David Jackson Ambrose is a novelist whose first book, State of the Nation has been published by The TMG Firm. It chronicles the lives of three friends in Norristown and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania during a time in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when black teens were being abducted and murdered in Atlanta. Though the connections between the murders in Atlanta and the lives of three African-American teens in Pennsylvania seem disparate, the main characters — Santos, Dion, and Luqman — are presented by Ambrose as a triad of contradictions in an environment where a low murmur of terror always seems present. I spoke to David Jackson Ambrose about his novel — and how some of the issues he raises in it relates to the lives of folks in 2018. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Ted Asregadoo: After reading your novel, it kind of reminded me of the movie “Get Out” and even the video for “This is America” by Childish Gambino. There are scenes in both the movie and the video where we see a black man running in terror. There’s a range of terror that’s woven throughout your novel that goes from a murmur to moments of sheer fright. Talk about what you were looking to detail for your readers?
David Jackson Ambrose: Timing is really is very important, and although I started this book as a thesis project several years ago, the fact that it was published at a time there seems to be this zeitgeist or movement toward expressions by people of color I do think it’s very apropos for you to make that connection to those other artists. The book was described by my publisher as a neo-horror story, but typical readers would read this and not really see some of the tropes you do see in most horror stories. That’s sort of my argument that, for people of color, the horror is in everyday existence in trying to endure through certain microaggressions that the larger mainstream society inflicts upon them. So the relationship to the murders that took place in the late 1970s sort of pinpoints how the black body is in a constant state of jeopardy. And so, these youth who are in this story are affected by these murders — even though they are quite a distance away from the location where it’s happening.
Ted Asregadoo: Your main characters are dealing with their sexuality in ways that deviate from what’s accepted in the communities they live in — at least what’s accepted by society on the surface. For Santos, his sexual experiences seem to revolve around older (and presumably straight) men. Dion’s transsexuality is used almost like a commodity in prostitution, while Luq is more in the category of “Questioning.” They are outliers whose expressions of individuality often conflict with the larger community’s sense of what’s considered “normal.” You seem to be highlighting a moral conservatism within a black community that can also be terrifying to those who don’t quite fit in. Is that correct? This is what I took away… you know, the three guys are kind of marginal individuals in that community.
David Jackson Ambrose: They are. But given their age, and their experience, they really haven’t focused a lot on their sexuality as something to be named or identified in a specific way…since they have been victimized at very early ages by adults. It was just their lived experience — without questioning it much. I also feel that some young people may not necessarily identify one way or another in categorizing their sexuality at the time. [For the story] I wanted [the sexuality of the main characters] to be somewhat fluid — even though Dion identifies more toward the feminine.
Ted Asregadoo: What I took away was that sexuality or sex itself doesn’t seem that enjoyable for the characters. It doesn’t seem like an act to engage in to express love or pleasure borne out of a mutual attraction. It’s expressed in such a way that doesn’t have any kind of intimacy. As I was reading this, I thought: “Wow. These poor guys. They can’t seem to find that connection with somebody who loves them for who they are.”
David Jackson Ambrose: Yes. Sex has been a means to an end for many of them because they were victimized at an early age. It a means to attain certain things — whatever they value. Whether it be money, a quick solace, or just something to do because they’re bored and they’ve been acculturated to sex as something that’s done — rather than sexuality relating to affection or love.
Ted Asregadoo: Toward the end of the novel, Luq’s friend, Toni — also known as White Girl and Cheryl — gives him a tutorial on white truth and black truth when it comes to traveling by bus. But she shows herself as having a split identity. It’s like people aren’t who they say they are…and she’s constantly code switching depending who she’s with. But toward the end of the novel, Toni’s tutorial on these two different truths centers on these characteristics: “Black people are honest about their shit. If they want your money, they will ask if you have a couple of dollars…but white people are not as forthcoming. They will act officious and focus on rules and laws to a degree that seems maniacal, but that is a distraction to make you feel off kilter. Meanwhile, they are picking your pocket, or backing you into a corner so that their crony can hit you over the head.” While even Luq is amazed by Toni’s monologue on different truths, Toni’s not entirely a reliable narrator on the way the world works. I mean where did this come from? Did she make this up? Is it borne out of any kind of experience?
David Jackson Ambrose: I read Ta-Nehisi Coates who says that race is a construct — and it’s for specific reasons. All of these characters in the story, and how they present themselves to one another, is not necessarily dishonest. But, as you said, they code switch and perform for identities dependent upon other people they interact with. I was hoping that I was being true to Toni and what she was supposed to represent — but I wanted to push on that a little bit to show that all identities are in transition.
Ted Asregadoo: When Toni said “They will… focus on rules and laws to a degree that seems maniacal,” it reminded me of white reactions I’ve heard on talk radio when black males have been killed by the police. The maniacal focus on “complying with the police” is repeated to such a degree on these talk shows that it completely overlooks why so many black folks are terrified of the police in the first place.
David Jackson Ambrose: One of the minor characters in the book, Silas, was discussing this with the boys that the police are here to do specific things. They are here to do one thing for people of color, and here to do another thing for white people. They are here to maintain control when it comes to the black body. They are here for the safety of the majority — in most cases. And that’s a different thing for black people. The police aren’t really to really protect you. They are here to make sure you stay in control — or in compliance — which is why we have on social media all these clips of people calling the police when people of color are out picnicking or selling water…they are not being controlled, so the police are called to get people of color back in control. Why (as a black person) would you comply with the police when you are in fear that you may not get out of this interaction alive. When I watch the police show “Cops” you see a very different interaction with people of color than you do with white people. Sometimes I’m astounded by the behavior of white people with the police. They are very combative. Women often physically assault the police. And that is not dealt with tasers or shootings as you see with people of color. Even personally. Recently, I was driving and was lost. I was near a police station and saw a police officer walking into the building, so I put my window down to ask him for directions. His first response was to put his hand on the butt of his gun. That sent a very specific message… designed to remind me of my place in society. I did want to address that in my book, but not in a big way. I just wanted to show some of the microaggressions that happen with police interactions.
Ted Asregadoo: Yeah, and there was one part in your book where there was a cop who was African-American and he was by far one of the harshest enforcers of that sense of, you know, “You gotta stay in your place.” Growing up, did you ever have that kind of interaction with the police?
David Jackson Ambrose: Oh yeah. I’ve had many encounters when I was younger. Now that I’m growing older, I’m not much of a threat. But, yeah, those scenarios fictionalized depictions of things that happened when I was younger. My family was one of two African-American families in a very affluent middle-class neighborhood. So when we first moved in, there were numerous encounters with the police where we told that a bike was reported missing — and we had to account for our whereabouts. You know, the story I’m telling I think resonates with a larger population — and not just people of color. Many Americans feel that their voices haven’t been heard. And many people who live in parts of the country that are not on the coasts feel that they’ve been silenced or marginalized. And the locating my novel in King of Prussia and Norristown, Pennsylvania is indicative of the larger society — how many of us feel overlooked. And there may be some rage that’s currently part of our political climate. So I really wanted to tap into that. So that’s why I thought it was a good idea to use these locations because you don’t really read about Norristown or King of Prussia in fiction and the effects de-industrialization had on families who live in these towns.
Ted Asregadoo: Yeah, a lot had changed in the ‘80s and ‘90s in that part of the country. A lot of good paying jobs just went away, and there was a lot of downward mobility.
David Jackson Ambrose: Yes, that’s what I wanted to highlight in my book. They were struggling to stay afloat in this changing economy, and so the characters were contributing in the way they could. I mean, they were minors, but they were trying to help their families stay afloat. One of the mothers worked for huge portions of time away from home to make money, but in doing that meant that she had to leave her children unsupervised for long periods of time.
Ted Asregadoo: Because it seems most conversations will eventually include the presidency of Donald Trump and those who support him, there’s been a lot of talk post-election about white folks who feel “forgotten” or “overlooked” — much like the characters in your books. However, they feel they’ve been overlooked in favor of blacks, women, immigrants, and gays cutting in some imaginary line where jobs as a gateway to middle-class happiness should go to deserving folks who work hard but are disadvantaged by these larger forces aligned against them. That’s kind of the narrative that Trump has tapped into. This anger at not getting raise for 20 years, or losing your house, or a spike in opioid addiction in your community, and the fact that there aren’t any good paying jobs. And on the news there are stories about the economy is going great, we’re out of the recession, and things are looking better. There’s also been a lot of focus on this subsection of white folks who supported Trump and voted for him overwhelmingly. I find it interesting that conservatives used to lay blame on poverty around moral failings. You know, “You’re just too lazy” or the family structure doesn’t have the right moral center, and it’s up to the individual to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. However, some liberals would highlight institutional forces that contribute to the plight of the poor. Now, it seems conservatives — because of Trump’s view of the world — have flipped their views and now embrace what liberals used to highlight, but it’s only for white folks who voted for Trump. That’s the disadvantaged minority at this point.
David Jackson Ambrose: Yeah, it’s easy to think of some pedigree of being born here and of a certain race that should allow you to have access to what the country has to offer and that others should not have access to that…it’s a lot easier to think that it has to do with laziness and that people of color have been given certain things, and I’m curious to know…because we’re hearing that people are doing better and there are more jobs…I’m curious to know if that’s really true. Because people I know continue in the same circumstance that they were in 10 years ago.
Ted Asregadoo: Well there seem to be two things happening in the economy. Yes, there are more jobs available, but they are not good paying jobs. Yes, there have been raises that have given. Payrolls, in general, have gone up around 2.8 percent, but unfortunately, those raises have been eaten up by inflation, so you didn’t really get a raise.
David Jackson Ambrose: It’s not that different from how things have always been. There’s always been this elite, top percentage of people, who create this friction between working class and poor people as enemies of one another — while they continue to make a money grab. I don’t know how anyone can perceive Donald Trump having their best interest at heart. I’m hoping my book will be able to resonate with people…that they’d be able to perceive that, at the root of things, we have a commonality — or something that’s shared. In the cycle of capitalism where things look like they are getting better, and there are improvements, there are people who can’t keep up. And, bringing it back to my novel, these are people who are struggling to keep up but have been left behind because of massive changes to the economic landscape they live in.
Ted Asregadoo: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your book State of the Nation and, more generally, the state of the nation in 2018.
David Jackson Ambrose: Thank you as well. You’ve been very generous and it’s been good talking to you.