I Can’t Sleep

After days of witnessing racial violence, respite is no longer a given

Emily Bernard
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

It’s 1 a.m. I lie in my bed in the dark, my heart beating fast. I knew this would be a hard night; I got to bed by midnight, but the interior stream of words never stopped. I took drugs—both pharmaceutical and herbal (this is Vermont)—hoping they would quiet the flow and allow me to sleep. They didn’t work; the stream rushed into a river. Phrases and sentences propel me upright. I turn on the light and scratch them out quickly, trying not to wake John, my husband, who sleeps soundly beside me.

I turn the light back off. Can I sleep now? I plead with the darkness. No. I drag myself out of bed and down two flights of stairs to the guest bedroom. I am afraid to be alone with my thoughts, but desperation overwhelms my fear. I take my iPad with me; it’s less populated with social media platforms than my phone. I can’t find the app for the flashlight. I keep tapping on my iPad to keep the light going on the screen. Tap, tap, tap.

My ankles hurt; I limp down the stairs, leaning on the bannister. It may be general stiffness or something more serious, like plantar fasciitis, but I’m too afraid to go to my doctor right now. I received an email about their social-distancing protocols that I allowed to be swept away with the deluge of other information saturating my inbox. I turn on the light in the downstairs bathroom and stare in the mirror at my graying hair, untended by my hairdresser for more than three months. My twins are growing up and I feel myself growing old. The childlike joy that writing used to awaken in me is gone, replaced by a dull nothing. I am not writing out of pleasure; I am writing like a robot, fighting to be counted as human.

Drip, drip, drip. The words won’t stop. It is 2:30 a.m. More notes. I put down the notebook I keep on the side table and tap on my iPad, raising it from sleep. Maybe the color and vibrancy of a movie or a television show will cheer me up. I scroll through the offerings. So many dramas about violence against men and women, black death and female agony. I remember that a new episode of my favorite show, Insecure, is available on one of my streaming services. A portrait of black life in Los Angeles, its first seasons included subplots about its characters’ confrontations with white supremacy. But the current season features only nonwhite characters. They are beautiful and young, black and Asian, gay and straight. My throat tightens as I watch the characters moving on the city streets, free of fears of contagion, of police violence. Simply living human lives in before times. There is a lot of talk about food, and several scenes involving sumptuous dishes (crispy squash flowers, garlic prawns, ribeye steak). I realize that I am hungry, but I’m too tired to go upstairs to the kitchen. More than food, anyway, I am hungry for those city streets and other streets just like them in Brooklyn, New Haven, and Nashville, places where I feel free and that at various times in my life I have called home. In my neighborhood in Vermont, I am black, female, and alone.

After the episode is over, I toss and turn. 3:30. Only two hours, I decide, before I can get out of bed without feeling like I’ve given up. The sun will have risen, bringing with it a sense of hope. I resist tuning into any newsfeeds on my iPad; I don’t want to start the day feeling haunted by another person’s death by way of the virus or the police.

My house is full of people and pets, but I am just as alone inside as I am outside in the streets of my neighborhood. I am trapped in language, a ceaseless ongoing monologue. I am trapped in unpleasant thoughts and memories. I have just read a book about white supremacy that made a convincing argument about the transhistorical continuity of racism as a fundamentally, irreversibly American phenomenon. I am starting to examine some of my memories in a new light. A recent interaction with a sour neighbor—an older white man—takes on a racial valence. I had convinced myself that the encounter was meaningless and had nothing to do with race. Now I decide that I was kidding myself. The conviction settles in along with the usual fear accompanying the realization that things between me and the sour neighbor could have escalated in the same way similar encounters unfold in this country and then appear in the news. I don’t have to pass by his house again, I tell myself. I have nothing to prove, and I must to focus on my safety. Covid-19 has limited the orbit of my life. A paralyzing awareness of my utter vulnerability to racist violence circumscribes my world even further.

I will tell John about the neighbor. I will instruct my children not to pass by his house on their walks with our dog. Except for the chore of dog walking, my daughters stay mostly inside with their parents. After all of these weeks at home, the usual boundaries between us have eroded. Now that they don’t go to school, they can observe how I move through the day. My manner of working puzzles my daughter Giulia. A few weeks ago, she came into my room when I was sitting in bed, reading a book.

“I don’t understand how you even have a career,” she said. “I never see you working.”

“Reading is work,” I insisted. She shook her head and left the room.

Giulia knows me better than anyone else, even better than my husband or her twin sister, Isabella. She knew that I was hiding my phone under the covers. I read my book in between scrolling through articles and posts about black death and protests against police violence; in between the scrolling, I read my book. I wish I could disappear into books the way I always did in the before. I couldn’t go back to willful ignorance if I tried. No more sleeping.

The term “white supremacy” is now part of Isabella’s everyday idiom. More than anyone else in our family, Isabella and I are both prisoners of our screens. She watched the videos of black men being murdered by white men, even though I begged her not to. At fourteen my daughters have already experienced the painful effects of white supremacy. But I believe that innocence for them ended years ago, the precise moment being the morning after the 2016 presidential election.

White supremacy and black death; #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. Karens. The current linguistic conceptual landscape is choking us, revealing us, reducing us. “Why do they hate us?” asks Isabella. She says she would like to ask a white supremacist this question. I love her faith in logic and humanity, but God forbid.

I love the home we have made of our house. I fell in love with its atmosphere the first moment I stepped through the door. Immediately I was facing a big bay window that looked out onto the woods whose tall trees continue to remind me of the endurance, order, and purity of nature. Haitian art decorated the walls of the foyer. A copy of Citizen by Claudia Rankine lay on top of the desk in one of the children’s rooms. My realtor, whose name is Karen, told me that the wife was a doctor who directed a clean water project in Haiti. Before she and her husband divorced, they were considering adopting a baby from Haiti. Karen knows what moves me. I decided on that first viewing that the house was meant for us.

Karen the realtor is the least Karen of all Karens. She is joyful, respectful, and intimate with me. The day she showed me the house, we sat in her pristine white Mercedes and confessed a mutual vanity about our hair. I miss her. I miss everyone. But all this missing is futile and only increases my global sense of despair. I must get better at being alone.

4:15. I turn on the light. It is so quiet in here, but my fears are crowding me. My heart thuds. I think of the numbers of black people who are dying, from Covid, from stress induced by racism. The sun is rising. I don’t want to die. Not this way, not this day. Not anytime soon.

The light filters through the curtains. 5 a.m. Close enough. It’s time to rise and face the day. I climb the stairs to the kitchen and turn on the kettle for my coffee. Our home is peaceful, our routines predictable. When John gets up, he will make his coffee in the other French press, the one I’m not allowed to use. I will join him in the kitchen. Maybe we will enjoy our typical race-related banter. When he and I rise at the same time, he makes my coffee exactly the way I want it. If he does it wrong, I correct him, and he tells me I am blackwomansplaining him.

He keeps us safe, my husband. When I succumb to despair, too scared to leave our house, he keeps our home running. He tends to our public lives while I tend to our private lives, particularly the emotional lives of our children. It is me that they turn to with their fears and questions—about Covid, about racism, about whether one or the other will kill them. They love their father. We gather around the island in our kitchen and they pelt him with good-natured accusations of whitesplaining and mansplaining. An occasional #okayboomer. We transform terms meant to capture essential divisions between us into language that ultimately reinforces our common bond.

My coffee is ready. I return upstairs to my desk, in a room just off my bedroom. Moments after I turn on my computer, Giulia appears at my door, silent, holding Tom, one of our cats. The look in her eyes says that Tom found his way into her room and has been annoying her. She drops him to the floor and walks out. Everyone else is still in bed. I translate my notes into sentences fit for this essay. When I look at the clock, it is 8:40 a.m.

I check an app on my phone. Steady good weather today. The frank sunshine lights up my room and fills me with purpose. I am both awake and aware. It’s not safe out there, but it is safe in here, on the island my husband and I created. Today I pledge to keep the treacherous water around us still and urge my daughters to focus on the sun.

Emily Bernard is the Julian Lindsay Green and Gold Professor of English at the University of Vermont and the author of five books, including Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine.
Originally published:
June 15, 2020


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

A Nurse Comes to Brooklyn

She wanted to do something for herself, so she traveled 1,200 miles to care for COVID-19 patients
Nell Freudenberger

Giving Up the Ghost

There are a million ways to teach a Black boy about death
Hafizah Geter


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.