I was born in 1964.
That might seem like a strange way to begin a biography, but it’s actually the key to most of the things that interest me and the themes that appear over and over again in my work.
I was born in 1964—a year almost to the day after Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. 1964: the year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act that recognized the rights of African Americans to equal treatment under the law. 1964: only ten years after the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka struck down the laws that separated black and white students in America’s classrooms.
When my parents moved to the Northern Virginia suburb where I went to elementary school, they were only the second black family to buy a house there. My father was an Army officer, my mother was a teacher. Together, they were pioneers of a “new American dream” for black people: to live where they wanted, to send their children to schools with adequate resources, to raise them to be whatever they wanted to be, without the limits of being second class citizens.
I did well in school, got a scholarship to Mercer University in Macon, Georgia and then went on to Harvard Law School. I was half-hearted about the law (even then I knew I wanted to write). But I went. I didn’t see how I could say “no” to such an incredible opportunity.
Race and integration, segregation and the demons of racism—these are themes both in my life and in my writing. I find myself writing hopefully about interracial marriage and interracial relationships as I struggle to find my own beauty and desirability in a culture that still can’t completely embrace my rounded hips and kinky hair. I write about young people from different ethnic backgrounds finding family and friendship. I write about urban high school students—not as gangbangers or troublemakers—but as average teens, going through the same struggles of identity, belonging and self-awareness as the white kids in Pretty Little Liars or DeGrasse High. I write nonfiction and memoirs for African American celebrities who choose to share their hurts and triumphs—as well as their advice—with candor and compassion. And I write science fiction in which the black character isn’t the first one to die.
I tell you this, not to beat you over the head with my ‘blackness” (because I’m just about the whitest acting black woman you’re likely to meet) but as admission: this is the common thread of what looks like a strange collection of works. Basically, I’m still trying to figure out if I’ve achieved what my parents hoped for: to become whatever I wanted to become without feeling like I’m a second class citizen because I was black, or because I was a woman, or just… because.
And that’s the theme in so much of my writing. It’s the thing I know we all feel in one way or the other, and the thing that brings me back to the page again and again.