Q&A: Brittney Morris on 'Slay' and Celebrating Blackness

Photo courtesy Kariba Jack Photography

Photo courtesy Kariba Jack Photography

Brittney Morris, a Corvallis, Ore., native, visited Jackson on Sept. 24 as part of a book tour celebrating her first published book, "Slay" (Simon Pulse, 2019), which released the same day. The novel follows the story of a young, black girl named Kiera who creates an underground virtual reality game for black people only, where they can celebrate their blackness. Once the game becomes mainstream, though, Kiera finds herself struggling to balance her life as a black student at a majority white school, her home life, and her life as her online avatar, Emerald. Brittney Morris sat down with the Jackson Free Press in September to give some words about her life and how "Slay" came about.

One of my favorite aspects about "Slay" is that pulls from so many cultural aspects of black culture that I've experienced or that I've seen through meme culture, especially. What made you want to write a book about black culture?

Growing up, I was the only black kid in my high school, and I was the first black kid to graduate from my high school. So I kind of became the black culture expert. People expected me to listen to certain music, eat certain foods and know certain media references and all that. Since I grew up in a really strict home, I didn't know any of that, so I felt really under qualified to be people's black cultural point of contact. My classmates would ask me super problematic questions like, "Can you teach us how to speak ghetto?" Back then I was like, "I want to make friends, I want to be nice to people so I'll do my best to walk you through the mechanics of ebonics and all that stuff." It was a whole mess. But going all the way through college and corporate jobs with it, I hadn't really acknowledged what it meant to me to be a black woman in that kind of an environment. Seeing "Black Panther" was like the first time where I walked in a room full of black people and felt total, unconditional acceptance—that I didn't have to put these criteria on myself. I was black enough as I was whatever cards I had been dealt. That's where the idea for the cards in the book came from, and capturing why that kaleidoscopic view of blackness exists globally and how even though not all the cards relate to me, they're still part of black culture globally, and that's still something to be celebrated.

The game was a space for only black people. In order to get a passcode, you had to be black. The game's front page addresses all gamers as Nubian kings and queens. I'm not a gamer. But can you talk about what the gaming world is like for black gamers?

Absolutely. I don't actually play a lot of online games or co-op games, like the online socializing, so I actually avoid a lot of the racism that's in it. But there's a lot of racial slurs that get thrown around in those communities, especially when you show any traits of African American vernacular English. If they hear you speaking any kind of slang, they'll zero in on it and call you names. If you're really good at a game, and they suspect you're cheating, they'll throw all kinds of totally vulgar language at you that is often racially based. There's a lot of harassment that goes on on online gaming, specifically for gamers of color.

I know you're a gamer, so were there any games in particular you used to pull inspiration to create "Slay"?

Kind of. So there's a game called "PUBG," where you can login with a VR headset and be a virtual avatar talking to people. That was a huge inspiration for the baseline and then I had heard of "Yu-gi-oh!." I haven't actually seen it, but like the card duels and everything, that whole concept popped out at me. I mostly play like story games that have big issues in them. The concept of tackling big issues with video games was very familiar to me. One of my favorite video games is called "Papo & Yo" and you play as a 9-year-old black boy in Brazil. You have to interact with this 30-foot monster. When the monster eats a frog he turns into a flaming demon and tries to kill you. But otherwise he's this docile creature who is caring for you and stuff. It turns out at the end of the game that the whole game is an allegory for a boy grappling with having an alcoholic parent. When I finish games like that, I have to stare at the wall for a minute and think about life. Inspiration from all over the place.

Why do you think that when (black people) create our own spaces for ourselves that it's often immediately written off as racist?

I think that is because at face value it seems discriminatory, but when you really start to take it apart, we need our own spaces because the general space is not for us. It's hard to explain to white people why we need our own space until they're in a situation like that. I see a lot of infographics on Facebook about this lately, but we walk up to their door, we say, "Hey, can we have the same things that you guys have? Can we have representation in the media? Can we have black women executives in commercials for entrepreneurship and for learning? Can we not be a prop in your college diversity trailer?" And they go, "No, we're not going to do that." So we go, "Well, we're going to start our own colleges, we're going to have our own movies then, we're going to create our own etcetera where we do belong." And then they turn around and go, "Hey, wait a minute, you can't do that. When you look at the logic for reverse racism, it really isn't there. All black spaces are really needed.

In your acknowledgements, you mention that the book has been a journey of you discovering and reconciling your own experience with blackness. What did you learn about yourself?

Getting more acclimated with what it means to me to be a strong, black woman is constantly changing and evolving as the world evolves. For example, the police brutality topic. For a long time, in college, I would watch every single video of that. I would put every name to memory, and I felt like it was necessary. I talked myself into believing that if you don't take on all this information about police brutality and every case so that you can argue with people when anti-Black Lives Matter conversations come up, I'll be doing my people a disservice. But it took me a long time to acknowledge that internalizing all that anxiety about all of the "Say your name" hashtags that I have been flying around, it does damage to your psyche. Seeing black bodies in the street, it's not my responsibility to take on that burden. I have to preserve my mental health. That was a new thing that came up for me that I've still been reconciling with—because on the one hand we don't want to forget and we do want to cite those cases when it does come up. Hopefully, I'll be able to stop saying next time, but predictably next time, we'll be able to cite back to what's happened before us. It's all a balance.

There are several conversations about race throughout the book and one of my favorite scenes in particular is where Steph explains to Harper and Wyatt why the "Slay" game isn't racist (a read I was very much here for). This was a pretty deep conversation, especially for high schoolers. What made you want to include this conversation in the book?

Good question. I included those conversations in this book because those are the type of conversations that I wish I had had with my classmates when I was there. Knowing what I know now, I would probably be Steph. I probably wouldn't stay in the school. They'd have to kick me out. But those are the conversations I wish I had started when I was younger. I included a lot of that in the book.

With Claire, or Cicada, we see her asking Kiera if she's black enough because she's biracial, which I think is another facet to the idea of blackness. What point did you want to make with this?

When I was a kid, my mom organized what she called the "black family barbecue." ... Every year, we'd invite all sorts of black families from across Oregon to Corvallis to have a barbecue. ... When we finally got to the barbecue, a lot of the biracial kids were lighter than me, so there was this undertone that they were half-black, which unfortunately is a part of the black community. I'm married to a white man, and if we were to have kids, our kids would be biracial. So we would have to be having this whole conversation with them about their unique identity and all of that. With Claire's character, I really wanted to show that inner struggle and questioning of like, "Am I black enough to be able to play the game?" And the verdict ends up being, "Of course, you need this game as just like everybody else with black in them." But that's a really valid question that a lot of biracial people struggle with and ask themselves. Going hand and hand with that, she also has to reconcile with the fact that her white mother wouldn't be allowed to play and why, even though she's someone that Claire loves dearly. There are a lot of big questions for Claire that she has to overcome throughout the book.

Dr. Abbot was sort of straddling the fence on his views about the game. He recognized the need for it, but he also felt he did nothing in fostering diversity and inclusion. What do you think he learned from playing the game?

I love that question. I think at the beginning Dr. Abbot approaches it from an academic standpoint, where he's like a lot of non-gaming adults who like to look at video games and go, "Oh well, we don't take it seriously," or they think it's like inherently toxic. When they hear something like "Slay," where it's a black-only video game, it's really easy to look at that and think on the surface it sounds pretty exclusionary, textbook definition, right? But once you start playing the game, for him, the turning point was finding out the duel cards were based on black culture and black history. So when the Satchmo card comes up, he's like, "Now, wait a minute, he's one of my favorite characters." Honestly, I had so much fun writing him.

Although the book is heavily focused around Kiera, you do delve into other stories, particularly people who play the game. And we see Slayers (players of the game) all around the world. What was the purpose behind this?

Absolutely. I knew from the very beginning that if I was going to write a book about the African diaspora and the global black populace, I was going to have to include a lot of different stories, a lot of different genders, a lot of different socioeconomic backgrounds, a lot of different levels of gaming experience, parents, non-parents, a lot of different ages. Between John, Maurice, Kiera, Claire, Steph and Q. Diamond, I covered as many possible different backgrounds as I could and several different geographies. That was my attempt at all of that, to show what the game means for one black trans woman in New Orleans and one black businessman in Japan and one black professor in Boston. I wanted to represent as many experiences as I possibly could.

Let's talk about Malcolm. He obviously represented a hotep man with strong views on the black family, black men and the black agenda. What made you structure him this way as opposed to your typical black teen who, in fact, loves video games?

I've always been able to name black people whose opinions on blackness I heavily disagree with. There was a congresswoman recently who said that white supremacy is not a problem for black people and that black on black crime is the problem, and I was about to throw my phone. I think in a lot of books that I've read where the book itself is written by white people or for the white gaze, black people can do no wrong. The black character in the book is supposed to be saintly, the positive uplifting friend. They're supposed to be the "Girl, go get your man" character or "Girl, you don't need no man—let's go party tonight" character. And I felt like as a black author, it's my responsibility along with every other black author who wants to tackle black issues globally to acknowledge some of the troublesome stuff that we say and some of the problematic viewpoints that crop up in our community. Seeing Gen Z gives me so much hope in the world. The millennial generation was like, "Take no nonsense." Gen Z is like, "Yo, why is our planet on fire? It's your fault." So, they're not here for anybody's B.S., so it felt like the right time to tackle the hotepery, especially since a lot of hoteps are all over Instagram. They'll post these videos where they are like, "You know, black women, if you were to eat like we did in the motherland, you wouldn't have a menstrual cycle, and your body wouldn't be trying to get rid of toxins." Crazy, anti science. It's craziness, so it felt like Gen Z could take this information. I think Gen Z has seen all of the crazy hotepery online that goes down. It just felt like the right time to have a character like Malcolm.

Why do you think it took Kiera so long to see that her dreams and vision for her life post-graduation were actually Malcolm's and that he was problematic? Was it love or something more?

I think part of it might have been love, but I think at that point since Malcolm has clearly done a grandiose display of not-love, I think at that point, she felt like as a black woman, she was supposed to support black men. Calling the cops. I feel the same way she does about calling the cops. I can't imagine a situation where I would call the cops on a black man because I know what that can end in so fast. Steph coming in with the "You're still an individual (and) still deserve respect and safety first," was really the eye-opening thing for Kiera.

I love in the end how Kiera is able to tell her parents the need she felt she had been restricting certain aspects of herself and that she felt didn't fit their definition of black or who she is supposed to be. And they were receptive to her feelings and responded accordingly. Sometimes in the black community, it's hard to communicate to our parents, especially those who grew up with a certain generation, that "My 'black' is unique." What were you hoping to accomplish by including this moment?

I feel like a lot that particular conversation comes down to the millennial generation and the boomer generation. So, my parents are boomers and I'm a millennial and our views on blackness are vastly different. And I also think the millennial generation is a lot more open minded when it comes to parenting and giving your children the floor, giving them the benefit of the doubt and treating them like their opinions matter. Growing up I was told to sit down, shut up and go to church. So, that conversation was really a whole generational conversation. It was a lot of like, "Hey, older generations, we respect you and understand the struggle that you've been through and the experiences that you've amassed, but also the world that we live in is changing and there are a lot of elements of blackness that are changing. They're constantly coming and going in and out of our black identity." It was kind of an invitation to explore that as a group, all together. It was a conversation and an invitation.

We see a ton of different references to black culture. How many cultural references did you take as inspiration?

What I did while I was planning the novel, which took like a few hours, I just sat down and I was like I need a whole bunch of cultural cards. Brittney, talk about your culture. Go! I just started thinking about all the cookouts I've been to and all the things I've bonded over with black people on Twitter, like what are some punchlines that I've heard, some really strong cultural elements that I've heard. Mac and cheese is a big one. Angie Thomas is always on Twitter going off about someone putting peas in the mac and cheese. Then, I started thinking about musical icons, we got Micheal Jackson, we got Prince. Beyonce Bayou was a place in the book. I just started rapid fire listing everything that I could think of within my culture, and then I started googling African dishes and stuff, and fufu came up. That's when I started researching questions like "Where is this served?" and "How prevalent is it?" I looked up on Twitter to see how casually it's brought up in conversation. That's outside of my culture, so I didn't want to be like, "Yeah, Africans love fufu," and have everybody in Africa be like, "What? What is that?" So, I really did my research for the stuff that wasn't part of my specific culture, and by the time I finished, I had like 30 cards listed out in all three categories, and I was ready to write the book.

Is there any possibility that this game could become something real? I'm not a gamer, but I'd love to play.

I would love that so much. There hasn't been talk lately. I would love if someone would buy the rights to the game, but a tv show is in the works. I just can't name who it's with.

There are obviously going to be readers who aren't black that read this novel and won't be able to relate to the cultural references or to what it's like being black. What, if anything, do you want them to take from this novel?

This book is, among a lot of things, a lesson in identity and an exploration of identity. Kiera, throughout the book, grows from beyond taking on the labels that everyone has given her—like her mom implies that a strong black woman "knows how to carry herself, knows how to speak and read like a white person or can blend in." Steph, on the other hand, is very much a strong, black woman who doesn't care how she talks, and people can just deal with it. Kiera is getting a lot of lessons in what it means to be a black woman, and she has to figure it out for herself. So what I hope this book prompts is an exploration in what labels people have taken on—(those) that they've taken all the characteristics along with it or (those) that people expect them to be, but that they aren't. Something I've been asking schools as I go around Jackson is, "What type of label have you taken on that makes you different than the people around you?" So maybe among your friends maybe you're the black one, maybe you're the white one, maybe you're the tall one, maybe you're the smart one, maybe you're the fat one, etc. The example that I used is that I do a lot of yoga, and I'm a size 12-14, so in a lot of those classes, I'm considered the fat one. People expect me to eat certain foods, they expect me to not like to workout, they expect me to be self-conscious at the beach, and none of that is me. It took me a long time to accept that and go into that, so I think people who have been handed their identities, I'm hoping so much that this book prompts them to say, "Wait a minute, that's not actually who I am, I'm okay with not meeting your expectations or stereotypes."

How does it feel to finally have it out and put something out that's not only authentic, but also so unapologetically black?

Oh my goodness, so cathartic. It's incredible, honestly. I've been writing for years and years and years, and this feels like the book of my heart. As I was writing, I was like, "This is going to be the book that starts my career." I could feel it the whole time. So, to have it on shelves today is indescribable. I'm so grateful, so lucky that there's been so much love and support behind the book and behind me. I'm so grateful every morning when I wake up.

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