Book Review: Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard
Nonfiction: Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard
Black Is the Body is an extraordinary book. It is a collection of first-person essays by Emily Bernard, essays that tell a story of being black in America. It is as close to perfect as any book I have ever read. Bernard exquisitely describes her experience of being black in a white world. Her prose is both beautiful and painful, compelling and chilling and heartwarming. After reading it, I have a better appreciation for both how much we have in common through our shared humanity, and how distant we are because of the experiences our skin color creates.
Emily Bernard is a writer and professor at the University of Vermont. She has brown skin. She is what we Americans in our racial fixation deem to be “black.” Vermont is the second whitest state in the US. She is married to a white man, and together they have twin daughters, adopted from Ethiopia. Growing up in the south, educated at Yale, living in Vermont, Bernard is perhaps uniquely positioned to comment on race in America. In this collection of essays, functionally a memoir, she does so with wisdom and compassion and grace and fire.
Bernard starts with an essay about being stabbed. She was one of six victims in a coffee shop assault while studying at Yale University. She was not singled out, she was not stabbed because she was black. She was simply there and was one of the victims of a man whose mind was sick. The physical effects of the stabbing have stayed with her for years and have required subsequent surgeries to deal with scar tissue and other issues. In some ways, the emotional effects have never left. The event became a watershed for her, an opportunity to deal with physical trauma and pain openly. This allowed her to deal with other emotional traumas, traumas more common than being a victim of violence. Some of these traumas relate specifically to being black in America.
Her husband was driving her parents’ car during a family trip in the south. One of the tires went flat. Her father wanted to continue along until they reached a gas station in the next town. Her husband insisted on pulling over to the side of the road and replacing the tire with the spare himself. Neither of them was wrong. The difference in opinion on what to do had everything to do with race. Her husband recognized the danger of driving on a flat tire. Her father recognized the danger of being a black family stranded on the side of the road. Both dangers were equally real. The tire was fixed and the trip continued, but the experience deeply affected all of them.
Bernard teaches at a university that has mostly white students in a state that has a mostly white population. In her classes she sometimes addresses the use of what we euphemistically call “the ‘n’ word.” Most of her white students cannot bring themselves to say the word aloud, either omitting it even while reading text where it’s used or substituting that clunky phrase: “the ‘n’ word.” (Nor will I write it here.) The power that word has is both revealing and concealing. Do we (whites) refuse to use it because we are not racist? Do some of us at least refuse to use it because we are racist but try to hide that behind our woke vocabulary?
Bernard’s children live in a town with few other children who look like them. She expresses pride, amazement, and fear that they have no fear of white people. A friend tells her, that’s because they live in a home where a white person loves them. Another friend tells her, you are my only black friend. These are experiences that I will never have. They are feelings I can only experience vicariously. Bernard has given her readers a gift: seeing the world from a different perspective. This is not a memoir of rage or a call to overthrow existing power structures. This is an invitation to walk with her, to see the world through different eyes, to know what it’s like to receive hate mail because you’re different, to have people stare at you in the grocery store, to hear a friend comment at the dark ring a young black man left in her bathtub and wonder whether she thought it was dirt or whether she thought it was something else.
Read this book. Whatever race you identify with, Black Is the Body will speak to you. There is pain, there is hope, there is tolerance and understanding and anger and brilliant writing. Emily Bernard has given us the gift of herself, of her memories, of her stories, of her life. It is a precious gift indeed.