U.S. Race Relations and Quarantining: Living Writers Discussions Mirror Student Lives in 2020

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The Living Writers series always strives to engage students with contemporary authors who grapple with modern issues. This year, a novel about a village quarantining during the plague and two nonfiction essay collections that explore race in America have helped students discuss their own lived experiences after a summer marked by pandemic and race riots.

Kicking off the season on Sept. 10, Geraldine Brooks discussed Year of Wonders, her first novel, written after a journalism career spent in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Africa with the Wall Street Journal.

Brooks happened upon the village of Eyam while in England and discovered historical accounts of a minister who convinced the town to quarantine to slow the spread of bubonic plague. They prompted her to imagine the story of Anna, the minister’s maid, and what it would have felt like to balance such extreme fear, faith, and hope. 

Brooks went on to write many more novels, including Pulitzer-Prize winning March, but finds her journalistic roots are always key to her storytelling — thus her interest in historical fiction. Brooks has dealt with extreme violence and trauma in her reporting and hopes to make those experiences meaningful through her authorship.

“You stumble into people’s lives at the worst possible moment in many cases,” Brooks said. “I wanted to make use of all the suffering I witnessed. In my novels I try to use the experiences I had. That's been the mission of my fiction.”

Creating something meaningful from suffering also led to Emily Bernard’s essay collection, Black is the Body. The opening essay depicts Bernard’s experience as the victim of a random stabbing and how it led to her collection, as she has “always viewed the violence [she] survived as a metaphor for the violent encounters that have generally characterized American race relations.”

Bernard is a professor of English at the University of Vermont. Her 12 essays address the dynamic between her white husband and Black southern family; her experience of adopting and raising two daughters; the self-surveillance that goes into being Black in America; and how and when to talk about race with one’s family, friends, and students.

“In life I am a fearful person, on the page I am fearless,” Bernard said. “I can be very carefully composed to the point of putting on my own straitjacket, but on the page, I can wander, I can be natural, I can contradict myself, and I can be vulnerable.”

After reading selected essays, Bernard answered questions about teaching race as a professor and using trauma productively rather than succumbing to rage in crafting these intimate explorations of race. 

“I can bring my best self to the page. I might start out angry, vengeful, spiteful, and bitter, but by the time I get to the piece, my heart is open, and I give myself over to the… beauty of language,” she said. 

The following week, Greg Bottoms, Bernard’s English department colleague at the University of Vermont, came to talk about his literary nonfiction book Lowest White Boy. Bottoms grew up in Virginia at a time when schools were beginning to desegregate. Using his current vantage point on the cultural and historical factors that shaped his childhood, Bottoms’ essays expose the classist and racist undercurrents of his upbringing; the story Bottoms was told about race as a child is a false narrative. 

Jennifer Brice, associate professor of English and Living Writers director, introduced Bottoms as “one of the greatest writers in America today,” and noted how his work illuminates “the process of re-inhabiting the mind of the watchful boy he once was… of interrogating the bland and palatable stories white people told themselves, have been telling themselves, continue to tell ourselves, about black and white relations in this country.”

The book’s title comes from the President Lyndon B. Johnson quote, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.” In order to confront America’s history of racial injustice, many of the essays explore Bottoms’ family’s economic disadvantages and how communities were led to collectively think in racist ways. 

“White working-class people have been the bullets in the weaponization of racism. My father, grandmother, and grandfather were deeply disenfranchised. They believed in things… against their own interest,” he said. “There's something deeply sad about that.”

Learn more about the series at colgate.edu/livingwriters.