Read on to watch a video of Emily Bernard and Sophfronia Scott discussing this essay.
IN THE SPRING OF 2019, I gave a reading in southern California. My book Black Is the Body had been out in the world for a few months, and I had traveled to bookstores and libraries up and down the East Coast to promote it. In California, I would be meeting with readers and also several faculty members in the humanities. I had no doubt that it would go smoothly. After all, I would be among teachers, my tribe.
That night, I stood at a lectern, read from Black Is the Body, and answered questions. When the event was over, a few readers came to the stage to share stories of their own and get their books signed. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my host gather the faculty who would be joining us for dinner. I love connecting with readers, but I was looking forward to disappearing into conversations involving something other than me and my book.
Another senior faculty member would be joining us, a man whose work was widely admired, a man of color. I saw him as soon as I walked up to the dinner group. It would have been hard to ignore him. He was handsome, first of all, tall, with strong features and blue-black hair. Even his voice was handsome: it undulated smoothly and evenly, rising just above the chatter. He was not loud, but he wanted to be heard. He wanted to be seen, too. He wore a crisp-looking, pale linen suit, a rectangle of fuchsia silk peeking out of the breast pocket. His skin was brown. He stood close to me as the group worked out the details of who would drive whom and where to park, but he did not look at me.
“I took a Lyft here so I could drink as much as I want,” said the man with the fuchsia pocket square to no one in particular once we had all convened in the restaurant. He lifted his glass and took a sip. He had yet to meet my eyes, a strange situation that became stranger when he chose the seat across from me. The more he ignored me, the more aware I became of his presence. On the table between us sat a tiny vase of bright springtime flowers bracketed by two short candles. A polite centerpiece befitting the occasion, I thought, or at least what it appeared to be: a pleasant interracial group of intellectuals at an upscale restaurant. But something was going on beneath the surface, at least between me and my dinner companion of the charming pocket square. I imagined the flowers and the flame struggling to thrive in the face of whatever mysterious wind was building between us, a gale that I was starting to believe was malevolent in nature. He ordered another drink.
He had been at the restaurant for a good thirty minutes before we arrived, he said. I felt everyone around the table relax as his sonorous voice took the helm. These were his colleagues; they respected him. He complained about a white couple at the bar who had objected to his exchange in Spanish with a waiter.
“I think we should tell the manager,” I said.
“I handled it,” he said, his eyes still elsewhere.
The flame struggled on; the flowers gulped air. Finally, abruptly, he turned to face me and then leaned in close. Everyone was quiet. People wanted to hear what their elegant, esteemed colleague had say to me, the visiting writer.
“I have to tell you something,” he said. “I protect my pain.” He touched his chest. “To me, your writing is pornographic.” He rolled out the words easily and carefully on the carpet of his beautiful voice. It occurred to me that he had probably rehearsed this.
I leaned in, too. “I understand that you protect your pain,” I said. I started to explain myself, my work, my way, but he wasn’t interested. His pitch was perfect; he wasn’t interested in my reception. Or maybe ignoring me further was the point. Regardless, he turned away. Someone at one end of the table scrambled into the silence to talk about research, deadlines, and the like. I looked around for evidence of the snub to register on someone’s face. Nothing. Only relief that the conversation had moved on. No one around that polite table was up for talk about pain, and maybe in particular the pain of two adult people of color. Nobody, perhaps, but me.
I went back to my hotel room that night feeling annoyed and intrigued. It was annoying to have been called a pornographer by an intelligent, unsmiling stranger in a beautiful suit. But I was intrigued by the suit with its rectangle of wild color, surely chosen as carefully as his words. I thought about costumes, guises, and wounds. And I thought about freedom.
It may have been the first time someone had used the word pornographer to describe me, but it was not the first time I felt the punch of its meaning in reaction to my writing.
“Why do you have to write like that?” my friend Ellen asked after she read my essay “Teaching the N-Word.” It wasn’t the first essay I’d ever published, but it was the first time I felt I had truly spoken, had managed to capture my own authentic voice. That was over fifteen years ago, but I still remember how she spat the word “write.” I didn’t have an answer to her question, or any of the questions undergirding that question.
A friend of my husband’s, visiting from out of town, responded with hostility when my husband asked if he had read the same essay. “I read the part about Emily getting schnockered in a restaurant!” he exclaimed from across the room, his bleary eyes intent. I don’t think it was a coincidence that he was just then emerging from an evening of drinking (he and my husband had stayed up late the night before talking and playing music). In his fragile state, he thought to shame me because he felt ashamed. And maybe not just for drinking too much.
Here’s what I learned from the experience of being a victim of a violent crime: people are the worst. Some of them, anyway. Some will act as if you are contagious and they might “catch” your trauma. Or they will identify with your trauma in discomfiting ways, so that you no longer exist: your life becomes an extension of theirs. Other people understand that your trauma has nothing to do with them. These people can say, I feel for you, or I am interested in you, without saying, I am you. These people give you room to be.
Ellen was just as disgusted with “Scar Tissue,” my essay about being a victim of a stabbing that took place in 1994, as she was with “Teaching the N-Word.” And while he didn’t mention “Scar Tissue” in his indictment, I think it’s safe to say that my accuser with the pocket square did not find the essay charming. Throughout the essay, I am the opposite of him, or how he wants to the world to see him. I am helpless: ripped open by an assailant, splayed out on a gurney, imposed upon by tubes and needles in a hospital bed, exposed for all the world to see. For him to see. But what’s missing from his vision is the telling itself. Because in all stories about wounds, the telling is the suture. The telling is the distance from the gurney to the lectern.
Here is what I have learned from my fifty-plus years of being a Black woman in this country: people are the worst. There are knives. There is violence. There is always someone around who is happy to tell you to stay in your place, stay out of sight, shut up. Here is what I have learned from being a writer: there is always a censor. And from being human? Two things: There is always fear. Fear is a prison.
Sometimes fear is a linen suit with a fuchsia pocket square. Often fear is pain guarded so closely that it takes on a power that is bigger than language. I believe that to tell the story is to choose liberty over pain.
Tellers need listeners. “I write for myself and strangers,” Gertrude Stein said. I write from the stranger in me to the stranger in you, from my discomfort to yours. I write because there are things I don’t know—even about myself—that I want to find out, and because I believe there are others out there in the same situation: People who feel confused and afraid and alone; people who are broken and want to get whole. People who look to language for wholeness. This is my tribe, and it is a tribe whose members come in all colors, literally and figuratively.
I believe we must meet in our brokenness, in the gaps between sentences and paragraphs, between silence and speech. It is from the brokenness that I teach and write. The creeds and prayers that anchor my faith are opportunities to articulate my only aspiration: to become whole. To become whole is to become free; the entire process takes forgiveness, of self and others. My entire pedagogical philosophy is balanced on my belief in forgiveness. I teach because I have been uninformed, and I know deeply the pleasure of being liberated from ignorance. Education is forgiveness; when we learn, we are free.
In everyday discourse inspired by the news and social media, there is no room for brokenness or gaps, no space for the light of ambiguity to enter; everything is absolutely this or absolutely that. You are right or you are wrong; you are black or white, literally and figuratively. No one is absolutely black or white, literally or figuratively. Or rather, those people who are are not interesting enough to write stories about.
“Don’t make deities out of Black human beings,” I told a group of students in the before, the way before, back when Barack Obama was president. “We will disappoint you.”
Here is something disappointing: I am afraid. I am afraid of disappointing you. But my fear of disappointing you accomplished only one thing: it kept me from writing this essay. It was only when I turned off all the noise—the steady soundtrack of alarm that allowed me a comfortable judgmental distance from the world, and myself—that I was able to write. And I was only able to write when I could whisper the truth in the silence: I am afraid. And my fear said: Finally, the truth. Now, let’s begin.
Emily Bernard is the author of Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine (Knopf), winner of the LA Times Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose. She is a 2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellow and an Image editorial advisor.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.