Learning to Live the Trauma, Joys, and Pains of Life with Emily Bernard

By: Danielle Modica

Celebrated author and professor Emily Bernard visited University at Albany last Tuesday, February 15 for a conversation on her most recent book “Black is the Body: Stories from my Grandmother’s Time, my Mother’s Time, and Mine” through the New York State Writers Institute.


Bernard with NYSWI Assistant Director Mark Koplik

(Photo Credit: Danielle Modica/The ASP)


Released in 2019, “Black is the Body” is a collection of twelve personal essays that detail Bernard’s experience surviving a random stabbing in Connecticut, as well as growing up in Tennessee, her biracial marriage, and adopting children.


“Live the confusing moment of experiencing violence,” Bernard said. “Live the trauma, joys, and pains of life.”


Bernard discussed her writing process and social issues with the audience through Q&A, sprinkling in wisdom as she spoke. She shared that the essays displayed her life in truth, hoping to inspire readers by “being human on the page,” rather than “prescribing” the best way to live.


“The only constant in life is change,” Bernard said. “There’s no value in pleasing everyone - do the things that feel right to you.”


Though the experiences in the book are truthful, Bernard mentioned how her full insights cannot be expressed on the page.


“It’s impossible to take a picture of the ocean,” Bernard said. ‘[“Black is the Body”] can never capture the full range of my feelings.’


This is Bernard’s second visit to the Writers Institute. In 2016 she participated in a film screening of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (2005), followed by a discussion focusing on the life and legacy of author Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a 20th-century author known for her portrayal of racial struggles in the early-1900s American South.


Tuesday’s discussion also dove into how book bans, suppressing modern contemporaries, and institutional racism come hand-in-hand. Notably embedded in schools through outdated syllabi, our reliance on novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Catcher in the Rye'' is extremely telling to modern perception of society.


“Book bans take control of the people–keeping them ignorant,” Bernard said.


Bernard focuses much of her work on illuminating the value in Black folk art, noting the importance of sharing these historical points-of-views with younger generations. Her next project, whose working title is “Unfinished Women,” will serve as a collection of “biographical portraits” of Black women who navigated unique obstacles in various professions.


“I hope to celebrate the people who made beautiful lives you’ve never heard of,” Bernard said of the project.


Bernard’s visit is one of many on-campus events hosted by the NYS Writers Institute. For more information about this semester’s future events, check out their website at nyswritersinstitute.org

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