Thursday, July 30, 2020

Wendell Berry and the Hidden Wound of Racism

I ordered a copy of The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry more or less by accident. I didn't know what it was about, only that Wendell Berry wrote it and I hadn't read it before and that was good enough for me.

It turns out that it's his meditation on racism and the legacy of slavery, from the point of view of a Southern descendant of slave-owners old enough to have heard family stories about it.  Parts of it appear to have been originally written in the 1960s, but it was first published in 1989 (and I wish I'd read it then). However, Berry's observations are so crystalline, so cutting and relentless that they are still far ahead of most, for all that he uses language like "man" for "people" that sounds graceless now.  It's simultaneously a relic of the past (Berry was born in 1932 and grew up, like my father, plowing with a mule) and sharply relevant to today.

A quote on the back cover from Guy Davenport describes it thus: "The brunt of this book is to wake us up, page after page, from stupidity."

Berry speaks scathingly in his firm quiet way of the "romanticizers," whose purpose is "to shelter us from the moral anguish implicit in our racism--an anguish that began, deep and mute, in the minds of Christian democratic freedom-loving owners of slaves."  

He's speaking in particular of a memoir of the Civil War published in 1895; but it might just as easily be about the Confederate glorification monuments that scatter the landscape in the South and the apologetics thereof. For all that some of them are coming down, many still remain, and there have even been pushes to put up more...mostly in Appalachia, where support for the Confederacy was low to nonexistent.  Somehow the descendants of people who voted against secession are putting up battle flags in defiance of history and common sense.  We in the South are still preserving our heritage of moral dissonance like a mosquito in amber, having neither learned much nor moved very far on. Not that that distinguishes us from other Americans in any way.
He spends some time attending to the damage done to our religious understanding as well, which explains what drove me out of the Southern Baptist church I was raised in. Berry says, "Far from curing the wound of racism, the white man's Christianity has been its soothing bandage--a bandage masquerading as Sunday clothes, for the wearing of which one expects a certain moral credit."

Indeed, that describes the relationship of white Evangelicals with the Republican Party to a T.

He is unstinting, but allows ample room for humanity, humility, and nuance.  He starts with racism and the legacy of slavery, takes a winding road through his childhood, and ends up at economic justice.  Like you do. 

If you are a white Southerner, you must read this book, which is short but concentrated. Other people will benefit from reading it as well; but Berry is speaking our language here, and depicting the culture we grew up in with compassion and humanity but also unflinching clarity for its particular flaws.  Never mind the lies of America in general; we've been fed on particular poisoned lies for particular reasons, and Berry offers an antidote.  Read it and be healed.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Why "But the Irish Were Slaves!" is both wrong and racist

Since people have been posting about this...

First of all, the Irish were not slaves. There were quite a few Irish and Scottish (and English for that matter) indentured servants, and indenture was exploitive and frequently brutal, but indenture was not the same as chattel slavery.  The most significant difference is that indenture is a legal contract that a person enters into, which has a theoretical end.  That end was often not respected but the indenture remained a legal human being. Enslaved people on the other hand were not seen as legal persons at any point. Slavery was carefully built both legally and culturally to be seen as innate, the "natural" relationship between white people and black people because of the latter's supposed inferiority.  There were reams and reams of writings justifying that world view, a sure sign of propaganda at work.  Another word for this ideology and its long-term effects is "racism."

There was indeed slavery in Africa, as in Europe, Asia and basically everywhere in the world, but there were avenues for someone to gain their freedom AND it didn't create a skin color based caste system like it did here. The evolution of slavery in the Americas, because it involved the displacement of literally millions of people, is unique.

There were some indentured servants in the colonies who were African in origin, as well as chattel slaves. We know this mainly because they frequently had to argue in court for their status as indentured servants whose terms were up. Those who did so successfully were generally Christian and literate. Later laws against teaching enslaved people to read and write should be viewed with that in mind. The codification of chattel slavery into law was a process, one that made it harder and harder for anyone of African descent to extricate themselves from any form of servitude, and created a situation where a person of color was assumed to be enslaved until proven otherwise (and said proof was frequently not accepted). That process was largely complete by 1700.

Indentured servants were on the same general social level as enslaved people. There were intermarriages. This partially explains why certain Irish and Scottish customs, such as jumping the broom and "first footing," have become African American customs. HOWEVER...and this is a big however....a white indentured servant who completed their term of service became a free person and could completely blend in to the rest of the population.

This made an incredible difference in outcomes, both for individuals and collectively. As a white person, some of my ancestors may well have been indentured servants. I don't know...and neither do you. Because you can't tell by looking at me, and more importantly, it has had no discernible effect on me or my more recent ancestors who have been a bunch of middle class or wealthier farmers, business people, preachers, and educators for generations.

The same can't be said for African Americans...even if their ancestors were in fact indentured and not enslaved, or were freed at some point before 1863, or indeed even if they arrived long after it was all over, because the state of slavery or its existence at a given point in time is not the sole determining factor here.  Escape from slavery, whether as individuals or collectively, did not and has not granted escape from racism.  Partially because racism, while woven into the establishment and justification of the system of chattel slavery and exploitation, was also very much tied up with the origins of capitalism.  That is to say, while racism is certainly the legacy of slavery, it's still very much alive and well because it serves other purposes.  In any case, racism has a measurable effect on black people's educational and employment opportunities, their ability to acquire and maintain wealth, their health outcomes, how frequently and harshly they suffer punishment from the justice system, and (as we should all be aware by now) how likely they are to die violently at the hands of police.

And that brings us back to "But the Irish were slaves too!"  Aside from the fact that it's factually wrong, the only reason to bring that up right now is to somehow deflect from the argument that racism in the US is the legacy of slavery.  I hope I have explained clearly enough what is wrong with that idea.  But let's back up even further and ask a more pertinent question...

Why the hell would you want to do that?  What do you, O fellow white person, get out of trying to undermine the idea that racism is a real thing that happens to real people and sometimes gets them killed?  Why, when millions of people are marching in the streets in the hope of justice, do you think it's a great moment to waltz in with what would be a desperately irrelevant bit of historical geekery even if it were true?  What reason could there be, except that you recognize that the status quo benefits you and you are choosing in this moment to defend it?

What the hell is wrong with you?