By Emily Bernard
[Excerpted from The Best of Creative Nonfiction Vol. 2]
There are two wooden figures on my husband’s desk. Figurines. They are meant to resemble humans, black humans. African-Americans.
Every time I enter my husband’s office at home, which is several times a day, I look for these figurines. Sometimes they are hiding under mail and memos. Today, they are exposed. They lie flat on their backs. Their little wooden legs dangle off the edge of a fraying green silk box John has owned since before I knew him. Inside the silk box are two silver balls that chime when he rolls them between his fingers. “They’re Chinese,” he says one morning, “to relieve stress.” He looks up at me, and smiles. I am warmed, as always, by the sight of him in his morning face: open and vulnerable. Defenseless.
The figurines are black and black. Meaning, they are black in the racial sense, like me, and black in the literal sense, as well. Their faces and arms are as dark as the middle of the night. The female figurine wears a dull red dress with painted flowers and a kerchief on her head. The male has little tufts of hair around his head. He wears blue overalls with a pocket on the right side. Both of their mouths hang open in circular “o”s. Their eyes are vacant white dots, no pupils.
The figurines didn’t always belong to us. We found them originally in the home of my in-laws. They were sitting above the “Four Freedoms,” the quartet of Norman Rockwell images. First, “Freedom of Speech” (a working man stands up at a town meeting); then, “Freedom of Worship” (heads bent in prayer); then, “Freedom From Want” (a Thanksgiving dinner); and finally, “Freedom From Fear” (a couple putting their children to bed). After nearly ten years of visits to my husband’s family, I now think of these images when I think of Norman Rockwell. But I also think of the only Norman Rockwell painting I knew growing up, long before I had in-laws: “The Problem We All Live With.” It features a black girl, Ruby Bridges, being escorted to school by white federal marshals. “Nigger” and “KKK” are scrawled on the wall behind her. John grew up with “Four Freedoms,” and I grew up with Ruby Bridges.
John, my husband, grew up in Lenox, Massachusetts. His parents still live in his childhood home. His parents, my in-laws, are good people. They care about decency, fairness, other people: the right things. They are canny, smart. My father-in-law did not attend school beyond the sixth grade, but from him I have heard the most astute analysis of the Bush Administration that I have heard or read anywhere, from anyone. He has a sly sense of humor; he is a careful observer; he can fell a tree with his bare hands.
“Is it true that Pop can fell a tree with his bare hands?” I ask John.
“Well, he can take down a tree without any mechanical aids,” John replies.
My father-in-law and his brothers built the house John grew up in.
My mother-in-law’s charms are undeniable. A word people use to describe her is “pip,” as in: “Your mother-in-law is quite a pip.” A phrase might be “salt of the earth.” She is warm-hearted. “Heart person” is an expression she uses to describe her kind of people. A heart person, as opposed to a head person. The older I get, the more time I spend in academia, the more I know that heart people are my people, too.
My in-laws might say that being heart people, in their case, has something to do with being Italian. Touching, laughing, and talking, really talking—these are acts of the heart, the emotions. My in-laws are defined by the heart, the body, but not by race. Asked whether she believes that being Italian means having a racial identity, my mother-in-law says, “That’s a southern Italian thing.”
When I came along, my mother-in-law fretted to John about what might become of our children, should we have any. But then, my father-in-law quoted some statistics about the United States becoming more and more multi-racial. “They say, in fifty years, most of the world’s people will be brown,” he said. With that, my mother-in-law put her worries to bed.
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Recently, I attended at a party at my sister-in-law’s house to celebrate the induction of John’s nephew, Michael, into the Eagle Scouts. I got into a conversation with Michael’s troop leader. We talked about Vermont, where she went to college, and where I now live. She asked if I like it there, and I said yes. “I love the landscape,” I said, and as the words came out, I realized that they were true. “It must remind you of Tennessee,” she said, “those rolling hills.” I put them side by side in my mind: Tennessee and Vermont. “No,” I said. “I grew up in the suburbs.”
“I am not a visual person,” I often say to people as a way of explaining why it is so hard for me to remember the simplest directions, like which stairwell leads most directly to my office at school. Every time I go to my office, which is nearly every day, I must repeat aloud the association I have devised to lead me in the right direction.
I am not a visual person, but I recognized the topography of Lenox on the first day that John took me home to meet his family. “This is the famous hill,” John said, and pointed. It was the hill where a young woman on a sleigh crashed into a lamppost and died a death that inspired Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. “Yes,” I said, because I remembered it—or rather, I didn’t so much remember it as feel it. I felt the hill as it had imprinted itself in my brain, beyond my brain. In my body, into the marrow of my bones, the center of my being. When I was a child, my family made yearly trips to Mississippi to visit my grandmother. Even as a child, I knew those trips were circumscribed by fear. Like most black families who traveled in the South in those years, we were aware of history, of where we were not welcome. I bent my head as rolling hills passed my window, and burrowed deep into Ethan Frome, The Scarlet Letter, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Perhaps, even then, I was plotting my future, planning where I would eventually make my home, or simply discovering the home that had already begun to make me.
Traveling like that, head in a book, I missed some remarkable landscapes. I missed my childhood. When I imagine Nashville, I see only glistening car dealerships, palatial houses barely visible beyond gates with gilded monograms. Horses. I see shopping malls, acres of parking lots. I see the Ku Klux Klan marching in front of the glistening car dealerships. “Roll up your windows,” my mother would say to my brothers and me. I see these things, and feel nothing.
“Like every black child in the South since Emancipation, I dreamed of going North,” I sometimes say, laughingly. It is true. And now I am in New England, in the landscape of my fantasies, having tunneled through some kind of literary underground railroad, and I can’t find my way to my own office without a mnemonic. I am in Vermont, where slavery was abolished nearly one hundred years before the Civil War, and I miss black people. “You pick your white people,” I joke, when friends and acquaintances ask how I am faring, all the way up North, so much a minority. “They are everywhere, I have discovered.” And I picked my white person. His name is John.
Over the course of our relationship, names have been important to John and me. Right before we got engaged, I asked John, “What is Jim’s middle name?” Jim—James—is his brother. “Bernard,” he said. “James Bernard Gennari?” I asked, and John and I regarded each other with wonder. My older brother’s name is Harold James Bernard. John and I had already established that our mothers also share the same name: Clara.
Clara and Clara; James Bernard and James Bernard. There is a Yiddish expression for this: Besheirt. “It means ‘meant to be’,” said my close friend, Davida. The name thing certainly made it feel like destiny. And anyway, Davida is always right. John and I got engaged.
My father, who is from Trinidad, liked the fact of John’s Italianness right away. “Italians and Caribbeans,” he said, “we care about food. We care about family.” I knew that what my father liked about John was his masculinity, his smoothness. My father was impressed by John, an intellectual who was unafraid of physical labor, who felt as content in front of a football game as he did inside of a book. Like most fathers, my father may have wanted me to bring home someone who looked a little more like him, but John would do. He was certainly better than the spindly, sun-deprived academics I could have brought home. Better for my father, better for me. John would do just fine. He was something my father and I could finally agree upon. I was surprised by how much this pleased me.
My parents attended the same elite black college, and went on to earn professional degrees; my father is a physician. The story of our different class backgrounds is a topic of endless fascination for John and me. We tell the story using different metaphors, like diners, how much John likes them, how much I don’t. Maybe this says something about the vagaries of race and class, or maybe it only says something about aesthetic preferences and personality quirks.
The truth is I like diners: the ones in which I feel welcome.
As I walked into the church where the Eagle Scouts’ induction ceremony was being held, I braced myself for the looks. I put on my sweet smile and tried to make my face look open, like John’s morning face. I smiled, and thought “open,” but my body tensed. And there they were: looks upon looks. Curious, surprised, shy. I sensed people move aside involuntarily. I looked around for other brown people; there were none. I looked around for my in-laws. Suddenly, a little girl ran up and flung her arms around my waist. It was Shenna, my niece. “Aunt Emily,” she said. And then, out of the curious crowd, emerged my in-laws, one by one. There were more kisses, more hugs. I found Michael, uniformed and nervous, and forced a hug from him. “Come here,” I insisted, just as any aunt would do. There was room for me here, and room for me over there. I chose over there, with John, his brother, Jim, and Jim’s wife, Geraldine. “That’s okay,” said my mother-in-law, and gave my arm a squeeze. I thought of something a black female friend once said about Bill Clinton, about why he had so many African-American admirers. “He’s not afraid of black people,” she said. “He’s not afraid of our bodies.”
“A ‘white negro’.” This is what a female friend—non-white—called John when I first described her to him. She meant it derisively, and I forgave her. I felt then, and still feel, that her barb was borne of envy. She had recently complained to me that her own partner, who is white, is, woefully, “not smooth.” I understood, and felt bad for her. I could forgive her because I knew when she eventually saw John, she would see that he was, undeniably, smooth. What is smooth? A man who takes a woman’s coat; who holds the door open; who says, “Let me get that,” when the check comes; who drives, in the summer, with one elbow out of the window. When my friend’s partner drives, he jerks his foot up and down on the brake, as if it were the pedal of a sewing machine. Smooth is masculinity: fluid, assured, and delightful. John would say that it is Italian masculinity, and that it has very much in common with black masculinity. And, in fact, one of the things first pointed out to me by the woman who introduced us, a black woman, was how well John dances.
I have picked many white people over the years. Friends, colleagues, and confidantes. Even my closest white friends called race the problem when I complained about John in the early years of our relationship, outlining this or that grievance against him. “Well, that’s because you are black and he is white,” they would say. Each time, I would hold the phone away from me, amazed. And then I would feel sad for them—yes, sad—locked, as they were, in the prison of black and white. These were progressive, open-hearted white people. My closest black friends, as well as my mother, however, seemed to get it: it wasn’t intimacy with a white person that posed the greatest problem; it was intimacy with a man.
And yet we got married; I married the man. The longer I am married, the less I understand it. Marriage, that is, with a capital “M.” What does it look like? I don’t know what Marriage looks or feels like, but I know what it feels like to be with John. Most of the time, it feels good. “When we are getting along, I feel like I belong on the planet,” I told him once. “But when we aren’t, I’m the loneliest person alive.” He looked at me, considering. “That’s beautiful,” he said.
I know what some people see when they look at us together. When we first arrived at the University of Vermont, we attended an orientation session for new faculty. Most of the new faculty members were white; a few were not. When his turn came to introduce himself, John talked about his research. “I do work on jazz. I have a new project on the intersections between Italian-American and African-American culture.” There were titters, and then frank laughter. The laughter was not malicious, just surprised, even pleasantly surprised. I knew this, and yet I felt annoyed, and exposed. Our union: an area of research, a new project. It was our first year of marriage. The laughter was not mean, but conspiratorial, like they were in on our grand joke. Maybe it was funny, but I did not know those people.
When I was dating, I knew I was supposed to be looking for a black man, of a certain background, with certain ambitions, to marry, but I wasn’t. I was not explicitly looking for someone opposite to me to marry, either, and my opposite was not what I ended up with. In fact, John and I are more similar than I would like for us to be sometimes. We share the same interests, the same books, even the same job.
We care about race. We like racial difference—to experience it and then discuss it. There are interracial relationships in which each party claims not to see race in the other party. I don’t understand those couples, and consider their relationships fundamentally humorless.
John was once in one of those relationships. After reading an essay he wrote for a book I edited, Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships, a former flame— non-white— wrote to tell him she felt sorry for me, since John obviously had so many “racial hangups.” John printed out her e-mail and read it to me. We laughed together; no words were necessary.
Another former flame—non-white—told him he was “obsessed” with his class background. He told me this, and I laughed. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. This was early in our relationship. I think my laughter made him understand me a little bit more, made him believe I could eventually understand him.
I am not a visual person, but one day, I noticed the figurines in my mother-in-law’s kitchen. I don’t know how long they were there before I actually saw them. All I know is that, one day, there they were, their feet dangling above the “Four Freedoms.” My mother-in-law doesn’t remember how or when they got there, either. “I think they were a gift from the boys,” she says, meaning John’s nephews. “They know I like things to sit on that lip,” she says, pointing to the lip of the frame, where figurines of a pig, a singer sewing machine, and a farmer (white) now rest. “I don’t think they meant anything bad by it,” she says.
For years into my relationship with John, I did not want to talk about race around his family. When racial topics came up around the table, I felt seized with physical discomfort. My heart would beat hard, my face would heat up, my hands would clench into fists. I didn’t want them to notice my difference from them. I didn’t think they could understand my difference from them. I didn’t think they could understand me.
I was afraid someone would say something that could never be taken back, that someone would take us to a place from which there would be no return. Each and every time, however, the discussion would move easily onto another topic: we were a family discussing current events at Sunday dinner. But look again: we were not a family. A lace tablecloth, a charming centerpiece, the tick of a grandfather clock. That was them, not me. I was visible, yes; so visible as to be completely out of sight. I was like the centerpiece in the middle of the table; I was sitting on the lip of “Four Freedoms,” wooden feet dangling off the edge.
Once I noticed the figurines, I could see them from anywhere. No matter where I was in the house, they confronted me, their vacant white dots blaring: “You do not belong.”
Norman Rockwell lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, about five miles from where John grew up. Stockbridge borders Great Barrington, which was the home of W. E. B. Du Bois, and the site of Five Acres, the country home of James Weldon Johnson, who was killed in a car accident in Great Barrington in 1938.
Du Bois taught at Fisk University, where my parents went to college. When he was born in Great Barrington, his family had been residents of the county for nearly one hundred years. He drew upon his life there in his writing. I have often imagined Du Bois on my walks along the wide streets of Great Barrington. In my fantasies, he strolls along, in short pants as a boy, in his signature three-piece suit as a man. He walks easily. People waves and he nods; he is known. He is home.
John’s home is in Lenox, but he was born in Pittsfield, the next town over. Back then, Pittsfield was a thriving community, largely because of General Electric, where his father spent years as a welder. Pittsfield has a sizable Italian-American population. It is a very different town from Lenox, which was once known as the “inland Newport.” You don’t see many poor people, black or white, in Lenox. You see them in Pittsfield, however. GE left and the town caved in on itself. These days, Pittsfield is desperately trying to revive itself. John’s family recounts stories of its rejuvenation around the kitchen table.
Nashville has its own Pittsfield, called North Nashville, which like Pittsfield is currently undergoing gentrification. “The Titans—it really helps,” my father says, explaining the effects of the recent boom in tourism.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were no shiny horses or gilded gates in North Nashville, as there are now. Instead there were boarded up buildings, cars on brick stilts, people sitting on crates. Railroad tracks used to divide North and South Nashville. “When those freight trains would come by, you had to wait for thirty minutes, sometimes, before you could cross over to Charlotte Avenue,” my father tells me. That is what it meant to be black in Nashville in those years.
“Did we have to wait on the freight trains?” I ask my father.
“Yes, we did. When we left Fisk, or church, and needed to get back to the other side of town.” Much of our world was North Nashville, though we lived in South Nashville. My parents still live there.
“I don’t remember that.”
“Well, you were young. Why would you remember?”
I don’t remember the trains or the waiting. But I remember the books I read, books set in New England. I remember how I wanted to live in the books more than I wanted to live in Nashville. In the books, the landscapes were pristine, even if they were bleak. There were no people sitting on crates, or signs in the front yards saying “Niggers go home.” I do not believe it is a coincidence that I fell in love with a man from the pristine landscapes of my fantasies. The topography is in me. I walk along the streets of Great Barrington, Lenox, and Stockbridge, and look around. There are humble structures: churches and clapboard houses, mostly white with black trim. There are cemeteries sprouting like fields of wildflowers. There is, always, a Main Street. My memories. I drink them in. I am home.
It takes years to get rid of the figurines. It takes years because I can’t decide. One year, I fret so much that John insists we ask his mother to remove him. I talk him out of it. I don’t want to create a rift between me and my mother-in-law. I don’t want to call attention to our difference. Another year, I agonize over what impact those figurines will have on our children, the impact they have already had on John’s nephews and niece. John agrees, and moves to take them down, but then I talk him out of it. Another year, a friend comes home with us, and I point at them, and she insists we talk to John’s mother about them, and I say, “Maybe.” John gives me a look, shrugs, and shakes his head.
Finally, one year, John goes home alone and talks to his mother at the kitchen table. I can see her listening, nodding her head. She takes them down, or John takes them down. He pockets them.
Today, I sit at the kitchen table with John and his mother. I ask my mother-in-law, “Do you remember those figurines?” I look up at “Four Freedoms,” and her eyes follow mine.
“Yes,” she says. “I threw them out.”
“No, you didn’t,” John says.
“I threw them out,” she says.
“I have them,” John says.
“What?!” She says.
“I’m going to use them in my ‘Black Popular Culture’ class,” he says.
“Oh,” she says, and we move on to something else.
I don’t say that I used them in my own class, “Black Aesthetics: Race and
Representation.” We were talking about the figurines as an example of the racist collectibles that are now commercially popular. At the break, one of the students asked where I got the figurines. I said, “They were in the home of some people very dear to me.”
“Who is that?” asked Hazel, a student very dear to me.
“My in-laws,” I answered. I thought she would find it interesting, but instead, Hazel, and a few other students, looked alarmed and disgusted. I picked up the figurines protectively, embarrassedly. Suddenly, I saw how the little wooden figures looked to them, flat on the institutional white table, outside of my mother-in-law’s kitchen. “It’s complicated,” I said.
It’s complicated, and simple, too. Now that the figurines are gone from my in-laws’ home, they are gone. Vanished. Their ghosts do not haunt me. On top of the lip, the Singer sewing machine, the pig, and the white farmer leave no room for memories.
[Excerpted from The Best of Creative Nonfiction Vol. 2]