Race, as some say, is only skin deep—beneath different colored skin, we’re really all alike. And that’s true, to an extent. By and large, I think we can agree that gas prices are too high, cat videos are the heart and soul of the internet, and Kate Bush has quite the banger.
Beneath the superficiality of race, though, are many facets of how racial and cultural differences can bring radical differences in how one person or another experiences the world. In her 2019 collection, Black is the Body, Emily Bernard details a dozen or so of them, from family to friendship and hate speech to hair, all woven in clear and captivating prose.
From the first pages, Bernard details a random stabbing attack that has caused lifelong medical issues, and then pivots to recounting the struggles and reflections she’s had teaching African American studies in the second-whitest state in the union (Vermont) to consistently all-white classes—particularly as it pertains to whether to say the whole word or simply refer to it as “the n-word.” That word returns in a later essay as she muses on what it means to be “black,” and how her perception of blackness or brownness changed after realizing how differently her teenage Ethiopian daughters viewed their place in the uber-white Northeast. The tension between white bodies and brown ones comes back in essays about the relationship between her white husband and her immediate and extended family, as well as another about interracial friendship—how race shouldn’t matter in it, and how it sometimes invariably does.
Perhaps the most touching of the smaller threads running through this book is the idea of motherhood and daughterhood, and how generational trauma—and pride—can stagnate or evolve through the years. Bernard considers her mother’s death, and her grandmother’s, and the life that her daughters will likely lead. The struggles of yesteryear and the inevitable changes of the future are equally out of reach for Bernard, and for her readers. Yet her reconciliation with past, present, and future makes time feel like an almost kind inevitability.
It’s always difficult to talk about a book that is made up of several parts, such as Black is the Body, especially when the connective tissue is as broad a thing as race. Bernard’s essayistic approach is filled with reflection and warmth. Her words feel comfortable and almost tangible, even when she addresses the most difficult topics. Her emotions are, I suppose, vulnerable, but her confidence in her telling of them never makes them feel uncomfortable.
I’m an extremely white woman who grew up in an extremely white small town, which means I have had—and continue to have—more to learn than most. Black is the Body is an excellent education. I don’t know how this collection would resonate with someone whose background more closely resembles Bernard’s, but from my outsider’s perspective, I found connection and plenty to consider.