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Black is the Body: by Emily Bernard

Black is the Body: by Emily Bernard

The essays provide a carefully rendered profile of a particular life, the many facets of which give the reader cause for reflection.

Black is the Body: by Emily Bernard

4.5 / 5

That Emily Bernard has spent a lot of time thinking about race in the United States is not surprising: she and her husband John Gennari both teach critical race and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. She is black, he is white. They are the parents of adopted Ethiopian twins. In the first photo Bernard sees of the twins, she describes them as “two brown babies with enormous eyes,” wearing crocheted yellowed hats that reminded her of Esther Williams. In the essay “Black History,” she describes how the twins, Giulia and Isabella, came to understand themselves as black, “not as a color but a condition,” referring to a quote from James Baldwin that serves as an epigraph for the book. The essays in this collection are stories about family as much as they are about race and identity, and Bernard writes with a tenderness that she extends to the family, friends, students and others she encounters.

While blackness is a central part of Bernard’s identity, she makes clear that it is not the only quality that identifies her. Writing these essays, she says, is about coming to terms with the totality of her human experience and adding to a collection of existing stories to offer a new perspective on adoption, motherhood, interracial marriage and trauma, among others told from similarly-situated perspectives. Bernard’s essays are largely a meditation on everyday experiences, but the first story, “Scar Tissue,” is certainly an exception. Here, she recounts the night in 1994, when she was a student at Yale and one of seven victims of a stabbing spree in a New Haven coffee shop. She begins with the story as it was reported in the newspaper, using it as the foundation from which she depicts her own experience. Her writing here, as well as in the other essays, manages both an objective distance and a deeply personal subjectivity. This particular attribute enables Bernard to bring a grounded, human perspective to very familiar topics.

“Scar Tissue” serves the collection in various ways: first, by demonstrating that, like racism, violence is ever present but still difficult to discuss. The stabbing was not racially motivated, but Bernard describes the lack of human connection between herself and the man who stabbed her, a lack that she uncovers again in other essays throughout the collection. In the essay “Motherland,” she tells the story of traveling to Ethiopia with Gennari travel to adopt their daughters, a story brimming with both exaltation and suffering. They journey far out to the village to meet the twins’ family, who have decided to put the girls up for adoption after their mother’s death. There, one of the cousins tells Bernard that she is part of the family now. Back in the capital city, Addis Ababa, she is excited to see a group of black Americans at their hotel, only to hear two women in the group speaking admonishingly about “white women who come here to take our babies.” The cohesion of Bernard’s identity is temporarily shattered by these remarks. She is, after all, a black woman living in a predominantly white culture, where the cultural landmarks of her upbringing are all but absent. She notes with neither shame nor surprise that she feels the twins are safe when they are out with their Dad; his Whiteness is simply a fact, as is their Blackness.

Bernard’s stories of introducing her then-fiance to her family are simply stories about blending culture, and how an outsider finds connection. The essay “Interstates” begins with Bernard’s realization of cultural difference when she, Ginnari, and her parents are driving from Nashville to a family reunion in MIssissippi. Ginnari is behind the wheel when the front tire blows, and Bernard’s father tries to direct him to a specific gas station: as a Black man traveling this particular route with his family many times over the years, he is aware of the places where he will be welcomed. Bernard notes that Ginnari is not unaware of the circumstances but chooses to take charge of the situation: this is the difference, she says, between living white and living black in America.

A similarity across cultures that bonds Ginnari to Bernard’s family is food. Growing up in his Italian American household, cooking and sharing food was an expression of culture, love and belonging, as it was in Bernard’s family as well. The women in her family come to count Gennari as one of their own through the deep pleasure he takes in their cooking and the enthusiasm with which he eats. The joy and hope with which Bernard describes these events, along with the courage with which she addresses the difficulties of the everyday, make these stories memorable and resonant. Taken together, the essays provide a carefully rendered profile of a particular life, the many facets of which give the reader cause for reflection.

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