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She witnessed L.A.'s 1992 unrest from the suburbs. ‘The Black Kids’ reflects what she saw

Christina Hammonds Reed, author of "The Black Kids."
(Elizabeth T. Nguyen)

Christina Hammonds Reed vividly remembers witnessing the unrest in her city in 1992 after the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the arrest and beating of Rodney King — on television. She was only 8, after all, and the violence in South L.A. felt far away. She grew up in the comfortable suburb of Hacienda Heights.

“I remember watching the news, seeing people who looked like me who were angry and frustrated,” she says. “I knew something had gone terribly wrong.”

It wasn’t until Hammonds Reed was in college at USC that she connected her childhood memories to a deeper reality. “I saw Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman play, ‘Twilight,’ and one of her characters was a USC student talking about being afraid as the riots got into full swing,” says the author. “That showed me we all are affected by things that happen when we’re in the same place.”

Hammonds Reed’s debut young-adult novel, “The Black Kids,” takes place during that surreal week in 1992, following 17-year-old Ashley through her last days as a private-school senior, including a prom-night drive through the heart of the unrest.

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Although the protests and violence stemmed as much from long-simmering community tension as from the officers’ acquittal, the case became a channel for Black rage in America, the same rage that has surfaced recently in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other unarmed Black people.

Walter Mosley, Luis Rodriguez, the coiner of #BlackLivesMatter and others sketch a hopeful future for L.A. and the U.S. after George Floyd protests.

Hammonds Reed didn’t write “The Black Kids” with any foreknowledge of our current moment. “When I started the novel in 2015, I really wanted to hold the past up as a mirror. How far have we gone, or not gone, since 1992?” she says. “I had no clue just how relevant the text would be.”

Her teenage protagonist, Ashley, feels the same combination of distance and distress that the author had — the feeling that things have gone horribly wrong somewhere else. “Like me as a child, Ashley needs to find her way into the Black community,” she says. While developing the novel out of a short story published in the literary magazine One Teen Story, Hammonds Reed, now 36, talked with dozens of fellow Angelenos about their memories, “from older folks in South L.A. to people who were teenagers like Ashley at the time.”

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It was also important, though, to tell the tale from Ashley’s point of view. “We don’t often see representations of Black privilege,” the author says. “We see so many stories of struggle and poverty, whereas Ashley’s experience is very different. What does it mean to be a fish out of water in your own pond?”

"The Black Kids" by Christina Hammonds Reed.
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

As “The Black Kids” opens, Ashley’s friends are all white girls whom she has known since childhood. “It was important to me that she initially identify with girls who have the kinds of privilege she does, including the privilege of being conventionally beautiful,” says Hammonds Reed. “But as she experiences upheaval in her city and in her family, Ashley questions where she fits. Even as a privileged kid, she has disadvantages as a Black woman.”

Ashley becomes aware of those disadvantages bit by bit. First, her cousins from South L.A. come to stay with her for their own safety; then she gets to know LaShawn, a Black star athlete attending their school on a scholarship. When a casually cruel comment from Ashley threatens LaShawn’s future, she begins to understand how racism hurts every Black person in Los Angeles, herself included.

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Memoirs by Kiese Laymon and John Edgar Wideman; essays by Darryl Pinckney and Mikki Kendall; masterpieces from Michelle Alexander and Claudia Rankine.

Hammonds Reed, whose partner is white, says she has a multiracial group of friends, “but I’ve been the only Black person in the room. What does it mean to be American and part of a shared citizenry but also to rectify inequality? Shouldn’t we all be equally protected and celebrated?”

Part of this celebration involves reclaiming the very history of the place she calls home. One of the most powerful scenes in the novel features LaShawn, one of “the Black kids,” schooling his friends on the founders of Los Angeles: 44 men, only two of whom were white. “Twenty-six had some African ancestry. Sixteen were Indians or Mestizos.” The modern Pico Boulevard, named after two brothers of mixed race who governed the area, runs from “the ocean air in Santa Monica all the way to the smoggy history in Downtown,” adds LaShawn.

“Los Angeles is not about one kind of community,” says Hammonds Reed. “It’s not even about one landscape. We all suffer when that diversity is hidden. I wanted to write a book that could show the strengths of the differences in our city.”

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The author will soon become better acquainted with another part of the city, Hollywood. “The Black Kids” is set to filmed by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu (“Rafiki”). Will Hammonds Reed, who studied screenwriting in graduate school, consider becoming an auteur?

She laughs, but says she now prefers writing fiction to screenwriting. “I wanted to work on my ideas instead of collaborating, and I’m happy in this place.” Her next novel, for adults, will be about a family “kind of like the Jackson 5. I want to examine the pursuit of the American Dream during a time when music was one of the only avenues to success for Black people.”

Though the new novel will be farther removed from her experience than “The Black Kids,” it will be part of the same fictional project: a story of Black success that won’t leave out the left-behind, of a city and a country that need to grapple with their past to understand the angry present and work toward a different future.

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