In Candice Montgomery’s latest YA novel, By Any Means Necessary, college-bound Torrey returns to the neighborhood where he grew up to help save his late uncle’s bee farm. Torrey’s feelings about his hometown are complicated. It’s shaped who he is, but it’s never been a place where he felt truly free to embrace his identity as a gay black teen. Here, Montgomery shares their own experience of becoming confident as a queer black teen and how those memories inspire the stories they write.
I was raised in an upper middle class white neighborhood. My puzzle-piece family of six was the only Black family on the block and, for a while, the only family of color on the block, too. We lived in that house for 18 years and I never spent a day in that neighborhood knowing exactly who I was or who I had the potential to be.
I learned to dislike my Blackness, to hate it even. It started pretty young, actually. I was always heavily influenced by kids who I thought were cool. So when those kids started asking me why my hair looked “like that” when it got too hot and I would sweat out the work my mamma had done with the pressing comb, I gave them some answer that made it sound as though I was just as disgusted with it as they were. Eventually, whether or not that was true at the time, it became true. I walked around with the extensions, wigs, weaves, and occasionally (because every 4C Black girl gets them during the summer) long, silky box braids. I learned, with surprising ease, to despise my Blackness before I ever learned to value it, to see it as good and beautiful and powerful. It was so unlike the message my family was trying to send me. They encouraged me to be loud and sparkling and take up space and look amazing while doing it.
While I didn’t fit in with the cool kids, I didn’t think I fit in any better when my family of six drove the 30 minutes (90 in traffic because the 101 and 405 freeways are always on some bullshit) out to East Los Angeles, where my favorite auntie lived up on Slauson. It would be loud there, with people laughing over the bass heavy music pumping through the house, cousins throwing The Dozens at each other like it was nothing. That didn’t feel like it was for me, either, but only because it was unfamiliar. I soon realized I couldn’t act like I hated my Blackness when I was there, and y’know, I realized I didn’t want to.
But it was hard to embrace my identity when my family “jokingly” threw around words that painted queer people as unacceptable. Every time one of my uncles (and there was always that one you’d never actually met before—“You don’t remember me? You was just a itty bitty thang last time I saw you!”) let off another punchline, I took another hit that pushed me further into the closet.
But there were parts of that life that I saw and loved. My cousin Deauna was everything I wanted to be. She was unapologetically herself. Black Girl Magic incarnate. And I would get there, too, eventually.
Eventually I would take back that proud Black girl part of me that was more than just a hashtag––it was a movement. And I would learn to buck against those “jokes” being told at the domino table. I would learn to call out my relatives no matter what that meant for those relationships moving forward. Because someone had to.
Someone needed to refuse to sit back and say “That’s just oldheads. They ain’t never changing.” Because change doesn’t just happen. Change takes action. Change comes in baby steps and Torrey, By Any Means Necessary’s main character, learns that, too.
His neighborhood has built him up into the person he is, but it’s also torn him down at every opportunity. Torrey has love for his neighborhood: unbreakable, unflinching love. But Torrey does not accept the toxicity or homophobia that it instigates. He takes that, flips it on its head, and does his damnedest to make something new out of it. I think we need to learn to subvert the common discrepancies within the Black community, within Black culture, and Black practices that tell us to embrace who we are and then make homophobic comments.
That is a move I’m aiming to make within my community and within my culture. My background is beautiful and I wouldn’t trade it for any other, but I’m also working hard, daily, to plant a few more sunflowers. To bring in the soft sweetness of just a few more honeybees.
Candice Montgomery is an LA transplant now residing in Seattle. By day, they write YA lit about Black teens across all their intersections. By night, they teach dance and work in The Tender Bar. Their debut Home and Away (Page Street, 2018) was named a Kirkus Reviews best YA novel of 2018.