The Ties That Bind: A Memoir Of Race, Memory, And Redemption, by Bertrice Berry
This was in many was a strange memoir to read. Although the author and I likely stand far apart on many issues of politics, and certainly that is true of identity, there was a great deal about this book that I found to be intriguing. It was not my intent to read this book with the idea that I would agree with a lot of it, and in truth I found much that I disagreed with and found to be somewhat blameworthy on the part of the author. Nevertheless, in reading this book I sought to better understand where the author was coming from in her own background as she wrestled with the tangled roots of slavery and its abolition in the United States, an issue of some personal interest to me , and I found precisely that. My expectations for this book, in other words, were met. They were not gloriously exceeded, to be sure, but they were met and that is a significant achievement for any book, particularly a book written by someone who clearly has a strong attachment to her identity as a black writer writing largely for black audiences.
As I mentioned earlier, this book is a strange sort of memoir. At less than 200 pages, it is certainly not a taxing book in terms of its length or contents. The three parts of this book are titled, straightforwardly, memoir, race, and redemption, and the author covers a striking selection of interrelated content. The author talks about the generational patterns of problems with divorce and fatherlessness, her struggles to get along with her mother, the problem of the erasure of much of black history and the difficulties that ambiguous terms for friends and relatives and complicated family histories and textual gaps create for genealogical research. She pays a debt of honor to her professors and to her academic patron, and makes a surprising and touching admission of fault in the way one of her previous books dealt with a Delaware Quaker abolitionist who she had libeled as a brutal slaveowner when he actually lost a great deal of his own fortune and well-being as a result of his principled stand against slavery as the southernmost conductor of the Underground Railroad. The author’s willingness to own up to her faults and to face them squarely is something that can be admired even by those who find her rhetoric and political worldview to be defective.
There are likely many readers, especially among the intended audience of this book, that are likely to enjoy this book more than I did and to view it far more favorably. I found the author’s discussion of her own bad choices to be painful and unpleasant, and I found the author’s past views with regards to race to be completely reprehensible and without any sort of legitimacy. Those readers whose ancestral memories and political agendas make it reasonable for them to treat others as their great-great-grandparents were treated rather than treating others as they would like to be treated will likely find a great deal more to sympathize with here. In large part, this book is a book about growing more tolerant in ways that are both good and bad, in losing a great deal of the stridency of youth but also while compromising and betraying one’s moral basis out of selfishness. Whether or not the reader chooses to forgive the reader for her many and serious faults because of their appreciation of her candor and her willingness to admit that she was wrong in some ways is a choice the reader has to make for themselves. I found much worthy of forgiveness here, but also many areas where the ties that bind ended up influencing the author to decline in moral stature from how she had been when younger.
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