Early in Cassandra Lane’s keen-edged, forthright memoir, We Are Bridges, she encounters an unexpected spiritual chasm: the gap between the person she has been, and the person she needs to become.
Thirty-five and freshly linked with a promising new partner, she learns that she is pregnant. Instead of unmitigated enthusiasm, she feels curiously outside of herself. Motherhood is a reality for which she hasn’t prepared. It is, in fact, a role she vowed she’d never undertake. “I was witness to my mother’s failed romances and the hardships of child rearing,” she reveals, “I wanted to be free of all the chains and stains of motherhood.”
This new ambivalence, consequently, unsettles her. Her decision to not bear a child had been nothing less than a pact. Hadn’t she been clear? With everyone? Not least of all herself.
Looking squarely into that deep breach, she realizes, might offer some necessary answers. Her fear of bearing a Black child into a world of antipathy was plenty enough. Yet, bringing that same child into the unaddressed legacy of family trauma was another daunting contract altogether. “The more folks bury a thing,” she reflects, “the more they sweep it under a rug, the bigger it becomes, the filthier it becomes—the more it demands to be raised.”
In order to step forward, she would have to circle back.
Lane grew up in her small-town Louisiana home with hand-me-down heartache circling around the household like ghosts: “Haints” that bumped in the night, spirits that seeped into the crevices and kept watch. For years, without questioning it, Lane found herself falling in-line with the family trait—stepping over and around the heaviness of its unspoken presence. And while she was not convinced of the power of the restless “disembodied,” she was coming to realize: “I do know the past is a ghost.”
The collective family disarray was formidable: Romantic relationships that slid out of grasp or off the rails; women and men boxing with free-floating pain stemming from systemic racism and attendant racial violence; and, most particularly, the quagmire of self-doubt or shame that the women in her family found themselves lost in.
Lane discerned a wisp of herself floating there, too. While she’d imagined many scenarios for her life—journalist, teacher, and culture worker—the list of evolving roles formed the semblance of moving forward, yet in certain respects, emotionally, she was running in place.
To break that cycle, to edge closer to new territory, a new self, she knew, her journey would have to begin with an ending: The lynching of her great-grandfather, Burt Bridges, and the breach left at the center of her great-grandmother Mary’s heart. This meant walking into a century-old, raw wound, and confronting the possibility that the journey may not offer up answers, but even more painful questions. Even still, the endeavor would allow her, perhaps, to offer her expectant child something more than she had—a framework and language to investigate the whys and hows.
Who was Burt Bridges? Not the tragedy, but the person. How does he hover over the family? Lane knows a name and the outline of his story; who he was, as flesh and blood, exists only in fragments of passed-around family stories. What is clear is that he was all plans, pride and dreams. Taken together, this made him a highly visible target to the small-town white powers-that be. His desire was to flee the Jim Crow South, and try his luck with California, a destination that seemed big enough to foster his dreams. He doesn’t make it, but more than a century later, Lane, his great-granddaughter, does.
Lane’s narrative is fragmented; intentionally, so. We Are Bridges reads very much in the manner that generational stories are shared and received—in pieces, in tangents, in digressions. There are stories — or shards of them—that don’t come to you until they are intended, when you become of an age where it is appropriate to not just hear the story, but also fully apprehend it. You grow into it.
Time here is not linear. The narrative slides, jumps, circles back on itself; in a vivid, experiential way, it is a commentary about how hurt tails us, leaps a generation, lies dormant and suddenly springs to life when we least expect—or want—it to.
While the “Bridges” of the title speaks specifically to lineage, the symbolic “bridges,” in Lane’s account are two-fold: It is a tricky span she must navigate in order to cross into new life territory; as well, it is a new generation and its hope—to move from pain to healing.
Lane, with an expert seamstress’ finesse, weaves trauma and its legacy into the story’s backdrop. It is its own character, hanging back, weighting the atmosphere, as fulsome as Louisiana humidity.
Trauma lays in wait; it touches everything. From the outset, Lane reveals that there isn’t much physical documentation or family testimony left: Instead she confronts absence: a dearth of letters or intimate journals to discover or guide her; a paucity of legal documents to ground her, or point her forward. These were people that kept their secrets close.
As a rule, the journalist’s way is to get as close to the truth as one possibly can, to look for a primary source–the person who bore witness. Consequently, Lane’s way of writing herself back into the moment is to “listen to the hurt,” the few family anecdotes—and the melancholy that shadowed them over generations. Then she could imagine its effect, and name it.
At the narrative’s outset, Lane classifies the book as a “hybrid”: It’s memoir, yes, but it’s also a journey into the speculative, tunneling back into a series of what ifs and if onlys. In so doing, she creates lush scenes and dancing, intimate dialogue, that pull the reader effectively into both the terror and the tenderness, and give her forebears’ ghosts flesh and form. As well, it hands them back their dreams and aspirations, but also sharply reanimates the hurt—making it palpable and present.
The fluid structure allows Lane the necessary breadth to animate and theorize, to move the fragments around, and in certain respects, to haunt the past. She is skillful at examining cause and effect, intimating how past and present bend and interact. In bridging the present to the past, her language is at turns lapidary and crisp: Of the disintegration of one her mother’s hopeful romantic liaisons she writes: “The courtship ended just outside our house, where the plums were still light green the way I like them: tart and hard and begging for salt, an astringent against the teeth…”
For all of the lyric language and her adroit ability to call up lost worlds, Lane does not dodge unpleasantness: She refuses to prettify or idealize; she does not sidestep the uncomfortable. Instead she lets the light in—illumination that is both astringent and purifying. She holds key subjects’ feet to the fire: the father who doesn’t appear to know how to love, the newspaper editors who undervalued her abilities, the graduate school classmate who advises her to hold-back, to censor her pain on the page, and not least of all herself, for her own blind spots and transgressions.
Late in the book, Grandma Mary reflects: “Why are we [women] always the ones weeping and toting all the pain.” This question moves Mary, in another one of Lane’s invented scenes, to pull back and consider, for all the damage, pain and desolation that cycles back on itself: “What is the purpose of black life?”
What Lane’s book eloquently illuminates is that we all too often overlook the quiet victories along the path to survival. Not perfection, but endurance. The sturdy branches, reaching out. There’s not just damage, not just “a generational trail of broken people,” Lane finds, but a specific type of fortitude and hopefulness that was buried back there as well. That too must be alive. This act of looking back? This act of reclamation? It is as much for her, as it is for her newborn.
At this life’s crossroad, what are the necessary tools and gifts that she might pass down to her child? Lane won’t allow an easy answer; she is more tough-minded than that. She’s come to know, you have to be ready for the truth. As it comes—shards, rough edges and all.
“The world is not all bad Mary,” Lane ascribes these words to her great-grandfather Burt, who is making his case for the dream of California, its possibilities. But, perhaps, on reconsideration Burt’s words are not necessarily imagined, but received, over the bridge of time: “The world is full of beauty and potential. Full of life and second chances.” Messages for the journey. A spirit’s nudge. Those sturdy bloodlines connect sons to grand daughters, to the next generation of great-grands and beyond. But even more—they offer a passage to brand new ways of seeing; to renewed opportunities, to not so much make things right, but, first and foremost, to make yourself free.
Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles based journalist and essayist. A former staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, she is the author of three books of nonfiction: No Crystal Stair African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday); After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, a collection of her essays and photographs (Angel City Press) and “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” published by Angel City Press in 2020.