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"For me, writing is so much about making connections with other people."
In her uniquely constructed memoir, Emily Bernard explores how Americans continue to talk about race through twelve essays that cover numerous experiences, from growing up black in the South to marrying a Northern white man, to the process of adopting children. Its many movements will leave you thinking about the current conversations regarding race and gender in the United States, but perhaps more importantly, it will have you wondering why there are certain conversation we are not having.
Emily spoke with us about how this book came into being, as well as how she handled the delicate topics within the book and what she is planning to work on next.
How did you start writing?
I started writing by keeping a diary when I was a little girl. I remember the pleasure of transforming everyday experiences in my humdrum life into interesting stories. As I got older, writing in my journal about hard things took the sting out of them. Writing from a very early age showed me that it was possible to exercise control over my own life. But I learned what writing could do only through reading. I started to write because I wanted to inspire the same reactions and feelings in other people that the books I loved has inspired in me. It was like eating a delicious meal and wanting to get into kitchen and come up with some equally satisfying flavors on my own.
What inspired you to write your new book, Black is the Body?
I wrote the book in discrete essays, the first of which, “Teaching the N Word,” I published in 2004. I did other things between then and when I actually finished the book, but for all those years, the book was brewing. I experienced things and enjoyed relationships that were teaching me a lot about who I was and who I was becoming. I realized that I was writing a book only after I had written and published several of the essays. In much the same way, I never know that an essay is coming together until after I sit down and start writing. But after I got really into it, I became conscious that I was trying to write a book that contained different stories than the ones I had read about race in America. I had stories to tell about the “n word” and being the victim of a violent crime, for instance, that were funny as well as painful. I wanted to write about the adoption in a way that wasn’t sad or apologetic. I wanted to confess that I like racial difference. Above all, I wanted to find out if there were people out there who felt the same way about life as I did. For me, writing is so much about making connections with other people.
Racial politics within the United States by geographical location are explored generationally throughout the memoir–something that feels unexplored in our general dialogues. Why do you think that might be?
That’s a great question. Maybe it’s because every generation is convinced that they are inventing the world from scratch. In my own life, I resisted for years the idea that my mother’s life would have anything to do with my own. I think my mother felt the same way about her own mother. It is only now that I am a full-fledged grown up that I realize how much my beliefs, fears, and ambitions are tied to my history and the people who came before me. Too often, we lay claim to the future by proclaiming the past dead. In this country, we dismiss the mistakes of past generations as if they were committed by people completely unrelated to us whose motivations we could never understand. I understand this impulse, especially when we feel shame about the actions of our ancestors (I’m thinking now of the history of American racism). But no healing comes from putting our hands over our ears and eyes. When we truly acknowledge the past in a to-the-bone kind of way, we can finally clear space for a new chapter.
You examine this topic through your own personal experience and experiences of family members. Were there any challenges in trying to balance the personal information with the anthropological/societal commentary?
Actually, the great pleasure of this book was having a chance to explore big issues through a personal lens. The stories flowed naturally between those two poles. Black in the Body is a record of myself as a granddaughter, daughter, and now a mother, but it is also an expression of myself as a teacher, and my frustration with old models of instruction that rely on lecturing to others. I am best as a teacher when I am in conversation with my students, when we are learning from each other. Vulnerability is such a big part of the learning process.
The book has been noted as dealing with the topic of healing. Was that something that you thought about when writing?
Writing for me in general is a way of healing. It’s the best means I have for fighting depression (especially in these dark political times) and practicing hope. When I am writing well, I am my best self. Even when I am writing about painful events in the past, crafting stories out of them enables me to experience them in a different light. All of that pain is suddenly useful. Most of all, I hope the pain—the stories about it—will enable others to confront and heal from their own struggles.
After the book's release, what is coming up next for you?
I am working on a couple of different ideas. One dream that has been percolating for a while is to compose a book of essays about black women in different professions and eras. I’m interested in the lives of those who struggled but didn’t necessarily have the kind of American success stories that we see in the news. What lessons do these women have to teach us? I am also working on a book about love, sex, family, and marriage (it’ll get whittled down at some point!).
Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.