Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009.
Summary: A collection of American essays connected to four places the author lived, all exploring the realities of race in which we all are implicated.
Telephone poles. An essay on the introduction of (and resistance to) telephone poles on the landscape becomes an essay on lynching. It turns out that telephone poles were used to hang many black men. Biss writes of how she once thought the “arc and swoop” of phone lines a thing of beauty. Now she comments, “they do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”
This striking comment captures a theme running through this book. Wherever we go in America, if our eyes are open, we recognize that we are implicated in our nation’s racial history. Nothing is innocent. And yet what also comes through in these essays is that Biss is not resigned to this state of affairs–repentance, a turning, is yet possible.
In her essays we follow Biss from New York to San Diego (and trips into Mexico), Iowa City, and the Rogers Park neighborhood of north Chicago. She describes locking kids into a Harlem school where she is teaching on 9/11 and how New York depleted her. In an essay sharing the title of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” she speaks of how “New York took everything I had” and like Didion, she left, but unlike Didion, she has not returned, and questions how Didion tolerated so many myths about the city.
She moves to San Diego, working for an African-American newspaper. One of her most telling essays describes Eve Johnson’s struggle with Child Protective Services to gain custody of her own grandchildren, and the repeated barriers she encounters because she is “too black” and her persistence. She notes that she never saw such stories in the New York Times.
Her next move is to Iowa City. She writes about her research into the Black company town of Buxton, no longer in existence that seemed idyllic. There was a fabric of community organizations and a strong sense of identity and self-respect among the black residents. She dares to wonder about the kind of “integration” in which Blacks are a small minority in a sea of white, as was the case with dissatisfied Black students at the University of Iowa. Is such integration really a form of assimilation rather than an affirmation of identity? She also discusses the race blindness she encounters as people decry “looting” after Katrina, but downplay thefts by students after a tornado tore through their city.
The title essay, “No Man’s Land” is set in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, bordering Evanston. It was originally called No Man’s Land because of its location. It is also highly integrated with no racial majority, yet she writes both of the racial fears that persist among whites like her in this diverse community and of her husband’s hope that “more white people don’t move here.”
Her concluding essay is titled “All Apologies” and explores the meaning of apologies both in personal life and in our racial history. Amid this is her telling observation: “Some apologies are unspeakable. Like the one we owe our parents.”
Biss dares to explore both our implicatedness in racism, and the ambiguities of living among one another with all that history. She recognizes the ambiguity in her own family, the mixed racial ancestry that gives her a cousin able to move between white and black communities, even while on the basis of appearance, she cannot. Her essays reveal a very different version of our national character from what many would have the textbook versions to be. She sees both the beauty and value of people and cultures, and the blindness, the hardness, and the obfuscations that sustain these disparate versions of America. In her spare, reflective prose she does not offer answers but invites us to sit with her and see.