Wendell Berry on Racism: The Hidden Wound

Wendell Berry The Hidden WoundIn 1968, Wendell Berry wrote The Hidden Wound — a fascinating look at U.S. racism and its connection to land and work from this incredible environmentalist who grew up in a family that still remembered owning slaves. I’ve been trying to get my head around the way that the current terrifying onslaught of policies of hate and fear are so closely tied to Christianity — and yes I know Crusades and witch burnings and pogroms and the Inquisition and… I know. But this helped explain the particular moment we are in as Americans better than anything I’ve read in while from a point of view that I don’t often read.

It opens with a frank admission:

I have been unwilling, until now, to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound–a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life….If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society. (3-4)

This damage now erupted brutally into the open keeps me up at night.

Berry writes of the casual stories told by his family, remembering the past. There is one story in particular of a slave that had to be sold because he would not be good (and how much Black pain lies in that white concept of ‘good’?):

The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror. It has been told and retold, surely, because in the depths of our souls we all have recognized in it an evil that is native to us and that we cannot escape. (8-9)

Still, slave owners tried to escape its consequences, and this required particular habits and manners of thought. Berry describes the double nature that had to exist in religion, for example. We all know the Bible says to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’, to do unto others as you would have done unto you — all things Southern society would be glad that slaves (and their descendants) should live by. But whites clearly did not, could not live these beliefs, without freeing slaves (or returning all that land to Native Americans rather than attempting their total destruction). This shaped white Christianity in very particular ways, and Berry’s description of it resonates so strongly today…

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. the question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation. (17)

I think current events have been ripping the covers off, revealing the fruit of this.

Berry also shares thoughts on language, how this double nature existed there too and shaped the words people used, how they thought.

Within the context of prejudice and segregation, the two races had to get along, and so there was an etiquette of speech that one learned from the cradle: one “respected the feelings” of Negroes, when in their presence one did not flaunt one’s “superiority” or use the word nigger… But more important, within the language there was a silence, an emptiness, of exactly the shape of the humanity of the black man; the language I spoke in my childhood and youth was in that way analagous to a mold in which a statue is to be cast. The operations, then, were that one could, by a careful observance of the premises of the language, keep the hollow empty and thus avoid the pain of the recognition of the humanity of an oppressed people and of one’s own guilt in their oppression; or one could, willing or not, be forced by the occasions of sympathy and insight to break out of those premises into a speech of another and more particular order, so that the hollow begins to fill with the substance of a life that one must recognize as human and demanding. (19)

Later he writes:

The word nigger might be thought of as rattling around, with devastating noise and impact, within the silence, that black-man-shaped hollow, inside our language. (50)

This is so chilling, makes so much sense. There is so much to undo, and Wendell Berry writes about the difficulties of undoing it:

I am trying to establish the outline of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness–the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak. (48-49)

This is a process deeply rooted in history, in the origins of the country, in the ways that whites sought to take what was not theirs, and then to force others to work on it.

From the beginning also, as the white man made his drive into the continent, to take it from its wilderness and its original inhabitants and possess it, there were two great necessities: one was to own the land, to establish and maintain a legal claim; the second was the enormous and continuing labor it took to convert such ownership into the profits which would preserve and augment it. In the parts of the country where there was a black labor force these necessities were divided, in theory at least; the white man was to be the owner, the black man was to be the laborer. (80)

The results could only be a twisted and misshapen society whose ultimate values had been conquest and profit. Berry writes:

The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth…The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal. (105)

He also writes:

Whereas the whites, as a group, have produced here only a pernicious value system, based on greed and egotism and the lust for status and comfort, without either an elemental knowledge on the one hand or a decent social vision on the other. What the whites have produced of cultural value had come into being in the face of either indifference or opposition on the part of most whites… (81)

And yet for so many years, race has been seen as the ‘Negro Problem’ (or the Mexican problem, or the Asian problem…), when not only is it a problem of all Americans, but resonates through each and every one of our relationships:

It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds. (91)

This not least because

Whites fear what they feel, secretly or otherwise, to be the righteousness of the anger of blacks; as the oppressors they feel, secretly or otherwise, morally inferior to those they have oppressed. (92)

Where does wholeness lie? A better future? In recognising that

…no man is alone, because he cannot be; he cannot arrange it so that either the good or the bad effects of his life will apply only to himself; he can only live in the creation, among the creatures, his life either adding to the commonwealth or subtracting from it. Men are whole not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. (104)

It involves recognizing the crimes against native peoples, and in all humility learning from them.

For examples of a whole and indigenous American society, functioning in full meaning and good health within the ecology of this continent, we will have to look back to the cultures of the Indians. That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity–a racial stupidity–that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. (107)

It involves recognising the humanity of all.

As soon as we have filled the hollow in our culture, the silence in our speech, with the fully realized humanity of the black man–and it follows, of the American Indian–then there will appear over the horizon of our consciousness another figure as well: that of the American white man, our own humanity, lost to us these three and a half centuries, the time of all our life on this continent.

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black people and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them. (108)

There is more here I want to write about, about race and land, work, memory… but later. For now I will end with a quote from the Afterward, written in 1988, a plea to recognise the only things that could possibly make us truly safe and secure:

There is no safety in belonging to the select few… If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared. We would be looking too for another another kind of freedom. Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please…But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.

Our place of safety can only be the community, and not just one community, but many of them everywhere. (129)

[Berry, Wendell (1989, 2010) The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.]

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