Bernette Ford

Bernette Ford

Age: 63
Residence: Brooklyn, NY
Occupation: Freelance children’s book packager and editorial consultant

What was it like to look back at what you said in the book?
It was very interesting to me because I think some things have stayed exactly the same and I would have answered the same way. And some things I would have answered differently: I think I’ve mellowed over the last 20 years and watching my daughter grow up has affected me. She comes from another generation, and things are slowly changing. Although as a young woman she has become much more black-identified, which is not surprising given her parents. Her father is very race conscious and I guess I am, too, but more quietly. “Race consciousness” means that every political issue, every social issue, is reflected through a lens that says we are black people and we still have a long way to go in this country. That would describe [my husband] George’s political feeling and [our daughter] Olivia has evolved to be much closer to that position from when she was 20 or 21 [she’s 33 now]. When she was younger and growing up, the group of friends she traveled with—school friends, the people in Sunday school and in camp—were very much not into defining themselves racially. Biracial was a term I never heard until Black, White, Other came out. We always said we were “mixed,” or the products of an interracial marriage.

So my daughter’s evolved closer to where her father and I are. She also came out as gay in 2001 and I was really shocked at myself because it took me a long time to accept. I thought I was the kind of person who would have said it was fine with me, and that’s not how I responded. I said, “You took a long time to tell me, and it’s going to take me a long time to adjust to it.” I was always loving, but acceptance took a long time. My husband on the other hand was completely accepting. No problem. This was our only child.

Obama.
I remember when Obama was first elected. Olivia came over and we watched all day and we laughed and danced and cried. I never would have thought that a black man would be elected President in my lifetime. And that he was biracial was especially poignant for me. I’ve always said that biracial kids tend to identify with the mother’s race more than they do with the father’s race, but that’s not my feeling anymore. I really admired him. I think he’s having a really hard way to go. What’s going on in Congress now [the government shutdown] could have been foretold. He’s a black man; they’re not going to let him have anything he wants. They—the Republicans, the Tea Party—they’re going to sabotage his administration at every step of the way. I’ve been disappointed that he hasn’t been stronger in his responses to the way they have characterized him and lied about him, but I think that partly comes by being raised in the Midwest and Hawaii by a white family. Whether he’s brown-skinned or not, he was raised in a white family. Liberal or not, that was his early development. He will always see things from two perspectives. But yeah, it was really important, it was really a major event in my life. My parents didn’t live to see it (I wish they had), but I did. It was life changing for me, to vote for Barack Obama.

What has changed?
Not a whole lot. I don’t disagree with anything I said back then. I do think that when I look at the publishing profession, it hasn’t changed at all. If anything it’s gotten worse. There are so few black editors. It’s pitiful. There are so few black faces in the world of publishing. It’s an old boys club, and it’s very hard. It’s very hard. I worked on the diversity committee at Scholastic for many years and we worked on internships. They had great internships, 200 or so well-paid college kids every summer, and they were diverse. But most of them didn’t go into the business. Most of your friends are starting out making twice as much as you. You can’t survive on entry-level publishing salaries. That disappoints me a lot.

My first packaging contract after leaving Scholastic in 2002 was creating a series of 24 African-American paperback easy readers for Scholastic’s Teacher Resources Department. Scholastic did work with the RIF [Reading is Fundamental] program, and they needed more books with black characters. It was really gratifying to do that project and to seek out writers and artists of color. A lot of people who wrote and illustrated for me were being published for the very first time, and some have gone on to become well established in the field.

What else has changed?
Oh, God. What has changed is that this country has elected a black man, a biracial man, as president. And I never thought he would win by a clear majority. He’s so smart and a lot of people had read his books and he spoke so well, people were able to put race aside in support of him. But are we living in a post-racial society? Not by any means. I really don’t believe that. I don’t know how other people feel, but that’s the way I feel. If anything, we are even more polarized now than ever.

In terms of my own racial identity, I’ve come a long way in that regard. I feel even more comfortable in my own skin than I was 20 years ago. Part of that may be that I’m not out in the world as much any more. I do go to conferences and conventions, to meetings and out to lunch, but mostly I’m working from home. When you go out every day, on the subway or at an office, you have to deal with people every day, it’s in your face, and I was a lot more sensitive as to what white folks had to say. It was more important for me to be affiliated with African-American causes and associations then. But I don’t feel as if I have to challenge people anymore. Now I feel, I am who I am and you can accept me as I am or not, and that goes for white folks or black people.

Olivia (39 miles) and Mom (Bernette, 20 miles) walk in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, 2011. (We raised almost $4000.00.)

Have life events and time passing had an effect on your views, your identity, or shifted your priorities?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. I was really busy at the time with a very challenging freelance project, and I didn’t want my clients to know I had breast cancer. I went through chemo and then I did radiation for six weeks. I would go for treatments on a Thursday and say I was taking long weekends for vacation. But by Tuesday mornings, when I was feeling better, I’d get right back to work.

That experience changed me a lot. I wasn’t experiencing myself as a breast cancer patient. I was pretending it didn’t exist, just doing what I had to do to get rid of it. Now, as a survivor, it’s more important for me to connect with people who have gone through the experience. While I was working on that big project, I was working with a good friend who lived close by, a friend from college who was a breast cancer survivor, and I was so busy, and so busy talking about my experience, she didn’t tell me she was having a recurrence. She died a few months later. At first I was unforgiving, because she didn’t let me in, she didn’t allow me to be there for her. But I have come to terms with it.

She didn’t tell anyone. She didn’t even tell her family. Her mother had died of it, her grandmother had died of it, and her aunt. She undoubtedly had the BRCA gene. She was a very private person, and this was how she wanted to deal with it. Maybe she didn’t want to go through chemo again. That was a really traumatic experience for me, a major life changer.

How so, in terms of your identity and priorities?
Knock wood: I’m fine, six-and-a-half years later. But I think support of breast cancer research, and support of breast cancer patients, is even more important for me than anything else.

What was it like to be a part of the original book project?
I have to say it was a really great experience because there were so many kindred spirits in that book and so many interviews could have been me. There were also a lot of people who were quite different, and I was surprised by the people who had white mothers and black fathers; I guess because that was the opposite of my background. I also noticed a difference in the generations. The younger people, the twenty-year-olds, were not as race conscious as my generation was. It was a great experience.