Self–discovery is the key to contentment, Bertice Berry believes. And although it’s a bumpy road, it’s one we all must travel if we are to understand both ourselves and our world.
Berry was 26 when she earned a Ph.D. in Sociology from Kent State University; afterwards she taught sociology and statistics there. She has written two memoirs, four works of fiction and two humor books – the latter during her post–university years as a professional standup comedian!
She followed that successful stage tenure as the host of a short–lived TV talk show (The Bertice Berry Show) and then settled into her present position, as a guest lecturer and motivational speaker in demand all over the country.
This schedule, naturally, requires a lot of travel. Two years ago, Berry and her four adopted children left their home in San Diego for Richmond Hill (Berry, 49, considers everything around here Savannah). She’s a frequent sight at the airport.
“Savannah is the gift that I get for flying all over and doing what I do,” she says. “I am so fortunate. I get to look out on the marshes every morning.
“People say ‘How can you move from San Diego to Savannah?’ and I go ‘Obviously, you’ve never been to Savannah.’”
Her young children attend Chatham Academy (“the best school on the planet”), and her eldest son is going to SCAD.
Berry will be at this weekend’s Savannah Book Festival, to talk at Trinity United Methodist Church.
She’ll be there to discuss her latest work The Ties That Bind, which chronicles her most recent – and certainly most profound – trip down the road of self–discovery.
In her first memoir, I’m on My Way But Your Foot is On My Head: A Black Woman’s Story of Getting Over Life’s Hurdles, Berry chronicled her inch–by–inch struggle out of staggering poverty to becoming the only member of her large family ever to attend college, much less receive a Ph.D.
The Ties That Bind finds Berry researching her family history – she knew that she was descended from slaves, but discovered many, many things about that ugly chapter in American history that she either did not know, or had chosen to ignore out of her own deep–rooted beliefs and prejudices.
For example, her novel Redemption Song is set on a Delaware plantation during slavery. It is, at its heart, a love story, but the brutal realities of the time make it a love story fraught with anguish and tragedy.
In that book, Berry named the sadistic slaveholder John Hunn, after a real person. All her life, Berry’s mother had told her that Hunn had “employed” Bertice’s great–grandfather, John Henry Freeman. But Berry always assumed her mother was soft–soaping the truth, that all white men at the time not only supported slavery but actively participated in its practice.
In The Ties That Bind, Berry comes face to face with the realities of the abolitionist movement, in the process discovering new things about Hunn, her great–grandfather, her mother ... and herself.
What was your journey in writing this book?
Bertice Berry: It was probably the hardest book I’ve ever written, and probably the most painful. In Redemption Song, I had used his name as the name of this evil slaveholder. My idea of history at that time was black and white, good and evil, free and enslaved, and I didn’t see anything in between. I couldn’t.
My mother kept saying to me “John Hunn was a good man,” and I didn’t believe her because of the micro–truth: Things had happened between my mother and I and in our family – the cycles of poverty and all those things that come along with them. And so because of what I had endured as a child, I didn’t believe the macro–truth, which was that John Hunn was not only a great man, he was a worker for abolition, as were so many others who we have ignored.
I found your process of discovery fascinating. Every time you uncovered another historical document, another piece of the puzzle, I was right there with you.
Bertice Berry: How can we walk around refusing to listen on the grounds that it may be what we think we already know? We don’t want to listen or open that book because it may reveal something about ourselves that we’re afraid of learning at that point.
A story in the New York Times recently said that out of 174 minutes of a live, televised football game, only 11 is actual play. Seventy–five minutes is the huddle, 60 minutes is commercials, 17 minutes is replay and 11 is the actual game. That’s life! The hard thing was looking at Redemption Song – I still get letters from people saying “This is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read” – but knowing that in this fiction was this untruth that was bigger than anything I could ever undo.
Having to face not only that, but face that my mother’s alcoholism and abuse, and the cycles of poverty and all of that stuff, had nothing to do with the truth about who she really was. It was just a consequence of the time, and what she had gone through. And I had to look deeper to find her – and in doing so, to find myself, and find this bigger truth of America.
How did you come to live in Savannah?
Bertice Berry: I moved to Savannah because I was getting married, but my ex–husband lived in Atlanta, and I didn’t want to live there; it didn’t feel right. And so we got in the car and drove. When I saw a sign that said Savannah I said “That’s supposed to be nice.”
And so we came in, and it felt right. I moved my whole family from San Diego – we moved from the beach! I mean, you don’t make that move!
I kept saying “I don’t think I’m supposed to marry him, it’s not feeling right.” And my mother said “No, you gotta marry him, because everything is not about you.” I was, “What the hell does that mean?”
So I get married, and he doesn’t even live there. We got divorced the same year.
But I’m supposed to be in Savannah. You can’t explain this stuff to the people who are wrapped up in the other 163 minutes.
One of the lines you use often is “When you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.” This seems to lead to wonderful synchronous moments in your own life.
Bertice Berry: One of the things I didn’t have time to go into was the story of how John Hunn, after he lost everything, moved to Buford, where he lived for a time. He helped his daughter open a school for newly freed slaves. That school is still there and has been used for other things. It’s crazy!
When I bought my house here, the guy who worked on it is from Buford. I said “Are you in any way related to the Hunns?” At that time, I was working on the book. I’m thinking “life connects.” It’s got to connect somehow. And he says “Well, I don’t know. I’ll check with my mother.”
He comes back and says “No ... but do you remember when I told you I used the floorboards from an old church in your house? That was the one that John Hunn helped to found in Buford.”
I didn’t put it in the book because it’s so unbelievable. How do you tell people that matter is neither created nor destroyed? It really does just change its form. And all good people get a chance to meet again.
Is standup comedy completely a thing of the past?
Bertice Berry: I don’t think anything we’ve ever done is a thing of the past ... you know, I really would love to answer a question and not sound like a philosopher! I think philosophy is a foreign language requirement.
What’s past is prolog. Truly, I lecture and I use humor in the lecture. But at the time ...
Comedians are some of the most depressed people. And I’m not. And so I didn’t fit in. It’s truly 11 minutes of funny, and then the rest is hanging out with the most depressed people on the planet.
I did it at a time when women were not out there, and certainly not black women. So I had to find a way to do it that allowed me to continue to be who I am.
I give these lectures in corporate America, and places all over, where people are not expecting to laugh. And they find themselves laughing, then crying, then laughing again. And then they go “I’ve learned more in this hour than I’ve learned in a month.” And I go “Something’s wrong with that.”
Savannah Book Festival
When: Friday-Sunday, Feb. 5-7
Admission: Free, unless noted
Web site: www.savannahbookfestival.org
Keynote Speech: Novelist Vince Flynn at 5:30 p.m., Trinity Church
Author appearances at the Telfair Academy, Telfair Square, Jepson Center and Trinity Church. Each writer speaks for 45 minutes, followed by a Q&A session.
10 a.m.: Vince Flynn, Starkey Flythe, Lauretta Hannon, Christine Jacobson Carter, Dr. William Rawlings, SCAD writers
11 a.m.: Jonathan Raab, Neil Shepard, Rick Bragg, Seldon Edwards, Gail Perry-Mason, Rosemary Daniell & the Zona Rosa
Noon: Philip Lee Williams, Stacey Lynn Brown, Susan Mason, Christopher Beha, Douglas Blackmon, Storytelling
1 p.m.: Bertice Berry, Nagueyalti Warren, Robert Leleux, David Kirby, Reza Aslan, Miriam Center, Roy Heizer, Ib Raae, Carl Eeman
2 p.m.: Mary Alice Monroe, Barbara Hamby, Roy Blount Jr., James Sloan Allen, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton
3 p.m.: George Dawes Green, Campbell McGrath, Janice Owens, Allegra Huston, Gretchen Peters, Poetry Slam
8 p.m.: "Celebrating Eudora" concert, 8 p.m. at Trinity Church. $50.
Brunch Talk with food writer Julia Reed, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Jepson Center. $75.