By Sarah White
Is there anything so satisfying to hold in one’s hands as a new hardcover book, purchased from a good independent bookstore found on a solo getaway, cracked open in the bookstore’s café? It’s like settling in for a conversation with a new friend. Oh, for the days when we could do that! Square Books in Oxford, MS is closed except by appointment during the COVID19 pandemic. Vacations and conversations are likewise in scarce supply.
On this morning, when for the second week our nation is wracked by grief and justified anger, reflecting on a book grounded in the boundary experiences between black and white lives feels both right and unapproachably difficult. But I’ll try.
Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard is a collection of linked personal essays. Its author teaches English at the University of Vermont. She was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Families, both current and of origin, comprise an important theme throughout the book.
Each essay is anchored in the mystery of how hard it is to tell the whole truth, a mystery encountered by any individual who sets out to write true stories drawn from real life. Bernard is driven by her need to explore and understand her past experiences, the shade or light they throw on her life today and beyond.
“Each essay in this book was born in a struggle to find a language that would cpture the totality of my experience, as a woman, a black American, a teacher, writer, mother, wife, and daughter. I wanted to discover a new way of telling; I wanted to tell the truth about life as I have lived it… The only way I knew how to do this was by letting the blood flow, and following the trail of my own ambivalence,” Bernard writes. Elsewhere she moves her motivation from the personal to the larger community: “I meant to contribute something to American racial drama beyond black innocence and white guilt.”
The blood she refers to is both metaphorical and physical. The key experience that drove Bernard to attempt this essay collection—the “branching point” as I would describe it in my memoir writing workshops—is an incident in which Bernard was stabbed in the abdomen by a stranger in a random attack that sent her and six other people to hospitals. The first essay describes this attack and its aftermath. It occurred in August 1994. The lingering damage to her body echoes through the essays that follow.
All aspects of life are held up for examination in Black Is the Body: teaching African-American Autobiography to white college students (“The N-Word”), introducing her white Vermont fiancé to her black extended family in Tennessee (“Interstates”), belonging in adoption (“Mother on Earth”).
The essay “Black Is the Body” investigates her young daughters’ growing awareness of race and racism in their adopted homeland. (They were born in Ethiopia.) Bernard gracefully handles writing about her children’s experience without attempting to speak for them. “My daughters will have their own stories, and the ones I tell in these pages may or may not describe them, or even interest them at all,” she writes.
Just as gracefully, Bernard handles writing about her Southern family. The essay “Going Home” muses on a summer spent in Hazlehurst, Mississippi with her grandmother, conducting research on her family history. “It was not an easy summer. My grandmother and I argued. One of the things we argued about was my approach to the project. The distant, anthropological lens I had adopted made her wary. She was suspicious. Why was I so eager to go to church, for instance?” The story that follows is one of my favorite in Bernard’s book, an example of both great writing and great self-reflection.
This essay collection is a delight, in both its thought-provoking content and the power of Bernard’s lyrical writing, from first word to last. The epilogue concludes:
But the beauty of the condition of blackness is that it is capacious enough to carry both despair and hope, rage and delight, ambivalence and fortitude, which are all as intertwined as my intestines and scar tissue, which seem driven to entangle themselves periodically, and form adhesions that serve as a regular reminder that the scar and the story are eternally connected. I am helpless to stop, just like the blood that courses through the interior of my black body.
This moment, when our nation is again wracked by grief and justified anger, calls us to move forward the project of understanding how our collective scars and stories are eternally connected. Let the anti-racism work begin: educating ourselves, making meaningful reparations, and centering voices of People of Color. Reading Bernard’s essays is a good way to engage with that work.
© 2020 Sarah White