Notes from No Man’s Land By Eula Biss | Graywolf Press | 244 pages, $15
“The day I moved into my first apartment, I discovered that the reason the kitchen had looked so big was that there was no refrigerator,” Eula Biss writes in “Goodbye to All That,” an essay in her fine new collection, Notes from No Man’s Land. What the young, just-moved-to-New-York Biss may have realized is that even the obvious is often not at all obvious; things look great, until you notice what’s missing. What the mature author culls from that earlier observation is that there are reasons we don’t see the missing refrigerator, particularly when it comes to race.
Working diligently to parse those reasons, Biss poses a series of questions. How it is that a younger white generation might believe that racism has been conquered? What is implied by an educational mandate to not only teach students but to make them into “better people”? What does it mean to be white? Her argument, filtering into each essay, is that our country discusses race too predictably—we’ve learned how to tell the story, but it doesn’t mean that’s how it happened. Biss’s technique, which is infuriating but effective, is to interweave her personal experiences with historical narrative and reportage to create a more finely striated version of that story.
A former journalist who teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern, Biss is at her strongest when she delves into history, working the microfilm machine to construct her tale. In her introductory essay, she recounts the severe distaste many Americans felt for the first telephone poles to go up in their neighborhoods. By 1889, The New York Times was reporting a veritable anti-telephone-pole crusade: “Wherever telephone companies were erecting poles, home owners and business owners were sawing them down or defending their sidewalks with rifles.” But once the poles were in place—wending their way across the American landscape and bringing, as Thomas Edison declared, “the human family in closer touch”—we the people used them as the means to a different end. “In 1898,” the author writes, “in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the hanged man was riddled with bullets.”
Biss enumerates twenty-two telephone-pole lynchings in that first short essay. “The poles, of course, were not to blame,” she writes. “It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone poles so closely resembled crucifixes.” This historical nugget, which Biss masterfully juxtaposes against the growth of national interconnectedness, conveys a terrifying truth: whatever we claim to remember, there are portions of our history that we have forgotten. It is, in effect, the missing refrigerator in the kitchen.
There are many other missing or unspoken “Notes from No Man’s Land.” (This phrase, both the title of the collection and of a longer essay that looks to Laura Ingalls Wilder and the pioneers to decipher the process of gentrification in Chicago, echoes throughout the book.) In San Diego, where Biss worked for an African-American community paper, the Voice and Viewpoint, there’s the story of a black woman with a ten-year-old felony conviction for discharging a gun with gross negligence. Despite having paid for her crime years before with a brief, incident-free probation, Eve Johnson’s attempts to gain custody of her grandchildren were consistently thwarted by the system. “The gun in Ms. Johnson’s story was functioning, again and again, as an excuse for the inexcusable,” recalls Biss. Scarcely more excusable was the “gag order” from the presiding judge warning Johnson not to talk to the paper.
Of course, the observations that Biss makes are informed by her own story. Perspective is everything, and she spends a lot of time discussing her position as a white woman: its advantages and disadvantages, the assumptions it invites, the identity crises it provokes. In the balance between nature and nurture, Biss’s own complicated identity tilts toward the latter. Her mother, who for a time followed the traditions of the West African Yoruba, took the author and her siblings to religious festivities called bembés, where they “watched the drummers sweat” and sang “in a language we did not understand.” Her extended family, meanwhile, is an enviable model of diversity. Quoting Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote, “I remember the very day that I became colored,” Biss longs for a more malleable sense of self. “Perhaps my inability to pass is part of why I feel so trapped within my identity as a white woman,” she concedes. “That identity does not feel chosen by me as much as it feels grudgingly defaulted to.”
Nothing if not self-aware, Biss does lay claim to some measure of difference from her demographic peers. She takes a distinct pride in loving “the New York of Harlem and Inwood and Washington Heights,” and notes in an aside that the word “gentrification” agitates her husband because it is used negatively by the very people—artists, students, and so forth—that benefit from it. Still, despite this desire to differentiate herself from other white folks who may be less preoccupied by how the other half lives, she understands that fairly or not, it is nature, and not nurture, that often plays the bigger part in defining what a person is.
And that, ultimately, is why Biss can write this book. Traversing an isthmus between white America and non-white America, she notes her own, ample opportunities, yet refuses to relinquish the struggle for racial identity to those that have traditionally been more oppressed. This willingness to walk back and forth on that thin strip of land is both her vulnerability and her greatest strength.
The concluding essay in the collection is called “All Apologies.” It’s a series of apologies (and non-apologies) issued throughout history: the Hartford Courant apologized for having accepted advertisements for slaves; Korean War veteran Ed Daily apologized for the massacre in the village of No Gun Ri, even though he hadn’t himself participated; F.W. de Klerk apologized for apartheid; Reagan signed a bill apologizing to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II, but resisted apology all the same, calling it a “mistake.” At the end of the essay, Biss writes, “I apologize for slavery.” It’s less an admission of wrongdoing than a classic apologia—a formal defense, and implicit examination, of her own conduct, which is what underpins this entire book. The reader is once again reminded of those telephone poles at the turn of the twentieth century, which served as both gallows and technological thruway. That nexus implicates all of us, and Biss puts it in plain view: for a moment, at least, we see even what is unseen.