My husband tells me I’m going to like Eula Biss. He gives me her book, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. He tells me it’s about race, racism and identity.

I don’t know what to expect. A rant? A polemic? Instead, I find a thoughtful examination of the social construct of race that, at times, veers into the lyrical. Look at the walls that divide our society, Biss says. Now step closer, into that no man’s land.

Telephone poles

In her opening essay, Biss meanders through the history of the telephone. Alexander Bell, the hesitations of his financiers, the public’s lukewarm response. Biss quotes Mark Twain: “The human voice carries entirely too far as it is.

The protest against the telephone extends to its physical manifestations: telephone poles and the wires that soon “net” the sky. Civil and uncivil disobedience erupts. Protesters cut down telephone poles, fill holes and file lots of litigation.

For this essay, Biss searched the New York Times for every reference to “telephone pole” from 1880 to 1920. She got 370 hits. Two of those mentioned lynching. When she searched “lynched,” she got 2,354 articles. Telephone poles, it seems, are excellent for lynching.

The poles, of course, were not to blame. It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone poles so closely resembled crucifixes.

Eula Biss, “Time and Distance Overcome” in Notes from No Man’s Land (Fitzcarraldo 2020)

Lynching, Biss tells us, is an American invention. Or maybe not. An Italian might have invented the telephone.

[S]o long as we are going to lay claim to one invention, we might as well take responsibility for the other.

Eula Biss, Notes on “Time and Distance Overcome”

Race relations

Biss crisscrosses the United States from New York to California to the Midwest. Everywhere she goes, the issue of racial identity comes, too. In 1999, a Long Island woman gives birth to twin boys: one white and one black. The woman and her husband are both white. The fertility clinic eventually acknowledges that they erroneously implanted an embryo belonging to a black couple. Litigation ensues.

Biss and her sister owned baby dolls identical but for the fact that one is white and the other black. This is not unusual in the US. The topsy-turvy doll has heads on both ends of the body, one black and one white. Mattel has black and white versions of the extended Barbie family.

My own Black Doll, who is now kept by my mother as a memento of my childhood, was loved until the black of her hair and the pink of her lips rubbed off. Her skin is pocked with marks where I pricked her with needles, administering immunizations. She wears a dress that my grandmother sewed for her.

Eula Biss, Relations

Biss is disarmingly frank about her own identity struggles. She feels “trapped within my identity as a white woman” but also admits rarely turning down any of “the privileges my skin has afforded me.” Biss actively seeks out what it means to be white in the US.

I used to say that I did not realize I was white until I moved to New York City, but that is not true. I knew full well by then that I was white. What I realized in New York was what it feels like to be an outsider in your own home, and that is not what it means to be white in this country.

Eula Biss, Back to Buxton

In the heartland

After teaching in Harlem and reporting in San Diego, Biss ends up at the MFA program of the University of Iowa. It is not a happy time. Students swell Iowa City, turning it into a carnival of beer pong, beanbags and all-night parties. These students regard Iowa City as free from sexism, racism and violence. Biss has to call on the police more often in Iowa City than any other place she’s lived.

The girls were wearing nothing but white towels and high heels. There were about thirty of them, and they passed in an animated swarm like one of those flocks of white pelicans that can occasionally be seen migrating through the Midwest with sun silvering off their wings.

Eula Biss, Is This Kansas

The title essay “No Man’s Land” melds form with content. The essay drifts like dandelion seeds blown across the prairie of Laura Ingalls Wilder over the borders of Chicago’s No Man’s Land to germinate on the shores of Lake Michigan where Biss now lives.

Rogers Park is reputed to be dangerously gang-ridden. Biss recognizes the word “gang” as code for “black”. Her mother and her colleagues warn Biss against moving there.

Even now, at a much more wary and guarded age, what I feel when I am told that my neighborhood is dangerous is not fear but anger at the extent to which so many of us have agreed to live within a delusion⏤namely, that we will be spared the dangers that others suffer only if we move within certain very restricted spheres, and that insularity is a fair price to pay for safety.

Eula Biss, “No Man’s Land”
2 May 2021 | Karen Kao