An African-American poet, essayist, and lecturer, Camille T. Dungy has authored four collections of poetry and edited two anthologies; her poems and essays have been published in Best American Poetry, The 100 Best African American Poems, nearly thirty other anthologies, and over one hundred print and online journals. Always adept at her lyric craft, Dungy’s debut collection of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, offers profound observation, keen intellect, and frank reflection rooted in the black diaspora by focusing on the black body, motherhood, history, and nature. Dungy’s work navigates race, gender, and cross-cultural identity in the United States and abroad. Her experience of pregnancy and/or motherhood is a consistent thread as the author further explores the themes of birth and origin.
Guidebook to Relative Strangers, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, is essential in that it reflects intersectionality at its roots. In today’s complicated conversations about identity and difference, Dungy’s work is on point in revealing a deeper sense of how social constructs still challenge and perhaps limit ways of understanding difference. This is not to say that identifying with a group lacks purpose. Dungy’s essays illustrate how her status as a black female writer, mother, educator, wife, and daughter cannot be separated no matter where she finds herself. She will not be diluted into one category or another. She does not have to choose one role over another. That is what ties these essays together. No matter what her experience, Dungy’s identity is ultimately autonomous.
In “Manifest,” Dungy’s baby daughter Callie Violet inspires the author’s exploration of herself as the mother of a black child but her impact affects every aspect of the author’s identity. Dungy ruminates on how her Callie perceives her temporarily insulated world as she begins to acquire ways of nonverbal and verbal communication. In “Manifest,” the author celebrates her daughter’s early access to the sound of language:
Ma Ma Ma Ma Ma Ma Mama is your latest sound, and I’ve known better than to think that you made that sound you made it for me. But today when I came toward you and lifted you up off your play mat, you giggled and repeated the words that had brought me to you. And just that quickly, I had a name.
Dungy is fully in love with and invested in her daughter’s movements, stillness, and tactile experiences with nature and place. The language of mother and daughter exists most powerfully without words. She learns her daughter each day and works to translate each gesture of sound that forms within her child’s mouth. Dungy surveils each grip of Callie’s hand, her infant’s head on her chest as a place of protection (for both): “I can be intensely in the presence of our pleasure when your mortality manifests, a specter undeniable as my joy when you slay me with kisses.” Dungy’s elation over Callie’s infancy extends toward a deeper fear about the crucial generational conversation about what it will mean for her daughter to walk through the world in a black body.
Framed around family, work, travel, and her writing life, Dungy’s essays exemplify several microaggressions and macroaggressions surrounding race and gender. Dungy understands what comes with entering physical spaces in which she and her child are the sole representations of their race. Dungy’s physical appearance (especially her hair), her tone of voice, her willingness to answer for or vouch for herself are an undercurrent. Whether Callie behaves or acts out as any child is a seemingly ordinary occurrence yet it is weighty when connected to the sharp lens that is ever-present surrounding black identity.
Strangers are enchanted by Callie’s temperament, skin tone, eyes, and hair. They are surprised at her good behavior on planes and in airports. Eyebrows raise when mother and child are together and Dungy is very meticulous to make sure she is ready for anything no matter what their destination. What may be a typical experience for many parents of all colors, the fact that Callie is a black child deepens her hypervigilance as a black mother. The scope of Dungy’s essays is powerful in their connectivity to what black and brown people face in both private and public spaces. Even a pleasant afternoon is rooted in a fuller understanding of knowing what it is to be solely identified by race and gender.
In “Body of Evidence,” Dungy honors the camaraderie that exists during lunch with her husband, Ray, and kindred spirits Sean and Dudley:
They all sounded blacker to me in each other’s company than they usually tended to sound. Which means that they sounded comfortable and happy in their bodies, that they cracked jokes in a particular kind of way about particular kinds of things, that they laughed upon receiving these jokes as well as on delivering them, that they danced a little when they walked. This is not to say all black people are good and constant dancers.
Dungy’s work resonates with the duality of black identity and how one’s perception of self is affected among other people of color, or while isolated within the role of the other. The potential dangers of walking through the world in a black body permeate the conversation among Dungy, Roy, Sean, and Dudley: “But they soon became less funny. The three men spent lunch comparing notes about living in America in black bodies that were regularly confused with the bodies of other black men…What a menace, to live in bodies that might be anybody’s, that are so frequently assumed to be corrupt.” Being followed while shopping. Being stopped and frisked while walking down the street. Being stopped by a police officer on the way home. These are repeated experiences to which black and brown people are resigned. For anyone else, they are minor and infrequent frustrations. Dungy fully understands the very careful steps a man or woman must take when being pulled over by law enforcement. That experience comes up in conversation among the men in her company. They know all too well the importance of keeping black or brown hands on the dashboard, keeping identifications and wallets in sight of the officer, and maintaining a non-threatening tone of voice. Even before Callie is old enough to drive, Dungy will have that talk that so many must have. It is never just one conversation. There is a constant reaching back into history to see how and why this conversation is never-ending.
Even today, the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow history, our current national plague of violent incidents, and institutional sexism and racism provoke difficult questions and uneasy answers about exclusion, inhumanity, and inequality. The black body in and of itself still ignites fierce discussion, disagreement, or willed silence that shrouds black and brown people. Dungy and her lunch companions further consider their recent conversation after a traffic stop as they returned from their shared meal. Such reminders of the dangers that exist extend to how Dungy mothers her child, especially during Callie’s travels alongside her mother. Dungy is vigilant in protecting her when others interact with or avoid them as they move through the world. The expectations of herself both before and after becoming a mother align with her identity as a writer.
Upon returning from a solo trip to Ghana, Dungy explores her role as “The Conscious Outsider.” The essay recalls the author’s attendance at a writer’s conference in New England. The privilege to feed her soul in a pristine landscape sustains her body, spirit, and creative mind. Frustratingly, the moments when Dungy would prefer invisibility (if possible) are an exercise in self-containment. Tokenism further complicates Dungy’s experiences. The pressure to validate the invisible, murky spaces surrounding the subject of race emphasizes Dungy’s annoyance with wading through the entitlement of a few supposedly, in-the-know, female writers. In their gender marginality, some feel equipped to handle what may very well be outside their comfort zones, including the topic of race. Even in what should be the safe space of a writers’ retreat, Dungy fights with her need to focus on her writing rather than being a poster child for “the other.” She, as the singular black, female writer on retreat fights against expectations to speak for the black masses in the company of her white contemporaries. Whether traveling abroad or closer to home, Dungy’s essays exist through the lens of place, history, and the impact of cross-cultural perceptions of race and gender.
“A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses” captures her profound return to Ghana, this time with her family, and the freedom of existing without explanation, secure in their own black bodies, fully belonging to themselves. That irony hangs heavy during their private tour of Cape Coast Castle, one of the forty forts built by European traders first used for gold, spices, and timber but more memorably for the transatlantic slave trade: Dungy and her family explore the human cargo holds and the tunnel that leads to the Door of No Return. The tunnel, that door to hell, was the last passage that enslaved Africans made before boarding the slave vessels: “[The guide] understands what we want from this experience. He asks us to imagine being packed in here with two hundred men, shackled and naked. He asks us to imagine the stench, the vomit, the sounds, of writhing bodies, chains drawn against chains.” Returning for a beach day in Accra, the author contemplates: “How many people have lost their children along that voracious coast?” Callie, now a toddler, is circling, circling, circling around the space. Dungy worries her daughter is disrupting the tour but her husband believes it is a symbol of reclaiming freedom: “I grab her again. She squirms and pushes away. ‘She’s reclaiming the space,’ my husband says. ‘Let her be.'” Even in the stench and scarring, this is a sacred place that will never, should never, be erased.
Even in the most harrowing of circumstances, we reclaim and by extension relearn ourselves. Callie’s willful independence in direct contrast to the history surrounding them symbolizes a resistance from confinement. For a few brief moments, this very freedom, of a small black child exploring her world on her own terms, emphasizes the vital role Dungy plays in teaching Callie to thrive while navigating the racial and gender based prejudice she will encounter throughout her life.
My own upbringing and intersectionality came to mind as I read Guidebook to Relative Strangers. As a first-generation child of Haitian immigrants, this book resonates with how cultural expectations both enriched and complicated my sense of self. My family was the only Haitian family living in a predominantly white New England suburb. Being an American-born child raised in the United States with my two Haitian-born older sisters imprinted on me a myriad of ways my first-generation status was exoticized, shunned by some, or celebrated by others. Our parents taught us how to walk through the world with pride, ambition, compassion and humility. As often as possible, we were prepared for the racism, sexism, and cross-cultural prejudice and discrimination we faced.
An essential read, Dungy’s work allows for a wider perspective of difference that does not restrict us from an honest look at ourselves as individuals and how we perceive each other.Guidebook to Relative Strangers provides an opportunity to extend the cultural conversation surrounding difference as a way forward.