How What Came Before Came to BeWhat Came Before was conceived as a comedy with lots of broad humor and exaggerated characters, but as I began to work, I realized I needed to write about something I cared about, that there had to be a reason beyond car chases for a piece of writing to exist. I rethought the whole thing, asking myself, what would be interesting to me, important for me to say. Stories--good stories--had to be about something that mattered, either to me and/or to others.
In the beginning, Abbie's missing half-sister was white, like Abbie and like me, and I kept running up against my own question, "so what?" “Where’s the tension?” I reached into my own life, my own experiences, my own childhood.
I grew up in California, but my mom came from a little town in Louisiana and my dad from Iowa. Since my dad was a teacher, we climbed into our old Pontiac as soon as school was out and headed east to corn country, then down to Terrebonne parish. That’s where I ran smack dab into Jim Crow laws.
I loved going to the grocery store with my grandpa. He was a sunburned Santa Claus who smelled of figs and cigars, filling our cart with rolls and rolls of toilet paper, paper towels, cans of tomato sauce and bottles of soda pop. I liked to hold onto the front and ride while he pushed through the aisle. Then at some point when I was four or five – I don’t really remember exactly when – he let me go in search of a drink of water by myself.
I stood in front of two water fountains instead of one wondering which one I wanted. I’d never had a choice like this before. Not in California.
One was labeled “white” and one was labeled “colored.” What would most little kids chose? I chose “colored,” of course, because to my mind that meant the water would come out like a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. When it didn’t, I was disappointed. I tried the white one. The two sprays of water were exactly the same. I was confused and angry.
I ran back to my grandpa. He said one was for white people, the other was for "colored" people. When I asked why, he just shrugged. I don’t remember for sure, but I think it was my father who explained it to me, that this kind of thing existed in the world.
And I wish I could say I knew instinctively at that young age the wrongness of it, but I didn’t. It’s something I have learned as I’ve grown into myself, through reading, through the experiences of the growing up in the fifties and sixties, through watching the news filled with civil rights marches, the Watts riots, and assassinations (MLK, Medgar Evers, Malcom X), how human beings tend to exist in a real world. “What Came Before” springs from a desire to show that people are more alike than different and that our differences enrich us.