Motherhood memoirs make up a robust though almost entirely white genre. Camille T. Dungy’s evocative debut, “Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History,” meticulously parses the ways in which work, travel and creativity affect black motherhood, and in doing so provides a much needed perspective.
The birth of her daughter introduces Dungy, a professor at Colorado State University and author of five volumes of poetry, to a new reality, a new identity and a primal, all-encompassing love. “I don’t know if I can define myself anymore, now that I’m your mother. You’ve consumed me. Being your mother has cooked me right down to the bone.”
When she selects the name Callie Violet for her daughter, honoring her grandmother and her husband’s grandmother, she reflects upon the power of naming as well as the teachings of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and other abolitionists. “Freedom is measured, in part, by the freedom to choose one’s own name.”
Motherhood awakens Dungy to hidden dangers. Ledges resemble cliffs. A beach’s forceful undertow threatens drowning. Dungy strives to be everywhere all the time, to “multiply into many mothers” in order to keep her vulnerable daughter safe. “I worry about the end days more now than I did before you were born.”
Nature is a survivalist’s bounty, and Dungy seeks comfort in the wild fennel, blackberry and mustard near her home. “We can eat these if we need to, I say. As if naming what could save us might save us one day.”
The 1846 voyage of the Brooklyn — a ship carrying mostly Mormon families from New York, around the Cape Horn of South America to California — provides Dungy with a frightening lesson in mortality. In poignant and penetrating prose, she rues the loss of mothers and children at sea. “The story of the Brooklyn makes me breathless with sadness and a relief that borders on joy. I haven’t lost you yet, I think. I haven’t lost you yet. I haven’t lost you yet.”
Teaching, writing and speaking, three disciplines that consumed Dungy pre-child, must accommodate a piecemeal child care schedule and her demanding academic career. But Dungy is a humble student, and her travels with Callie for work-related engagements, though at times imperfectly executed, imbue her with a sense of confidence and clarity and remind her that, like children, new mothers must stretch and stumble in order to grow. “I am, I believe now, more prepared to be accepting of the humanity in all of us.”
Anjali Enjeti is an award-winning essayist and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Guidebook to Relative Strangers
By: Camille T. Dungy.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 240 pages, $25.95.