Readings — From the December 2018 issue

People Like Me

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From Black Is the Body, which will be published in February by Knopf. Bernard is a professor of English and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont, in Burlington.

“Home is longevity,” Ellie says when I ask what the word means to her. Ellie and I grew up together in Nashville. During our high school years, we slipped each other notes every day in class and spent hours every night on the phone. On weekends, we practiced dance moves side by side in front of mirrors in the rec room of my house. Never, during those years, could I have conceived of a life in which she would not be a constant presence.

Ellie teaches high school in St. Louis, where she has lived for most of her adult life. I have lived in Vermont for seventeen years, since John and I arrived to assume faculty positions at the university. Seventeen years and I still do not call Vermont home. Maybe I never will.

It is impossible not to like Vermont in the same way that it is impossible to dislike nature itself. This state contains some of the most breathtaking vistas in the country. Yet when I sit by Lake Champlain, or next to one of the many pristine natural springs, I see myself superimposed upon the landscape, raised and slightly askew, like a sticker in an activity book my daughters enjoyed when they were younger.

It is impossible, also, not to be tempted to idealize Vermont as a state with social justice woven into the fabric of its history and culture. I bragged when Bernie Sanders, then a member of the House, called a meeting for people of color at a church in downtown Burlington purely to find out how we were faring. I called my parents to gloat when Vermont came in first on the nights of both elections that made Barack Obama president. As of this writing, Vermont is one of the few states in which no black man has been killed during a traffic stop. I cherish these details and list them for people who ask me what it is like to live black in such a white place. But Vermont, like any place, is complicated. Perhaps the reason why no black men have been killed by police during traffic stops is because there are few black men here in the first place.

Can I make a home here? Every day for the last seventeen years, the question has tagged along with me. My daughters’ bus driver and I trade book recommendations in the morning as the girls clomp up the stairs to their seats: Stay. In the parking lot of the grocery store, a white man with a slick bald head looks at me, at my license plate, and then shakes his head in disgust: Leave. A thrilling early-winter snowfall: Stay. A long, bitter spring of stomping through the slushy, dingy remains of that same snowfall and its successors: Leave. The tallying is continuous and exhausting. It is less a thought than a sensation. I hear it like the ticking of an old-fashioned scoreboard. Stay. Leave. Tick. Tick.

One April afternoon, I stomp through the snow and slush on a walk from campus to the public library downtown. “Ethiopian Boogie Benefit,” a poster on a bulletin board announces. The event will take place in June, in Lincoln, Vermont. The poster, decorated in red, yellow, and green, stands out among its neighbors: plain paper advertisements for yoga classes, book groups, and missing pets. But even more inviting than the colors are the images of people: brown men, women, and children—Ethiopians presumably—­save a lone white man in sunglasses and a baseball cap playing a guitar. The top of the poster features two Ethiopians in flight: one grasps his shins in an acrobatic tumble, the other walks upside down in the sky.

The event is a fund-raiser for an Ethiopian organization, Action for Youth and Community Change. This will not be a sober exchange of ideas, the poster promises. Instead it will be a celebration of the “Vermont/Ethiopia connection.” Not only will there be, possibly, flying Africans, there will be Ethiopian food and music to accompany them. Most precious of all to me is the promise of an evening in an inter­racial setting with people happy to spend a night that way—people like me.

What fortune, I think, and write down the information. The scoreboard ticks: Stay.

“What brought you here?” I ask a young white woman I meet at my parents’ church in North Nashville, where I spent every Sunday morning until I went to college, and whose congregation has always been composed mainly of students and faculty of Fisk University and Meharry Medical College and therefore has been almost entirely black since its inception, in 1955. The woman is new to the city, a recent transplant from Massachusetts.

“I am finding it difficult to lead an interracial life here,” she says, meaning Nashville.

“So you came here for a dose of blackness,” I joke. I am immediately sorry when I see my words have embarrassed her.

“I understand,” I explain. “So did I.”

I was never able to live an integrated life in Nashville, either. My family lived two lives: a free life in the black world of North Nashville and a guarded one in the white world of South Nashville. It is one of the many pleasing ironies of my life in Vermont that here, in the second whitest state in the union (after Maine), for many years I lived in a neighborhood that was more integrated than the one in which I grew up.

“In the South, white people want you close but not high. In the North, you can get as high as you want but they don’t want you close.” I grew up hearing this maxim repeated by friends and colleagues of my parents throughout my childhood. The choice was easy for me. For as long as I can remember, I knew I would forsake close for high.

This formula has not been borne out in an absolute way, in my experience, at least in terms of my life in the North. But the part about the South is uniformly true. While the South, like all of America, is still largely segregated, the lives of black and white Southerners have always been intertwined, even though our relations have been more often treacherous than not.

On a late afternoon in the spring of 1985, I sat in a coffee shop adjacent to my high school. I was talking with Justin, a classmate, about our college plans. It was May and graduation was approaching. After working our summer jobs, we would both head off to schools far away from home.

Maybe the proprietor overheard us. Or maybe he was drawn to the unusual sight of a white boy and a black girl sitting together in his shop, sharing doughnuts and laughing. For whatever reason, he came over to our table.

“How y’all doing?” he asked. He noted how much fun we appeared to be having. We told him that we would soon be leaving for college.

“California,” Justin responded when the proprietor asked where he was going. He received an approving nod. I faltered when the man asked me the same question. I wasn’t surprised when he said, “Now, why would you go all the way up there?” Justin laughed. I laughed, too, even though I felt a tremor of hostility underneath his question.

“Don’t we treat you good down here?” He balanced his fists on his hips.

“Oh, yes! I love the South,” I said, still laughing. “This will always be my home.”

I went on about what I would miss, how cold the North was, how hard the decision to leave home had been. All the while I was conscious of his fists, and the way he leaned his torso toward me. His brows furrowed as he listened, but he wasn’t really listening. Rather he was straining to hear a truth beneath my words, his eyes behind his glasses beaming like interrogation lamps. I kept my body rigid and waited for him to walk away. It was time to go.

But the man was right. I was hiding something from him: myself. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” wrote African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1896. Justin and I said goodbye in the parking lot. As I steered my parents’ car toward home, I thought, This is what I’m leaving behind.

That summer I drew thick black marks through the calendar days that separated me from the day when I would finally begin my life up North. But I could not leave the South behind. I still can’t. James Baldwin said, “You never leave home. You take your home with you. You better. Otherwise, you’re homeless.” However uneasy is the history of relations between blacks and whites in the South, it has made me, and it claims me still, just as it claimed the proprietor of the coffee shop; we were ensnared in the same historical drama. I was forged—mind and body—in the unending conversation between Southern blacks and whites. I don’t hate the South. To despise it would be to despise myself.

The North was a dream that I borrowed from other people. In high school, I was allowed to take a course in African-American literature at Fisk University. I read slave narratives whose protagonists longed for Northern states not only to escape slavery but for affirmation of their humanity. I was introduced to the African-American literary culture of New En­gland, as well as the Harlem Renaissance, many of whose greatest talents, like W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, and James Weldon Johnson, studied or taught at Fisk at some point during their careers. I read the works of Du Bois and Johnson and their searing indictments of the hypocrisies of Northern liberalism. I was undeterred. If I wouldn’t be thoroughly content in the North, I figured, at least I would be freer than I felt in Nashville.

I visited my older brother in New York once during my high school years. He had an internship in the city for the summer and assured me that I was more than capable of finding my way to his office from the airport. I wrote out the route in painstaking detail: shuttle to subway to his office building. I was proud of myself when I found the correct subway stop. I lost my footing as soon as I entered the subway car.

It wasn’t the number of people that disconcerted me. It was the sight of so many people standing close together—some touching, some standing face-to-face—and not talking. I felt as if I had stepped into a science-fiction movie. In the South, at least when I was growing up, if someone passed you on a street and said nothing, it meant something.

Stranger still was the fact that even though they were not talking to or looking at one another, the subway riders were obviously aware of one another. On a different subway ride that summer, I saw a woman step out of a subway car and then turn and shout that she had left her bag on the seat. One man held the door open while another man grabbed the bag and gave it to the first man, who handed it to the woman. Thank you. No problem. So they are human, after all, I thought, and felt tremendous relief. But that was it. After their acts of human kindness, the men on the subway retreated again into science-fiction silence.

Now I am one of the subway zombies. I’ve even mastered the tight choreography required to navigate a New York institution like Grand Central Terminal. The trick is not to look directly at the always-dizzying number of bodies zooming toward you. It can be disorienting, like looking too closely at the windshield when you’re driving in the middle of a Vermont snowstorm. Today when I am in a subway car in New York, I grip the cold metal pole and look up and around and pretend I am alone in the world.

My favorite high school English teacher complained that people use the word “love” too loosely—the same word, she said, could not possibly capture one’s feelings about one’s mother and, say, ice cream. I use the word “home” just as promiscuously. I have used the word “home” to refer to hotel rooms, houses, apartments, and, on two occasions, a tent that wasn’t even ours but was borrowed from my friend Estelle. There has always been a place to call home in every country, city, and town I have ever lived in or visited. But the places in which I have most felt at home for much of my life have always been somewhere else.

Unlike me, my daughters are at home in Vermont. “They are true Vermonters,” I say of them so often that they have now begun to say it about themselves. I see it in their relationship to the natural world. By this I mean that they seem to believe that it is a good idea to wear shorts and T-shirts in sixty-degree weather. I sneak fleeces into their backpacks and enjoy the irony: my daughters were born near the Danakil Depression, in Ethiopia, yet here they are in South Burlington, undaunted by even the harshest winters. It took me many years of successive snowfalls to understand that I should come to expect snow in winter and not treat it as if it were a freak occurrence, as it is treated in many parts of the South.

For my daughters, the experience of being black in a white place is not strange. To the contrary, it is an everyday fact of their lives. But there will most likely come a time when that everyday fact will mean more to them than it does now. For this reason, like other parents of brown children that we know, John and I take advantage of every opportunity to show our daughters that they are not alone.

Dark skin stands out in a white place. Hyper-­visibility has its drawbacks. Kiran, a young poet whose parents emigrated to Vermont from Pakistan, tells me that with wearing a hijab comes a burden of representation. “I always hold the door open,” she says, “because I might be the only Muslim that person has ever seen.” At the same time, the hijab makes it easy to identify and be identified by other Muslims with the same beliefs. To be visible is to be vulnerable to a particular kind of judgment, but it also makes it easy to identify one’s kin.

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