(Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009)
“Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us,” writes Eula Biss in Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, a provocative exploration of race in America. Biss is talking about telephone poles and wires, the massive project of connecting every home in the country following Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. But she is also talking about what enabled enraged whites to hang blacks from telephone poles in the late 1800s and early 1900s for “crimes real and imagined” and what continues to allow racial privilege to persist.
In the dazzling opening essay, “Time and Distance Overcome,” Biss begins with Bell’s invention, a fact your average elementary school student could recite. Less well known, though, is the “war” on telephone poles that followed; viewed as a blight on the landscape, the poles were often cut down as quickly as they were erected. Biss draws her readers in with these interesting, if benign, historical footnotes before punching them in the gut with a graphic catalogue of black men lynched from telephone poles. “Now, I tell my sister, these poles, these wires, do not look the same to me,” she writes. This is a technique Biss employs throughout her collection, connecting the seemingly unconnected, making the familiar strange as she works to unsettle her readers’ perceptions of race.
Biss’s undertaking, then, is to lead us into no man’s land by uncovering how we’re already there. Drawing upon stories from the media, historical records, sociological research, and her own keenly observed experiences, she demonstrates how the legacy of racism has left the U.S. a kind of disputed ground, a place of confusion where whites and blacks may find belonging within their own racial groups but struggle to belong together as Americans. In “Relations” she opens with a story of a white woman who gave birth to twins, one white, one black, after being accidentally implanted with a black couple’s embryo. From a fundamental question—to whom does the black child belong?—Biss moves to other questions of belonging: famous “doll studies” in which black children expressed a preference for white dolls, a census-worker’s puzzlement over how to categorize her mixed-race cousin. As a white woman from a multiracial family who grew up with African traditions, Biss interrogates her own whiteness and the privileges it confers on her but finds no easy answers. She writes, “perhaps it would be better if we simply refused to be white. But I don’t know what that means, really.”
Yet for all her questions and uncertainty, Biss doesn’t leave us in no man’s land. She sees a way forward in repentance, the possibility of our collective salvation. Her final essay, “All Apologies,” is just that: a list of apologies made and apologies withheld, by Biss in her own life, by U.S. presidents on internment camps, Hiroshima, Abu Ghraib. In the act of apologizing, she suggests, we as a people may find the connection and belonging that has eluded us. So Biss ends by offering up an apology, for herself and perhaps for us all: “I apologize for slavery. It wasn’t me, true. But it might have been my cousin.”
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Marion Wyce‘s review of Notes from No Man’s Land first appeared in TLR’s Fall 2009 issue, Therapy!