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.

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