A dozen stand-alone essays come together to turn “Black Is the Body,” the new book from scholar Emily Bernard, into a most exquisitely written and poignant memoir, a memoir that questions identity, race and what it is to be a woman in America.
Bernard was born and reared in Nashville, obtained her doctorate in American Studies from Yale, and now teaches at the University of Vermont. At the end of her title essay, she declares: “I am black — and brown, too. Brown is the body I was born into. Black is the body of stories I tell.”
The stories in her new book are accounts of her, her mother and her grandmother. They are also often about her husband John Gennari, himself a university professor, and their adopted twin daughters, Guilia and Isabella.
The entire collection is overshadowed by a remarkable, non-racially motivated incident. “Scar Tissue” recounts an incident in August 1994 when, as a 27-year-old graduate student, Bernard was randomly stabbed — along with six others — as she studied in a coffee shop. It was an incident that she alludes to earlier in “Beginnings,” the book’s opening essay: “The stabbing unleashed the storyteller in me. In more than one way, that bizarre act of violence set me free,” free as a writer and as an individual.
The essays that follow “Scar Tissue” examine family, color and self.
“Mother on Earth” and “Motherhood” each detail the terrors — legal and emotional — for both her and John as they prepare to adopt Ethiopian twin girls. Then all fears are quelled: “When the girls were placed in my arms, I had never felt more deeply human.”
Essays about race are most remarkable, too. “Teaching the N-word” is about the difficulty of facing, speaking — even discussing — the word at an all-white college in Vermont. The title essay considers “the absurd and illogical nature of American racial identity” as it explores the diverse meanings of color. “Skin” is a deconstruction of the gradations of color, an essay concluding that “the problem is not the visibility of dark skin, but who sees it and what the viewer feels motivated to do next.”
“White Friend” explores the “tricky terrain” of “the experience of being a white friend with an only black friend, and there is no road map.”
In the splendid “Her Glory,” Bernard evaluates the various hairstyles — from Afro to straightening to box braids to cornrows — endured by her daughter Isabella. Those styles give way to memories of Bernard’s mother and to Bernard’s recognition of the relationship of hair to race and to freedom.
Then there are the beautifully realized evaluations of family and home and place. “Going Home” considers the death of Bernard’s beloved grandmother along with her grandmother’s “homecoming” — the funeral service honoring her. Then Bernard quietly honors her childhood moments with her grandmother as well as family memories of Hazelhurst, Miss.
Equally affecting is “Interstates,” which examines travel, food and marriage. It is about “The Green Book,” a travel guide Bernard refers to as “a map of a modern underground railroad.” It is also about Bernard’s choice of a white man as husband and about “the drive to create a new story for oneself” being “the oldest black story there is.”
“People Like Me,” one of the volume’s last essays, is not only about being black in a white place, but also about being white in a white place. It ends with Bernard certain that she has found “if not a home, at least a place to be.”
“Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine” is about family, color, home and identity — complicated notions all. Yet Emily Bernard’s insightful prose is generous enough to conclude that “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.”
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.