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Examining Addiction, Race, & Respectability Politics

Most of my books start with an idea of a character first. Sometimes it’s a voice, but not always; sometimes it’s a detail of the character’s life or a personality trait that leads me to their full development.

But The Revolution of Birdie Randolph began with a topic.  Which, frankly, was surprising to me. Each of my books has started with a different seed, and though my work deals with heavy topics, I pride myself on not writing “issue books”—books that set out to teach readers a lesson through a black-and-white lens. But when I started this novel, I knew that I wanted to write a book featuring a family that deals with addiction, and that is how Birdie was born.

I also don’t typically base books on myself or the people I know, but the need to delve into this topic sprang from something I was observing in real life. One of my oldest friends from childhood, who lives halfway across the country, was struggling hard with addiction. They were hanging out with people who didn’t have their best interests at heart and had been in and out of police custody for months when I started writing Birdie. I was sick with worry, unable to help and seeing they weren’t yet ready to help themselves. I couldn’t stop thinking about how their substance abuse was not only negatively affecting their lives but causing a rapid decline in their relationships with family members and friends.

At its heart, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is about a black girl, same as my other books. Pointe is about a Midwestern black girl dealing with past trauma and inescapable guilt. Little & Lion is about a Jewish black girl questioning her sexuality and struggling to support her brother. Finding Yvonne is about a Southern California–based black girl trying to figure out her calling in life, process a distant relationship with her father and the longtime disappearance of her mother, and make decisions that are best for her, even if they’re unpopular choices.

My friend dealing with addiction is white, and I knew that examining a related journey through the eyes of a black girl would look different. But to be clear, addiction is not Birdie’s personal story. At the start of the book, she hasn’t yet tried a sip of alcohol. She’s the “perfect” daughter, following the strict set of rules her parents have set forth over the years without question—from taking an SAT prep course during the summer to quitting soccer because she wasn’t “good enough” to go pro.

So when her aunt blows into town, fresh out of rehab and far off the path of perfection that has been required in their family, Birdie is instantly intrigued. And as she gets to know her aunt, Birdie starts to question why she’s only heard the negative stories associated with her and not the warm, good memories that she knows must be there, too. It seems that because her aunt has made mistakes, that is all she’s worthy of being associated with, and Birdie sees the embarrassment her mother takes on when it comes to her sister’s addiction and the shame she believes it brings on the family—particularly because they’re a black family.

The term respectability politics is credited to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, an author and professor who gave us a descriptor for the idea that people from marginalized groups believe their own members will be respected or treated better by the group in power if they “behave better.” This, along with the pressure that comes with trying to be perfect, is a theme I keep returning to in my work. I grew up in a Southern Missouri town that was only 3 percent black in the 1980s and 1990s, with white residents making up almost the entirety of that remaining percentage. And I was taught from an early age that because of the racial disparity in our town, I’d always be looked at differently and more closely than my peers. If I made a mistake, I wouldn’t be given the same chances as my friends to redeem myself in society’s eyes; I’d forever be known as the black girl who got into trouble and had, therefore, embarrassed every single black person in my town/county/state/country/the world.

I know my parents were only teaching me what they thought was best for me, so I could avoid widespread embarrassment and unfair judgment—and, frankly, so I could survive. From an early age, I saw how black people were treated unequally and how white people seemed pleased and relieved that I wasn’t “like other black people” because I didn’t fit the stereotypes about my culture that they’d been conditioned to believe and perpetuate. They felt comfortable calling me their friend because I’ve always been a hard worker with the desire to excel at whatever interest or path I’ve taken on, from school to dance to writing.

But working hard and trying to be perfect are two different things, and being perfect is not only incredibly hard work—it’s impossible. In my twenties, I began to question the idea of respectability politics. In my thirties, I had a term for it and saw it for what it was: an unrealistic and damaging expectation.

My attempt to process this concept has filtered into my work, particularly in my third book, Finding Yvonne. Yvonne was so pleasing to write because she did what she wanted when she wanted without worrying about how it would look to others simply because she was black. I loved writing a girl who was brave enough to live her life the way she saw fit, and when she’s called out by her father on how people might look at her as a “statistic,” she pushes back, asking why no one ever says the same of white kids.

I believe my exploration of this theme came to a head in The Revolution of Birdie Randolph. Birdie’s parents have already raised her older sister, Mimi, who Birdie says “has done everything before me, so I know what my life is supposed to look like. I’m supposed to graduate at the top of my class and go to a good college where I will study something respectable that will get me an impressive, high-paying job.” But as Birdie grows closer to her aunt and finds first love with a boy who has a past that she knows her parents would consider undesirable, Birdie starts to realize that perhaps no one’s life turns out the way it was “supposed to”—and if that’s the case, why try so hard to be perfect?

I don’t think a lot about reader reactions while I’m writing, beyond creating authentic stories and doing my best to not harm marginalized, underrepresented groups. But I want all of my work to spark conversations. And with this book, I particularly hope readers will think about the ways they’ve judged others based on past experiences or circumstances. I want them to think about why addiction is such a taboo topic, and especially why black families seem reluctant to address this issue. Is it because we’re worried that people will pass further judgment on a group that is already so disenfranchised? Is it because black people have already struggled with so much and for so long that it seems insignificant to address in the broader scheme of things?

I don’t have the answer to this, and I might never. But I know that addiction is part of real life, and that includes black families, too. I know that all struggles deserve attention, no matter how messy, unpleasant, or plain ugly they are. And I know that I will continue to write books that examine aspects of life that make us uncomfortable, because growth and understanding is impossible without acknowledging the struggle in the first place.