“Where in your affidavit does it say you’re Black?”
I was on the witness stand, and opposing counsel had on a red tie. Suit jacket was either black or a dark enough blue that it might as well have been black. Pants either matched or were khakis. The details are a little fuzzy in my memory; I remember the essence of the kid rather than his specifics. But he was white and his tie was red. And it was too long.
There was a window to my right. Early afternoon sunlight gilded the desks behind which sat his clones. My representation was on the far side of the room.
“Where in your affidavit does it say you’re Black?”
You could practically hear the golden dust motes shivering in the bars of light that had caught them, the silence was so great. I know the judge was looking my way. Another white guy. Wrinkles, no facial hair. I don’t remember what he’s wearing, but in one version of the memory, he’s stone-faced. In another, he’s smirking.
I’m staring at this kid and, for the first time since we went to trial months ago, I’m at a loss for words. I know the case back-to-front. I’ve seen the rules and laws that’ve been cited too many times to count. I’m loquacious, to the point where judges have had to cut me off with a halfway-stern “just answer the question,” but for some reason, a Cheshire’s got my tongue in a vice grip. In fact, he’s clawed it off and buried it in a lockbox in the backyard. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. We’d planned for every contingency. Our case-in-chief was solid as the volcanic rock sitting like a blanket on Pompeii the week after Vesuvius belched. We’d built a whole world around this loophole we’d found in the case, and I’m staring at this kid with this too-long tie and the beginnings of a grin on his face and I can’t answer his question.
Because I’m Drew Walton and I’m Black. My affidavit will tell you the former. Nowhere in my affidavit does it say the latter.
Let me back up bit.
The case is Walton vs. Blitz News Network. You’ve already met Walton (that’s me). And if you saw Kit Berkshire, head of Blitz News Network, on the street, you’d probably recognize him. Media magnate. Owns a TV station. Less Logan Roy, more Roger Ailes. Maybe he’s not as grabby, but I can’t give the schmuck too much credit. I’m suing him.
Here are the facts of the case:
In 2005, I announce I’m following in the family tradition and running for Governor of Midlands (you may not have heard of the state, don’t worry about it). My granddad David Walton was governor, and you could put “Public Service” on the headstone of every member of the Walton family that’s ever croaked. I believe “media darling” was the phrase in popular parlance at the time. The election campaign is a dream. There’s no feeling in the world like running a winning race. I almost felt sorry for Neal McGivern, the incumbent at the time.
Fast-forward to September 2006. The election’s a few weeks away. A debate’s been scheduled. Single-issue: gun control.
McGivern doesn’t want to do it, so I end up with a local professor by the name of Lane Hamilton. The shellacking that man endured on stage…
After the debate, right in the parking lot outside the Midlands Civic Center, Hamilton comes out to confront me and proceeds to lose it. I have my Beretta 92 with me in case I would need it. (Just so you know, I have a concealed carry license and may be the most conscientious gun owner you’ll ever meet.) Anyway, Hamilton accosts me, shots are fired, and the professor’s on the ground bleeding from a head wound.
Less than an hour later, Blitz TV has my face on their broadcast, saying I shot and killed the professor. They even had one of their reporters, name of Reagan Thomas, say, on-air, “all evidence points to Drew Walton as the person who shot Lane Hamilton.” And that “all signs indicate homicide charges are forthcoming.” I remember those words verbatim. No other news station was so irresponsible as to make such a statement so soon after the event without even gathering a modicum of evidence. Only Blitz. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Irresponsible news coverage is their bread and butter.
Next day, the police ruled Hamilton’s unfortunate death a suicide. BNN issued a retraction.
But it didn’t matter. My poll numbers tanked. I lost the election.
Because BNN falsely accused me of murder, damaged my reputation, and acted with reckless disregard (some would say malice) when they made those statements.
So I took them to court.
Before I’m Drew Walton, I’m Tochi. I’d done some theater in college—debuting as 50-something Doaker, patriarch of the Charles household, in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson; followed by a star turn as the emotionally manipulative, caustically British cuckold Robert in Betrayal by Harold Pinter. I knew that law school was in my future—more prophecy than possibility—so when a girl I had a crush on asked me to join Yale’s Mock Trial team, the spirit of James Joyce’s Molly Bloom ran through me: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
During the 2008-2009 season, the air is heady with the aroma of First Black President. Of Anything-Is-Possible. Eau de There-Are-No-Rules.
As precious as self-serious Ivy Leaguers can get with any line-item on their resume, Mock Trial was, to me, little more than theater performed by people not interested in acting. Schools assemble their teams, a bevy of undergrads coached by an upperclassman or professor or, in our case, a law student. Every season, the American Mock Trial Association hands down the season’s Case. Each case is set in the fictional state of Midlands with its own geography and political configuration, its own landmarks and pathologies and its own very peculiar, very particular brand of Midwestern lily-white-ness. There’ve been murder trials, constitutional due process claims, even a kidnapping case. Thrilling stuff on paper—the drama of human relations in extremis—but when put in the pasty hands of over-ambitious college students, it turns to ashes in the mouth. Because collegiate Mock Trial isn’t about drama, it’s about rules. It’s about argumentation. It’s about who can sound the most nasal. With dignified regard given for The Way We Do Things™.
Along with the facts of the case come the relevant statutes of Midlands Law as well as affidavits from what witnesses each side can call to the witness stand.
Each team will generally self-divide into lawyers and witnesses, the lawyers arguing their positions before the judge and the witnesses (coached, of course) performing their roles as dictated to them by their affidavit. Witnesses were often viewed as aspiring lawyers, as though the witness stand were the bench, and you had to sit there and stifle the envy rising like venom in the back of your throat every time a teammate hits a fadeaway jumper over a defender. The witness stand also happened to be, I discovered quickly, where teams put their students of color.
For ease of role assignment, race is conspicuously absent from affidavits or case facts, and efforts are made to make names as gender-neutral as possible. You have your Ryan’s, your Bobbi’s, your Taylor’s, etc. And yet I could count on one hand the number of lawyers I saw who weren’t straight white men.
The witness stand also seemed where all the stereotypes lay. Ditzy blond, loud black woman, ingenuous Black janitor, meathead, irredeemable trailer trash junkie, etc. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a quarter of their wit and even less of their humanity. You could divide the population of the Midlands into two very neat camps: sweaty, Aryan Übermensches in ill-fitting suits and too-long ties and The Rest of Us. If you were Black on a collegiate Mock Trial Team in the late 2000s, I could probably guess where you got put.
Our coach was a guy named Andrew.
A bundle of contradictions, our Andrew. Dirty blond hair that came down in sharp strands over his eyes sometimes, giving off the air of a rundown fence. He had a bit of a growl in his voice, but it was still a young man’s voice. He’d occasionally do that middle-distance stare you see detectives on TV do as they put the pieces of the crime together after seeing a puddle in a parking lot or hearing someone say the word “caboodle.” In those moments, you could see what the guy in the unfashionable quarter-zip sweater was doing as a 2L at Yale Law School.
Mock Trial was born in Iowa and so was he, but, like the weary prince or prince’s cousin in every story, he saw fit to rebel against his inheritance. So he’d fashioned himself, over the course of his career as a mock trial coach, into a renegade. A maverick. It wasn’t like Yale’s team was a consistent presence at Nationals before then; we weren’t UVA or Furman University. So nobody seemed to mind that he treated his fiefdom less like a Basic Training and more like a sandbox.
Many of the ingredients for what would eventually happen were there: an underperforming program, a consummate rule-breaker in a system that prided itself on its strict adherence to the architecture of rules. Then came me: the kid who knew how to act.
When I joined Mock Trial, it was at the tail end of another trial. I’d jumped into the witness roles with gusto, and very early on, our coach brought to our attention what seemed to have eluded the minds of so many other mock trial teams across the country. These weren’t characters we were playing. This was us. Or, put differently, we were them. We were them. Rather than simply regurgitate statements from our affidavits, we gave ourselves accents, mannerisms, histories, dreams, goals, fears, desires, lives.
The reporter who witnesses what they believe to be a crime isn’t just a character on the witness stand. They’re a hardboiled gumshoe who’s spent more time than is healthy on an emotionally taxing beat, but this is the only life they know, and if they talk like a character from a Dashiell Hammett novel, so what? The CPS worker injured during a child rescue isn’t just a prosecution witness. They’re not just someone trying to win the round and advance their team to semi-finals. They’re someone who had a sympathetic relationship with the defendant, someone trying to help the defendant out, someone whose heart breaks to see the defendant fail like this. What we seemed to have that few other teams did, obvious as it may be, was emotional imagination.
We took these affidavits and made magic.
By the time Walton v. Blitz News Network made its way to our coach’s inbox, we were eager to see what Coach had in store. Eager but far from ready.
He called us together for practice one Saturday afternoon and took a good look at all of us. And he had a dangerous glint in his eyes. That I’m-putting-a-team-together glint.
Failed gubernatorial candidate sues news network, alleging that its president is engaged in a vendetta against his family. That was the case.
He cast me as Drew Walton, aspiring politician, scion of the influential Walton family.
And he made me Black.
Our case-in-chief? The magnate intent on smearing my name was racist.
We were a wrecking ball.
When our team was assigned the defendant’s side, we had a more-than-adequate case and our performances—witnesses and lawyers alike—were strong enough to get us through round after round. But when we were assigned the side of the prosecution and when I got to take the stand as Drew Walton, we were unstoppable.
Drew Walton according to the facts of the case: conservative gubernatorial candidate, grandson of illustrious governor, gun rights advocate with a temper and a propensity for violent clashes with paparazzi.
Drew Walton according to us: Cherry Vanilla Barack Obama, media darling with a JFK smile, a ferocious intellect, and a skin-tone that’s made him a target.
Drew Walton according to the facts of the case: white.
Drew Walton according to us: Black.
The genius of our case-in-chief lay in the fact that Walton’s Blackness wasn’t incidental to the proceedings. It wasn’t an inconsequential detail. It was the fulcrum on which the entire world we built pivoted. Drew Walton’s Blackness was the most thrilling thing to happen to the State of Midlands in ages.
Other teams were flummoxed. And, every round, our team would listen for that telltale sound: the furious flipping of pages as opposing counsel rifled through their notes, their affidavits, their statutes looking for a way to tell the judge that we’d somehow broken the rules.
We made it to Nationals that year. And while we didn’t win, we racked up a hefty haul of witness awards. In the end, our victory was pyrrhic. The following year, after our glorious blaze through the collegiate mock trial circuit, the AMTA introduced a rule change.
It is now forbidden to mention a party’s race in your case-in-chief.
We hadn’t broken the rules.
We’d broken the game.
In speculative fiction, the subtext is text.
First contact stories become reenactments of colonization. “With the collapse of our planet comes the collapse of our civilization,” the Dying Earth subgenre never tires of telling us. For the majority of his life (or, more accurately, “lives”), Professor Xavier has tried to make real his “dream” of human-mutant coexistence, where little mutant boys and little mutant girls will be able to join hands with little human boys and little human girls as sisters and brothers. The island of Genosha is apartheid South Africa. Elves are valiant alabaster white denizens of Middle Earth, and orcs are their disposable, mindless, tenebrous enemies.
Tolkien elected not to volunteer immediately for the British Army in the First World War, becoming instead a reluctant second lieutenant upon his eventual commissioning. Letters to his son, Michael, reveal a mind mightily opposed to war and what it does to a man, what it does to men. He writes: “We were supposed to have reached a stage of civilization in which it might still be necessary to execute a criminal, but not to gloat, or to hang his wife and child by him while the orc-crowd hooted. The destruction of Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling world-catastrophes.” He condemned Nazi race-doctrine and detested the distortion of Nordic proto-culture by the Nazi machine, writing to his son Michael, “Anyway, I have in this war a burning private grudge […] against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler […]. Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized.”
If we are to read an author’s intentions as the sole arbiter of meaning and interpretation in a work, then it stands to reason that Tolkien had gone out of his way to prevent any reading of his work that would seem to countenance, however slyly, however tacitly, racialism. This is not a critique of races or even differing cultures, the external material seems intent on emphasizing. This is not a racist work. It is wrong to read paternalism in the narrator’s tone or to detect in the book’s events any class divide between interwar England’s middle class and its industrial working class. In a Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien even states that he “disliked allegory in all its forms”. Confronting critiques that propose a reading of the trilogy as an approving depiction of the very race-warring Tolkien despised, his canonizers hold aloft sheaves of his letters and shout that the author is not dead, here he is in this evidence right here.
The choir is deafening, almost loud enough to drown out the thoughts of the young black boy who, having read John Gardner’s Grendel and not understanding why he identified so strongly with the monster, picks up the book and knows automatically who, in this South Africa-born writer’s world, is coded as good and who is coded as not, who is coded as white and who is coded as not.
That young black boy grows up and reads Liu Cixin’s mind-melting The Three-Body Problem but is left to wonder, “what happened to all the Africans?”
In speculative fiction, the subtext is the text.
If you strain your ears, you can hear, beneath arguments about authorial intent, a note of apologia. If you knew how this author voted in the 2016 election, there’s no way you could call the depiction of this character in that short story misogynistic. They have a black guy in their writers’ room, how could that episode that offers uncritiqued displays of virulent racism possibly be racist in itself? He opposed Nazism; ergo, a racialized reading of his work is categorically incorrect. Tweets, private correspondence, voting history, behavior at conferences, the identity of their life partner, all of these things are drafted in the war on the author’s work, arrayed outside the castle walls to beat back the advancing horde of detractors. It matters who writes the thing.
But it also matters who is able to read the thing. Schrodinger is at work. Authorial intentionalism, that idea that an author’s intentions should constrain any literary interpretation of a text, confines the result of that experiment to one reality. The cat is alive. It is always alive. Look at the author’s letters and tweets and the people they’ve dated, all of that means the cat is alive. Nevermind the personal experience you bring with you to this cat-viewing, nevermind your own manner of walking through the world or how the world has forced you to walk through it, nevermind the ways in which your studies and your life have taught you to recognize that what you are looking at is a feline’s corpse. The cat is alive.
But what a bankrupt world we must live in where there is only one way to read a text. What a bankrupt world we must live in if we are forbidden from considering that Tolkien’s childhood in 1890s Bloemfontein prior to the Second Boer War, unconnected in any major sense with his trilogy, might have affected the boy who would grow into one of Britain’s most famous worldbuilders. What a bankrupt world we must live in if we must take the author’s word at face value that because they espouse no homophobia themselves, it is impossible to read Spartans castigating Greeks for “boy-loving” as artistic license opening the screen door for homophobia to walk through.
What a bankrupt world we must live in where we can read a fact-pattern about an aspiring politician whose career is thwarted by a news mogul and not see a compelling tale of racism and vendetta. In many ways, a precursor of things to come. Our own world seen through a mirror darkly.
I’m often asked, as a Black writer, how to go about writing The Other. The question rings loudly in literary fiction circles but becomes especially weighted when we pattern-making mammals are given tales replete with androids and invading cephalopods, dragons and redshirts, and made to look, in these stories, for ourselves. Indeed, authors Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have written a whole book about it.
Though not always the case, tradition demands that the question-asker be white and the question-answerer be other. In 2019, the question bears, as its backdrop, scandal and dragging on Twitter and the fear of ostracization and lost opportunities. Shedding its pedagogical shawl, the question morphs from meaningful literary analysis to something cruder and more mercenary. The asker, more often than not, is not looking for answers. They are looking for permission.
Books do not exist in a vacuum. If they are published in the United States, they exist in a context where the majority of publishing house presidents, acquiring editors, agents, publicists, production editors, prosecutors, judges, state and federal legislators, grade school teachers, high school principals, university professors, police officers, and librarians are white. They exist in a context of officer-involved shootings disproportionately affecting African-Americans and a higher maternal mortality rate among African-American women and a gender pay gap and an epidemic of violence against transgender people. They exist in a context of Muslim bans and microaggressions, terrorist attacks and someone stepping onto an elevator or subway car before you’ve had the chance to get off. They exist in a context of someone touching your hair without your permission over and over and over. And no matter how much the world we create may differ from our own recognizable reality in its physical laws—its moons, its architecture, its quantum mechanical legislation—we take our world with us when we build another. Drew Walton was Black because I am.
Our team opened the box and saw what was inside and heard what the American Mock Trial Association was telling us for what it was. A lie.
The subtext was text. Drew Walton was white. The cat is alive.
What does all of this have to do with worldbuilding?
What we on that Mock Trial team did that year was simply a version of the iceberg method. Our characters existed outside of their affidavits. They existed outside of that courtroom. Each piece of paper carrying a witness statement was filled with blank spaces. Most coaches saw those blank spaces and took them as such, but our coach saw in those blank spaces the material of lived experience. The unspoken, the parts written in invisible ink, the parts you had to hold to the light to see properly. And those characters brought that lived experience with them into the courtroom each and every time they took the witness stand, just as writers do when they write.
The world here was more than the dimensions of a parking lot outside the Civic Center where Professor Hamilton lost his life. It was more than the mere fact of a news network’s existence. It’s more than the description of buildings and the name you give your seasons. The world is your characters moving through it.
Does it all need to make sense? No. But it does need a governing logic. Do dreams make sense? Nightmares? No, but they have a governing logic. Does racism make sense? No, but it is a governing logic, a thermodynamic principle to which we are all beholden.
It’s an oft-repeated aphorism that in every trial, you’re trying to tell a story, that legal action is less about right or wrong, justice or its absence, than it is about telling the more compelling story.
With Mock Trial, we were given the broadest sketches of a world. You can tell a story using those sparse brushstrokes. Or you can tell a story in high definition. You can paint and shade and add texture and layer. We didn’t do that with the world’s physical features or with its natural laws. We didn’t introduce alien holidays or new religious traditions or tinker with gravity and the movement of tides. We added texture to our people, spoke of our world through them.
So much of worldbuilding is throwing ingredients you love or are intrigued by or find fascinating into the pot (with little regard for measurements), yet at the end of the day, someone has to taste the jambalaya I’ve been cooking. Someone whose history of taste is separate and distinct from, but just as rich as, my own. The spices, the andouille, the diced vegetables, the sauce, the stock, all of it—fun as it may be on its own—is in service of a single thing. What is the effect of this detail—of this world of details—on this character? On this person?
The story you’re telling is about the people in it.
Because you can’t put a magic system on trial.
Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of the young adult novel Beasts Made of Night, which won the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Fiction Novel by an African, its sequel, Crown of Thunder, and War Girls. He holds a B.A. from Yale, a M.F.A. in screenwriting from the Tisch School fo the Arts, a Master’s degree in droit économique from Sciences Po, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. His fiction has appeared in Panverse Three, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Obsidian, Omenana Magazine, Uncanny, and Lightspeed. His non-fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Nowhere Magazine, the Oxford University Press blog, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. Riot Baby is his adult fiction debut.