler, I put together a proposal by the end of the summer; it went out in early November, and I was writing it three days later. From concept to execution the book took nine months. I never thought about the symbolism of that before, but there you go.
My father was a journalist all his life, and he pointedly stayed out of the creative process. He said, “It’s your story, if I have a problem with it, I’ll write my own damn book.” I interviewed him extensively to make sure I had the specifics right, but the first he saw of the book was the galley.
Aside from the very stark and intense story you tell about your childhood, what struck me the most about Ace of Spades is your way with language, where you weave in these asides and footnotes that are actually mind-blowing. It’s a very literary memoir, with all sorts of words I would venture the average reader is not going to be familiar with, and certainly told from an educated adult’s perspective, not the D student you were in high school. When and where did you acquire both that literary sensibility and interest in writing, and how easily did the story flow once you started writing?
I’m glad you brought this up. I started reading at three, and books saved my life, literally. I talk about my education a great deal in the book, specifically about how I spent over a decade in college(s) without even a bachelor’s to show for it. The byproduct of such an extended stint in higher education was that I took a lot of classes. I’m math dyslexic, so every year I would just load up on lit classes, because all I knew was the written word. There’s a finite number of classes you can take in any one subject matter, before you have to start branching out—taking middle English literature, or the “Poetry of the West Indies,” so I ultimately had a very diffuse literary education, heavy on theory as well as varied in genre. I’ve always been a geek like that, reading the “TCLC” (I think that’s what it’s called—a set of arcane books containing literary criticism) for fun, just to make sure that what I got out of a book was somewhere close to the author’s intent. And style—the writers with style had always appealed to me—Hubert Selby, Jr., William Carlos Williams, Jim Thompson, e.e. cummings, Gil Sorrentino, Flannery O’Connor—writers who had a way of telling a story that had partly to do with the way the words were physically laid out in space… sort of jarring, letting you know that you could have a little sizzle as well as steak.
The “just the facts” writers always bored me. I’m talking actual aesthetics here, and a lack of formalism, kind of how the Beats approached fiction when they got it right (which was rarely). I knew that in writing Ace of Spades, I wanted it to be a classic narrative, a bildungsroman, and not straight ahead reportage. Voice was obviously going to define how I relayed information, and right away that classic Goethe, Stevenson, Poe, Collins (Wilkie) voice was in my head. Those were the cats that I associated with my childhood, under the covers reading about tall ships and ill-humours and “if it pleases the reader” type stuff. That voice, with a little beat of that beat sensibility was there, ready to spill out on the page, it just felt right. Here’s the thing: many, many people will disagree with that choice. It’s an intentional distancing tool I used, to let the reader know that this isn’t gonna be an “experiential” novel, like Angela’s Ashes or something, where you smell the smells, get inside the protagonist’s skin. That’s not the kind of story I wanted to write; I wanted to be the active mediator of the experience of reading this book.
To me, that style would also make the book read as though it could have been written now or a hundred years ago, except for the specifics of the story. Like how a black and white picture never looks dated, just timeless. That sort of classic, almost florid style I think also provided a bit of built-in self-deprecating humor, in that my childhood and young adult choices were largely the result of weakness—I was a fop, of the “Sorrows of Young Werther” variety, or more charitably, young Jim from Treasure Island, and a bit of that melodramatic tinge I hope leavened what would otherwise have been a pretty cheerless story. Another aspect of that literary style was that if I conspicuously mediated the experience, I was freed up to inject my own blowhardy opinions into the book—the footnotes you mentioned, a lot of the polemic social theory—in a way that would have been inorganic if I jerked the reader out of a straight-ahead narrative to tell them what I thought about this or that. And if I’m being honest, there was, in addition to the artistic consideration, the notion that any book about a kid from the hard-scrabble streets of Baltimore would be some Spartan, raw exercise in def-poetry tinged “streetness.” The voice for the memoir happened to be the one that fit and felt right, but I didn’t mind that it also confounded expectations in terms of subject matter and authorship.
But to the meat of your question, about vocabulary: there is the common school of thought that you shouldn’t send a five-dollar word to do a five-cent word, or something like that. I think that’s either correct, or bullshit, depending on what kind of book you’re writing. If language is part of the aesthetic—as mine was, it was entirely in keeping with tone to layer many baroque, of another time words into the narrative. I also am a big fan of knowing more, in an actionable sense, when I’m done with a book, than when I started it. I’ll never forget reading Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, or Andre Malraux’s The Voices of Silence, with a dictionary by my side. As a kid, when I came across books like that, I would either stop, look up the word, and get back to the story, or else copy down the unfamiliar word and check it out later. For someone who loves books and language, it’s the closest thing to working out, mentally, that I can remember. I never felt that these guys were “showing off,” even though I knew there were ten more quotidian choices they could have made. It was like they respected the reader enough to know that they could handle the workload. It gave me a love for words—especially those lost and lonely words that we’ve somehow decided we don’t need anymore. When someone asks me why I chose the language I did, it makes me think of food: sure the chef could have used Velveeta, but Beaufort is sooooo much more interesting. I’m ashamed to admit that I still don’t have the guts to use the word “niggardly,” in conversation, even though it is good and proper and serviceable: not worth losing teeth over, though.
Music is a powerful signifier in the book, with the Beatles a way to affirm your whiteness (”within the span of three minutes I could reject my father and his world, without saying a word”) and Public Enemy a way to embrace your blackness (”their densely packed lyrics the recondite equal of any Dylan epic”). How much did the music you listened to affect your views on race and your own racial identity and how has that evolved into your current musical preferences?
I guess music sublimated a lot of my physical (that is, racial) identity crap into a form I could manage. Music was a racial line in the sand when I was growing up: black kids liked disco/funk (and then rap), and white kids (boys at least) liked rock and roll. Liking any form of black music would have blown my cover, so it wasn’t an option. Plus—I’ve never understood the whole impulse to dance, so as a kid I focused mostly on lyrics, which rock and roll seemed to have in more abundance. (By that I mean not every song was about love—yecch!—or dancing or sex.) I used to sit Indian style in the living room and listen to The Beatles, saying “ooohm,” over and over. I had seen John and Yoko on The Mike Douglas Show, and they were talking about meditation, so I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. When my dad saw me, he laughed and said “’bout a decade too late, boy.”
What I got—unwittingly—from my pop and his love of jazz, however, was an almost a priori love for it, so that by the time I got older, it became not only a favorite, but an historic link to my culture. It also made me an avowed music snob. My current musical preferences are mostly jazz—hardcore bop of the Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, etc., variety—and hardcore punk rock, circa the late 70’s, from the L.A. area. Oddly, my favorite band in the whole world, which never fails to get a sneer or a laugh, also happens to be…Big Country. Go ahead, laugh, hum “the” song…history and the rock gods will vindicate me…someday.
You repeatedly emphasize that in the Baltimore where you grew up, the only choices were black and white. Other races were non-existent in your world and “mixed” or “biracial” was not an option. The subtext to your choice is presented in the form of your absent Jewish mother and black nationalist father. How much of the pressure to choose related back to your family vs. the social ramifications for either option? Did it feel like a choice to you or did passing seem like the only legitimate thing to do if you could get away with it?
Passing is and was, for anyone who does it—an active choice. For me, white meant a better life. White people were rich; black people were poor. Cops liked white people; they arrested black people. I looked more like the white kids I knew; and the black kids didn’t really accept me. I sounded different, looked different. It was simply and irreducibly easier in this country to be white instead of black. It was less a “legitimate” thing to do than an expedient thing to do. It was like that scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta’s character takes Elaine Bracco’s character to the supper club and the seas part for them. It was never a matter of family life, as my family was poor, and I knew I didn’t want to be poor anymore. I conflated race and class, which is a logical conflation in this country, still.
You also posit that in the Baltimore where you grew up, “black” and “white” meant different things than they did in other parts of the country: “We had yet to encounter meek, subjugated Negroes; only badass motherfuckers who would crack your cabbage for looking at them the wrong way. Where was the mythical land where white meant power, and black meant cower?” You relate this story right before describing your adventure in cross burning, and I’m curious why, at that time in your life, you chose to so strongly identify as white and pass if the power advantage was on the black side.
It’s completely contradictory from a psychological standpoint, I know. Basically, I felt that the black kids who preyed on the white kids (in whose ranks I cluelessly considered myself) were less powerful in the larger context of America than they were in the streets of Baltimore. I never lost sight of the “prize”—being white, and knew that once I said I was black I would never be able to go back. So it was easier to suffer among the “master race” than to lord amongst “the slaves.” Plus, my TV showed me every day that there was a world out there where white people ran everything, so I figured if I just bided my time, my day would come. (Have I mentioned that I was a moron?)
Several promotional photos of you at various stages of your life and of your father were included in the publicity materials for the book and appear on your MySpace page. In order to understand your story, does a reader have to see your photo? If you do see it as crucial to your story, how do you feel about the relationship between your words and the accompanying illustrations? Is your author photo “saying” something that the text is not or do they complement each other?
I think that it’s helpful to see my pictures, a) because I really was a phenotypic fluke, and they go to the heart of what someone who truly is racially unidentifiable looked like. Again, context is everything: in a world with no Latinos, the kid in those pix is definitely…different. And b) I was cute as a button (an illusion broken once the reader sees the recent jacket photo on my book).
And the Myspace thing is in the hands of my publisher. I’m too old to understand it—I thought the site was for emo-bands and the tween girls who like them.
Post-James Frey, I’m always interested in the details that get left out of memoirs and the ways an author’s story gets altered, whether in the name of legal departments or for the sake of the story. Your author’s note reveals that some names and identifying characteristics were changed and I’m curious if you can comment on that process. Carolita Johnson did a presentation at a show called The Rejection Show and one of the drawings quoted a childhood classmate by name who called her “nigger-lips” and I found it interesting that she used the woman’s real name. Was there a sense of getting revenge on anyone or wanting to say things you couldn’t have expressed at the time?
My mother’s side of the family, once contacted during the research for the book, made it clear that they did not want any part of the proceedings. So I changed their names, with the exception of my mother’s first name and date of birth. The legal department was very thorough at Henry Holt, and we changed almost every name that might bring a lawsuit. In the wake of James Frey, I purposely left some names intact, with the notion that if anyone wanted to dig some shit up—there would be real names of real people they could contact. It was risky—there are a few people named outright that I don’t portray in a flattering light, and I suppose I could have opened myself up for some litigation there, but making sure people knew that this was all true and lived was important. So if I get sued for invasion of privacy by some douche from middle-school, that’s yet another career ruined by James Frey. There was never a sense of getting revenge; but I did have the feeling that these were events as I remembered them; and that if people were hurt or offended, then maybe they shouldn’t have been such racist fucks growing up.
The book is a challenging one in that there’s no clear hero or villain; for all the trials you go through, there are also many instances of your own tormenting of others, from making a homophobic remark to burning a cross to separating yourself from your father and his/your blackness. Was it difficult to accurately capture both what happened to you and your agency in the story? I’d imagine it would have been tempted to paint a more one-sided portrait of your childhood, and certainly, some of the horrors that begin the story (the vomit eating and fork in the back) make it seem like it’s going in that direction.
Let’s get one thing straight: I am the hero. (What—a hero can’t burn a cross?) I kid. I wanted to show everything, which goes back to voice. I’m not James McBride. I had something to say, and with the risks I was taking in terms of voice—the book is in many ways a polemic—I needed to let the reader know that I was going to be as brutal on myself as on the world I was railing against. I get through the early instances of abuse very quickly in the story, because I find that stuff boring. It did help explain though, how many of the choices I would later make, were made out of fear—fear of physical pain—as much as anything else. The world didn’t need another “my mommy beat me and my daddy fucked me” story.
Sex and romantic relationships, namely between black men and white women, are at the core of both your parents’ story and later your own relationships, and the places where racism is drawn in the sharpest relief in your book. Your mother’s parents threaten to disown her when she takes up with your father, and you are almost beaten when the brothers of your white girlfriend take you for a ride and demand to know “what you are.” You then go on to write that the true test of whether one is racist is whether a person would marry an African-American and write of sex with one white girlfriend, “It was not my forty acres and a mule but it was a start.” Why do you think the particular relationship between black men and white women is such a litmus test and have you seen that lessen over the course of your lifetime?
Two reasons: on a subconscious level—the genetic power of the black gene (phenotypically) is hard to deny. Primordially, even when it comes to just a casual fuck, there is the act of making a baby. In a mixed pairing, that baby will most likely be what America, in all its racist, reductive glory, will call black. I think that is a factor on levels we don’t recognize consciously.
This brings me back to race as it relates to class: if it’s “better” to be white in America, why risk the “handicap” of having a black child. (Please note the quotation marks, I don’t need anymore death threats.)
And I think things are actually worse in terms of black/white pairings, and statistics bear this out: there are proportionately less black/white marriages now than there were in the ‘70’s.
Your mother’s Jewish identity is touched on lightly throughout the book, and even though she herself is only written about intermittently, the tension between both your own Jewish and black identities and the vastly differing amounts of power and wealth both groups occupied crops up throughout, from trying to pass amongst your wealthy Jewish classmates to a comparison between the Holocaust and American slavery. Do you consider yourself Jewish in any way and if not, what role does your mother’s family and history play in how you see yourself?
That’s an interesting question, and one I will have to throw back at you. I’ve been told by rabbinical scholars that I am Jewish—and that even if I become a Carthusian monk, I’ll still be Jewish; and I’ve been told by secular Jews that since I had no Jewish culture in my home growing up, that I’m not Jewish, end of discussion. I still don’t know what I think.
Though it’s subtly woven in, your disdain for the term and meaning of “political correctness” is entrenched in the book and you further allude to it on a message board about the “one drop rule.” Can you elaborate on why you find political correctness so odious? Along the same lines, is there a political stance the book is taking in terms of race relations or a message you have for kids of interracial marriages growing up today that you wish you’d heard?
To me, political correctness stifles communication. Once a topic/word/sentiment is relegated to back rooms and whispers, it becomes cancerous. To my mind, the more we acknowledge that simply removing “hurtful” words does nothing to mitigate the thoughts behind those words, the faster we can consign the sentiments to the dustbin. And there’s a lack of intellectual honesty about political correctness as well, it assumes that we all have to like and respect everyone, and that certain things are off bounds. No real art or progressive thought can grow “in bounds.” My disdain is also a winking nudge—besides my heterosexuality—I’m a mix of all those sacred cows in America which signal the need for “correctness.” Black and Jewish are in the top three. (Jewish not so much anymore, but black is the new black).
If I can laugh and speak freely about some of the prime-grade bogusness I’ve endured growing up as an ultimate outsider, then maybe Survivor can separate their tribes based on race, like every other neighborhood in America does, without us losing our shit.
Read an excerpt from Ace of Spades.
David Matthews will read from Ace of Spades on February 7th at Barnes & Noble, 267 7th Ave., Park Slope, Brooklyn at 7:30 pm, February 8th at Barnes & Noble, 4 Astor Place, Manhattan, at 8 p.m., February 12th at The Half King, 505 West 23rd Street, 7 p.m., and on March 27th at KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street, Manhattan, at 7 p.m.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author, editor, reading series host, and blogger.