Black Women and Survival in the Modern World: Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers

Reviewed by Artress Bethany White

I, like many Americans, recently read that Erica Garner, the daughter of slain African American police suspect, Eric Garner, died shortly after giving birth. She named her son Eric, after her father who was killed in a street bust for selling loose cigarettes. In the aftermath of her father’s death, Erica became an outspoken activist. In turn, her sudden death at the age of twenty-seven, after becoming a new mother, foregrounds the price many people of color pay for striving to survive in America.

African American women are not a monolith, and the stories of black female survival are varied and complex. Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W. W. Norton and Company, 2017) joins the current roster of black women’s memoir on an enthusiastic upbeat. In it, she chronicles a broad swath through the demands of motherhood, the writing life, and travel as lived life and survival tale.

First-time motherhood, at its best, is rife with joy and the need for quick-witted adaptability, and Dungy captures both sides of the equation in highly relatable prose. A singular example of Dungy’s joy about creating a family is her decision to name her daughter after her maternal forebears: “You are named Callie Violet after my grandmother, Callie Madge, and your father’s grandmother, Violet. My grandmother’s grandmother was also a Callie, and now our family spans three centuries through one name. It was the continuity I wanted. Persistence personified.” The chronicling of this small act sets the tone for identity formation for a new generation and the significance the author places on individuality within a collection of influences.

In fact, collective connections is what makes Dungy’s work a page-turner of discovery. In her chapter “A Good Hike,” the then-pregnant Dungy recounts how what should have been a wonderful hike up Castle Rock with a group of environmentally-conscious comrades turns into a struggle of herculean proportions after she breaks her ankle on the trail. The suspense of this new challenge to get down the mountain as quickly as possible is compounded by her life-saving dependence on the kindness of “relative strangers” in her group to get her to the base before nightfall. What follows is a humorous narration of inventive carrying strategies orchestrated by the men in the group, prompting her own candid reflections on female body-consciousness.

Transparency is a mainstay of good memoir, and Dungy provides plenty of it along with some practical tips on mothering, such as how to navigate the tight confines of an airplane restroom while wearing a Baby Bjorn. Just to be clear, though, this is not solely a memoir on parenting. Dungy, like many writers, is well-traveled and operates best traveling broadly and seeking out new people and experiences. Her life as a writer takes her from the far reaches of Alaska and indigenous cuisine to the distant realms of Atchill Isle, Ireland peppered with many stories in between. In Ireland, she unexpectedly delves into race as she clarifies for a group of local children that her black skin is indeed not makeup, using terms they can comprehend: “I have brown skin. That’s the way I’ve always been. It doesn’t come off.” In this same chapter, “A Shade North of Ordinary,” she allows her narrative to evolve organically, seamlessly picking up a historical thread of racial diversity in Maine, home of one of the oldest African American churches in the U.S., marveling that “Portland, Maine, once had a black population large enough to build and sustain a relatively substantial church.” In these two cases, she makes the point that black people have served as cultural ambassadors in far-flung places in both the past and present.

In short, Dungy’s memoir is a layered and lucid treatment of race, family, and art.