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.