Valentine: An Excerpt from ‘Black Is the Body’

Coil Excerpts
Sep 27 · 4 min read
Multi-colored marbles placed in the shape of a heart on top of a wooden bench
Multi-colored marbles placed in the shape of a heart on top of a wooden bench

Nonfiction by Emily Bernard


February has proven to be a weighty month for the brown girls in my house.

In her final year of preschool, Isabella found herself in the middle of a romance. Ever since she was a toddler I have felt prescient pity for the boys who will fall in love with Isabella. Once they have fallen, I am certain that they will not be able to find their way back out. Gilbert was the name of the first boy who tumbled. He was an affable child, tan and green-eyed, with long, dark eyelashes and round, dimpled cheeks. Exceptionally tall for his age, Gilbert always seemed to be standing around with his hands in his pockets whenever I came to retrieve the girls. However, there was one time I saw him stand behind Isabella, who was busy at a craft table, and unaware of Gilbert as he gathered her braids lightly and let them fall, over and over, gather and fall, his eyes full of wonder, as if he were playing with a magical beaded curtain.

Book cover image
Book cover image
Image: Knopf. (Purchase)

In October, Gilbert invited Isabella to his birthday party. The girls and I had a conflicting engagement, so Isabella told him she would be unable to attend. Gilbert’s mother called; her son was beside himself, she said. He admired Isabella, in part because she had never been sentenced to a stint in the “blue chair,” the punishment chair, where he himself spent a fair amount of time. Her smile made him happy, he told his mother. In lieu of the birthday party, she asked if Isabella could come over the next afternoon for a playdate. Even though it was a weekday, I was moved by Gilbert’s plight, so I agreed. I thought Isabella would at least be amused when I informed her of the degree of Gilbert’s fondness, but she only shrugged.

When I went to pick up Isabella, Gilbert’s mother and I chatted while our children said goodbye. Isabella gave Gilbert one of her signature bear hugs. His arms dropped to his sides and a stunned, glassy look spread over his face. It was the look of love, pure and true.

After the playdate, Gilbert stepped up his game. He asked Isabella on an actual date. (“What did you say?” I asked. “Well, I told him I couldn’t cut school,” she told me.) And then, in early February, he told her he was going to draw a Valentine’s Day card with a picture of them kissing on the lips. He wrote her a note I found in her backpack. “Your hair is pretty,” read his four-year-old scrawl. He signed it with a drawing of a heart.

But a week before Valentine’s Day, Gilbert told Isabella that he was only going to give the light people cards that year. She would get her card the following year, he promised.

I didn’t hear about this until bedtime, when so many revelations come to light. My first — and last — instinct was that Gilbert had not meant the comment maliciously. But Isabella told me that what he said had hurt her feelings. I emailed their teacher. It was important, I believed, that she know that race — racial difference — had reared its head in her classroom in a potentially destructive way.

The next day, the teacher arranged a sit-down between the kids. Gilbert offered an apology, which Isabella accepted and — according to Isabella and the teacher — the two of them spent the rest of the day playing happily together.

What changed in Gilbert? I may never know. Surely, someone, something, got to him and made him look at Isabella differently. In general, Gilbert was aware of Isabella in a way that she was not aware of him. She was used to seeing white people; he was not used to seeing brown people. I believe he was trying to make sense of what it meant for him to care for a girl whose skin was so different from his. Years from now, he will be embarrassed at having said such a thing, or at least that’s what I like to imagine.

EMILY BERNARD was born and grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and received her PhD in American studies from Yale University. She has been the recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, the NEH, and a W. E. B. Du Bois Resident Fellowship at Harvard University. Her essays have been published in journals and anthologies, among them The American Scholar, Best American Essays, and Best African American Essays. She is the Julian Lindsay Green and Gold Professor of English at the University of Vermont.

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The Coil

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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