448 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins. Paper, $17.99.
BROWN WHITE BLACK
An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion
By Nishta J. Mehra
For marginalized people, widening the understanding of identity is a path to freedom. For straight white men, though, that widening is derided as “identity politics.” Mehra is neither straight nor white nor male, and writes unapologetically about her bonds to these categories in her collection “Brown White Black.” Many of the essays cover the same biographical content (the death of her father, her early relationship with her wife, the adoption of her son), but they mine deep and distinct emotional terrain. Mehra delves unflinchingly into each of her identities and their sharp intersections. In “Pretending to Be White,” she recalls growing up as an Indian girl in the black/white paradigm of Memphis, recounting her desire to be “the good kind of different” for white people while remaining loyal to the ethnic community that raised her. As an adult, she acknowledges “the Asian-American community’s participation in anti-black racism.” Mehra’s prose is clear and heartfelt whether she’s writing as daughter, queer, wife, mother or teacher. “Freedom is a constant struggle,” Angela Davis has said, and in this collection Mehra is unafraid to struggle for her own liberty. Readers may finish these pages a bit freer themselves.
211 pp. Picador. $25.
BLACK IS THE BODY
Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine
By Emily Bernard
Bernard, a writer and professor, invokes Zora Neale Hurston in her introduction to “Black Is the Body”: She’s looking for Hurston’s “oldest human longing — self-revelation.” And like Hurston’s, Bernard’s well-crafted narrative is informed by an ethnographer’s eye, traversing the religious rituals of her black family in Tennessee, the eating habits of her Italian-American husband and the racial grapplings of her white university students. The ethnography thrives, but the self-revelation does not. When she does draw close to herself — as in the first essay, “Scar Tissue,” about being stabbed as a graduate student — the collection dazzles, but Bernard gravitates far more toward the bodies of others, of her husband and her Ethiopian-born daughters. “Black Is the Body” obscures the blackness of her body. In “People Like Me,” Bernard juxtaposes the race relations of the South and North: “In the South, white people want you close but not high. In the North, you can get as high as you want but they don’t want you close.” The book keeps the black body distant from the reader, and perhaps from the writer herself — high, but rarely close.
218 pp. Knopf. $25.95.
And Other Essays
By Tressie McMillan Cottom
In “Thick,” the sociology professor McMillan Cottom offers profound and expansive cultural commentary, in essays epigraphed by figures ranging from Foucault to Malcolm X to the rapper Migos — reflecting the author’s skillful interweaving of the academic with the popular, all informed by blackness. In “Know Your Whites,” McMillan Cottom theorizes about the ascents of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, gathering evidence that includes her lived experience, the history of white fragility and the musings of a black man taking a smoke. “In the Name of Beauty” dissects that word as a tool of the capitalist white power structure: “When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it.” Whether challenging whiteness or misogyny within the black community, McMillan Cottom succeeds in her mission to tell “evocative stories that become a problem for power.” “Thick” is sure to become a classic of black intellectualism, one that ought to be read not only in African-American and gender studies departments across the country, although its lens is irrefutably and irresistibly black and feminist. It should be required reading for anyone interested in making “trust black women” more than a hollow social media mantra.
244 pp. New Press. $24.99.