Noel Rockwell

Members of the Yale and New Haven community gathered at Wilson Library Tuesday evening to hear acclaimed author Emily Bernard ’89 GRD ’98 discuss her new memoir, “Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time and Mine.”

Bernard’s reading and lecture, which drew a full room of approximately 30 attendees, marked the latest event in a monthly series organized by Yale’s Public Humanities program, which provides opportunities to engage with the humanities outside of the University’s campus. The program, which began as a student initiative, launched in 2007. Tuesday’s event began with Bernard reading aloud one of the most important excerpts from her book, the story of surviving a mass stabbing as a graduate student in New Haven at a local coffee shop.

“The story of a stabbing is the story of me and something I’m wrestling with,” Bernard told the audience. “As I have grown as a human being, a writer and a teacher, I was interested in the way the story defined me and has defined me beyond my own power and intentions.”

Bernard’s memoir — which is comprised of 12 essays — details her life experiences that range from growing up as a black woman in the South to becoming a professor of critical race and ethnic studies at a predominantly white, New England college. Bernard said she hopes that the difficult and traumatic life experiences in the memoir will contribute to “the American racial drama.”

While she called the process of writing “terrifying,” Bernard said confronting these experiences made her a better writer. After the reading, Bernard opened the floor to questions and explained how race and blackness shaped her life.

“I can only write from the particular of my own experience, but the thing that motivates me is a sense of utility,” Bernard said. “That’s where my responsibility comes from. I hope the book becomes part of a conversation. Not an entire conversation, I don’t think one book can do that. My responsibility comes when I open that vein and tell the truth.”

Bernard’s talk marked an expansion of the Public Humanities program. Wilson Library, located in the Hill neighborhood, is the most recently added branch of the New Haven Free Public Libraries to the program.

Marian Huggins — the community outreach librarian at the Wilson branch — chose Bernard’s novel for the branch’s Urban Life Experience book club, which is a group focused on reading stories of race in America. Huggins noted that Bernard’s memoir is “raw and unexpected” and emphasized that the discussion of this book is especially important to nonacademic communities the program aims to serve.

Barb Levine-Ritterman and her wife, Robin — who are both members of the Urban Life Experience book club — attended Tuesday’s event. They found Bernard’s book “highly interesting,” particularly because it forced them to re-examine how they view race on a daily basis.

“The conversation about race is so important in this point and time for everyone, but especially us as white people,” Barb Levine-Ritterman said. “We need to be looking at how post slavery this society has so much more to do, and how hearing people like Emily Bernard and coming to the Wilson Library is part of that.

Wilson Library is located on 303 Washington Ave.

Noel Rockwell | noel.rockwell@yale.edu