19 May 2008

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

The Hidden Wound
Wendell Berry

In order to provide a meaningful summary of this book, I need to fill you in on some details about my classwork, so please indulge a brief digression. The last ten weeks of classes were fairly typical for me—a few intense academic courses and a few that, while necessary for my education, didn’t seem to demand as much from me. One of these less important classes, “Pastoral Practice and Racism,” was in my schedule because one class I had initially enrolled in was intended to satisfy a cultural requirement but was obviously geared towards students of another background who came to the United States. “Racism” worked in my schedule, and so I took it, though it was the in the dreaded once-a-week time slot, from 1-4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoons.

My basic sense of the class was this: there is something to all this talk about racism, prejudice, and discrimination, but none of the prevailing explanations (power, politics, xenophobia, etc.) taken by themselves held any water. All the talk about “celebration of diversity” and “learning from non-white communities” sounded enlightened and welcoming, but no one could ever tell me outright what it was we can learn, or what they have to offer. There was plenty of call for dialogue (which was taken up with even greater vigor when the Reverend Wright began his crusade), but I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to be talking about as long as we made sure we were talking. Now, most of this was due to the fact that the class was being taught by a local priest who was committed to the civil rights movement but didn’t have a formal grounding in it. He also conducted his class in the interrogative mood, answering questions with questions; this certainly got us talking, but at a cost of accumulated frustration. I wanted something to chew on, but all this added up to a buffet of statistics and good intentions that spread about a heavy malaise as we sampled from it.

In one of our assigned readings, the author made a passing reference to the book I am reviewing now, and having read one of Berry’s books before, I set out to lay my hands on a copy to supplement the coursework. It was the best decision I made all quarter long, and saved me from personally writing off the class as unsalvageable. For the first time, I was reading an informed and reflective opinion about what white racism did to whites and what whites had to learn from blacks. He is a southern writer dealing in southern racism, and so not all of it was clearly applicable to our own situations of a primarily urban setting, but after the shadowboxing I’d been engaging in for weeks, I was delighted to have a sparring partner.

The first third or so comprises Berry’s reminiscences of growing up as a white child with black mentors. It’s not immediately appealing, but stick with it—much of the rest of the book will operate on this body of experience. Berry ranges wide as he catalogues the ramifications of racism. He takes up the effect slaveholding had on southern Christians and their leadership, insisting that the heavy emphasis on faith and the soul in southern varieties of Christianity was necessary to gloss over the contradictions inherent in attending church with one’s slaves. He discusses the American culture and its superficiality born of smoothing over the festering sore it must conceal. He points to Tolstoy, Twain, and Homer as offering exemplars for what is possible (and necessary) for contemporary relations between classes and races.

But by far the most compelling treatment is the way he ties the race question in with his passionate defense of the land and humanity’s relationship with it. The greatest loss the white race ever suffered from its slaveholding was the loss of contact with the land as a lived experience, substituting the capitalist’s abstract management for the sake of profit. Actually working the land was relegated to “nigger work” and hence was unworthy of the white man. While this did much to enrich whites, a corresponding impoverishment fell upon them (as is so often the case with sin—nobody wins).

Berry describes this impoverishment this way: “It seems to me that the black people developed the psychology, the emotional resilience and equilibrium, the philosophy, and the art necessary to endure and even enjoy the hard manual labor wholly aside from the dynamics of ambition. And from this stemmed an ability more complex than that of the white man to know and to bear life. What we should have learned willingly ourselves we forced the blacks to learn, and so prevented ourselves from learning it.” Interestingly enough, this is a perceptive investigation of the mechanisms and anthropological effects of social sin. In an age when we are only beginning to recognize and dismantle the structures that undermine human flourishing, these insights are valuable even thirty years after they were written.

In short, I found Berry’s insights to be unrecognized more than a quarter century after they were put into words. To his credit, he continues to be a vocal defender of the same ideals he puts forward here. Those of you who get through The Hidden Wound might want to pick up his 1996 book Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, which doesn’t deal directly with racism but articulates in greater detail the dehumanizing forces at work in the culture and economy of our own day. It is an equally informative (and pleasing) read.

1 comment:

mags said...

I'm intrigued...