Bernard on African-American writing tradition

Students filled McCarthy to hear acclaimed scholar Emily Bernard

October 24, 2019
Ariel Wish '20

Author and speaker Emily Bernard signs a copy of her book for a student Wednesday in the McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall in the large photo above the headline. Directly above, Bernard delivers her address. Below is a stack of her latest book ready for the signing that followed the talk. (photos by Ashley DeLeon ’23)

Members of the Saint Michael’s community filled the McCarthy Recital Hall on Wednesday, October 23 to welcome acclaimed scholar, teacher, and writer Emily Bernard to read from her newest novel, Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, and discuss the complexities of writing within the African American tradition.

Introducing the speaker, English Department Chair Lorrie Smith—who is herself known at the College for her comprehensive work with the African American literary model—described Bernard’s work as coming out of “a tradition in which testifying, truth telling, storytelling are at the center of imagining the Black self in a world where blackness and whiteness are always already constructed, but where nothing, in the messiness of actual lived experiences, is truly black and white. Exploring the “often contradictory truths of her own embodied experience” through concise prose, Bernard brings “sharp clarity” to the “blurred edges” of her content, said Professor Smith.

Indeed, storytelling, experience, and blurred edges remained a theme throughout the hour-long event, which comprised readings, lecturing, and a conversational question-and-answer session. From her introduction titled “Beginnings,” Bernard read, “Each essay in this book was born out of a struggle to find a language that would capture the totality of my experience as a woman, a Black American, a teacher, a mother, a wife, and a daughter. I wanted to discover a new way of telling. I wanted to tell the truth about life as I had lived it.” She read and spoke of her desire to displace the archetypal narrative of “Black innocence and white guilt,” reflecting that, while an important concept, “there are other true stories to tell.”

“I think the book is about how we learn to work with our wounds."

Emily Bernard

Other readings included Bernard’s reflections of adopting her Ethiopian twin daughters, exploring complexities of motherhood, simultaneously navigating African and American identities, and blackness as a social condition rather than a color.

“I think the book is about how we learn to work with our wounds. There’s only so much time you could shake your fist at the universe for the things that have happened to you. Ultimately, you have to make a decision about whether or not you’re going to live, or you’re going to die, and for me, writing is a way of understanding the world—I think that’s true for all of us,” Bernard said, opening the door to discuss the power of the written word and answer audience members’ questions about style, imagery, and narration as a whole.

Thanks to joint efforts from the College Lecture Series, First-Year Seminar Program, Center for Multicultural Affairs, and English Department, students, faculty, and outside community members left the event inspired, engaged, and better informed about the complexity of the African American literary tradition.

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