“Black is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine,” by Emily Bernard, 2019, Knopf, 223 pages, $25.95
Your mother dealt with things you can’t imagine.
It was a different time when she was your age, with societal issues you’d never tolerate and rules you wouldn’t abide. Same with your grandma: scrapbooks, history books and museums are the only places you’ll see what she lived through. So what will your children know? As in “Black is the Body” by Emily Bernard, what’s your story?
In 1994, while sitting in a quiet coffee shop and wrestling with a college paper she was writing, Emily Bernard was stabbed “in the gut” by a white man with a hunting knife. That’s her story to tell and she’s recited it often in the last two-decades-plus, though it’s told differently by others who were there. It’s a story that kicks off her book, but she insists that it doesn’t define her.
Nor does racism. Bernard is proud of her black body.
She’s also proud of her experiences, the successes she’s had, the people she’s known, and the stories she carries inside her. These become tales that recall her mother’s unhappiness before she died, that lent Bernard’s grandmother the strength to stand up to misogynistic rules, and that shape Bernard’s stories to come.
Like any good story, though, there are catches to the telling.
Take, for instance, the way we deal with the “N-word.” And how black women can sometimes hate their hair. And how we let “the absurd and illogical nature of American racial identity” tell us who we are or should be.
No, Bernard lets family do that.
Her husband is white, a fact that some in her mother’s family hated — although they ultimately bonded with him through food, as though it were a new language. Her grandmother disliked the Civil Rights Movement. Her mother died too young. Bernard’s adopted twin daughters were born in Ethiopia, and she calls them brown girls who are “growing up in a house with a white person who loves them.” They, too, will have experiences their mother won’t have, and stories to tell.
“Black is the Body” is one of those books that’ll make you wish you had a time travel machine. Devour this book, set the machine for 20 years into the future, and see what author Emily Bernard’s daughters would write in a sequel.
This memoir has a lot of launching points for that, in tales that quietly demand that you pay attention and in anecdotes that highlight racial issues while also minimizing them. Readers are likewise invited to examine a variety of ideas with a certain amount of wonder and curiosity, and to follow Bernard to see both sides. That open, often-placid viewpoint provides a gentle way of leading readers to think about human differences and similarities, which resonates throughout and makes this memoir one to keep on your shelf.
Indeed, “Black is the Body” is a book you’ll want to read again because it’s engaging and just plain enjoyable. It offers thoughts you’ll want to turn over in your own head.
This is a book to tell about.