LIZ AND I STAND TALKING after running into each other one day. We are talking about Len, her godson, who is the mid-20s son of a mutual friend. Liz is white; Len is black. “This is the first time I’ve ever lived with a black person,” she tells me. Len has been living in her house for almost a year.
The comment is not out of the blue. I have been telling Liz about a course I am teaching called Interracial Intimacy, a course that speaks to one of my deepest beliefs, which is that intimacy — shared space and time — is a crucial factor in improving race relations. I had described an article I had read about how few people of different races spend time in one another’s homes, in one another’s company in general. Liz is 60 years old. She has spent most of her adult life in rural Vermont. It would be strange if she had lived with a black person before, much less hosted one in her bathtub, which is where the conversation has taken us.
“The first time he took a bath there was a dark ring inside the tub!” Liz says, her eyes wide with revelation. She lives on a farm. It is Len’s responsibility to take care of the animals.
“Maybe he was just dirty,” I offer. I don’t say, our color, it doesn’t come off.
It’s pretty clear that Liz realized the unsavoriness of her observation as soon as it emerged from her mouth, but she couldn’t stop herself from completing her train wreck of a thought. I know the feeling.
Liz tells me she’s needed at home — maybe by Len, I think, who has perhaps since committed himself to cleaning the tub after he bathes. Goodbye, we say, see you soon.
Now I am standing alone, having forgotten why I am out. I move furtively around, my eyes scanning without fully registering what I’m seeing, hoping not to spy Liz again, sure she is just as carefully avoiding me. I want to laugh. Liz’s confession is the most remarkable thing anyone has said to me in a long time, even more remarkable than the daily diet of odd and entertaining observations that my children share with my husband, John, and me. John will be interested, too, but it’s not him I want to tell — it’s Karen.
“Did you tell her that it’s not a stain?” Karen asks when I describe my encounter with Liz. We make a few more jokes like that. I had brought her the story like a gift, something to add to our growing trove of mutual anecdotes and experiences. But it’s not working out as I planned; Karen’s laugh is heavy, dark, and bitter. Clearly, she doesn’t find this as funny as I do. She’s more disgusted than amused.
“You’re my only black friend,” Karen told me recently.
Every summer my twin daughters spend a week on Karen’s farm in southern Vermont. We call the week “Camp Karen.” It is because of Karen that my daughters have the kind of Vermont experiences that inspire people to make pilgrimages to our state every summer. At Camp Karen, my daughters ride horses and tend to the sheep that sometimes wander into her home. During their week with her, the girls laze in the middle of a lake in inner tubes. Karen sends me pictures of a beaming Isabella shoveling horse manure and a radiant Giulia holding a bottle in the mouth of a lamb. Later, when they leave home, and people ask them what it was like to grow up in Vermont, I imagine that, among other stories, my daughters will tell about the summer weeks they spent at Camp Karen.
Karen’s Vermont is the Vermont of poetry and romance. Her home, a restored farmhouse that sits on 5 acres, is next to a barn with a peace sign painted on its doors. The farmhouse is a precise reflection of Karen herself: self-made, imaginative, and casual, warm and inviting. Friends and family gather around a fireplace in a room with stuffed couches that gently but persuasively pull your body in inch by inch until you are drowsy with warmth, good conversation, and the sun setting over the mountains outside big bay windows. To the left is a kitchen where rich dishes, both simple and complex, are imagined and then executed, where butter and jelly are coaxed into being. The winding wooden staircase is lined with photographs. Guests sleep under heavy handmade quilts and wake to the bleating of sheep.
Karen’s is the kind of home I imagined when I first began imagining a life in Vermont, even though I knew I had neither the skill nor the drive to pull off that particular kind of Vermont life. I admire Karen for the home she has made and for the mother that she is. Her children are grown, but they bear the mark of her resourcefulness, imagination, and what she knows about making one’s way in the world.
My children travel to southern Vermont not only to laze in inner tubes in lakes but also for the example of Karen and all that she knows. But there are things she doesn’t know, such as what it feels like to be the lone brown body among white ones, the small incidents of ignorance that can turn into scars that last a lifetime.
Once, packing the girls up for Camp Karen, I realize that Karen might not know that my daughters need sunscreen; so many white people believe that the melanin in dark skin provides natural protection against sunburns.
I write Karen about the sunscreen. And then I write her about the experience of being black in a white place, what my children might experience. I ask her to be aware, always, of the fact that my daughters are vulnerable, dark bodies moving among people who rarely see dark skin.
I send the note and then worry for a bit. I consider what it would be like to receive such a message. Will Karen feel second-guessed, lectured at, or condescended to? I am happy and relieved to discover that Karen is grateful for the information. And then she tells me that I am her only black friend.
I am intrigued. What’s that like? I ask her. What is the hardest part of having an only black friend?
“The ‘hardest part’ for me now is me,” she tells me. She worries that her experience of growing up white in a racist world might prevent her from ever being able to see beyond race when it comes to our friendship. She worries that her own self-consciousness might compromise the integrity of our bond.
Maybe the hardest part of having an only black friend is Karen herself and her self-consciousness about the racial difference between us. But Karen has another problem, and the problem is this particular black friend.
Because this particular black friend thinks about race all of the time sometimes, but just as often not at all. I want to talk about it, and I don’t. I want my white friend to be aware of racism, and at the same time I don’t want to be reminded of racism. I laugh at gaffes about dark rings in bathtubs, yet I shudder with rage and helplessness when I think of all the dangers, large and small, implicit and explicit, from which I will not be able to protect my daughters. These contradictions may be a function of the condition of blackness, or they may be the evidence of the quirks in my personality — it’s hard to say. It must be tricky terrain, the experience of being a white friend with an only black friend, and there is no road map.
But there is one certainty: We are, sometimes joyfully, sometimes frustratingly, stuck with each other, white friend and black friend. Let’s call it love.
Emily Bernard teaches at the University of Vermont and is working on a book of essays, “Black Is the Body.” Names of non-family members have been changed in this essay to protect their privacy. Follow her on Twitter @emilyebernard. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.