RACE, WENDELL BERRY, & ASKING: WHAT COLOR IS YOUR WOUND?

Credit: Guy Mendes

Merle Haggard tells of how the only time he had trouble getting a song released was “Irma Jackson” because Ken Nelson (at Capitol Records)said, “I don’t know if they will let us do that. I don’t know if the big wigs will let us put that out because it’s about a black woman.” Hearing him tell this story on “Walking The Floor” reminded me how far we’ve come and how far we have to go when it comes to skin color in America. And this was before the events in Charlottesville, VA.

It caught my attention, more than likely because my wife and I had recently watched “Hidden Figures” — the film about the black women who were integral to the space program and getting America to the moon. I grew up around the space program in Houston. Meeting Alan Shepherd, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and so many of the first astronauts was such a common experience as to seem far from extraordinary…and, yet, still pretty damn cool. But I grew up white, never knowing about these brilliant women who helped get them into space, likely, because…they weren’t white.

My own particular racism

I was raised with my own particular racism common to my area of the country. I was both a perpetrator of such adolescent thinking and a voice of opposition amidst my white friends. The paradox likely manifested from living in an all white neighborhood while attending integrated schools, starting in kindergarten. It created a dichotomy within me that took years to find resolution as there were so few of my elders that might give any perspective or insight into it. Hearing the way the adults around me talked about anybody who wasn’t white didn’t make sense to my day-to-day experience with my friends at school who weren’t white.

That tension carried on until I graduated high school. Then it lay dormant and relatively unresolved, only brought to surface when I’d overhear somebody refer to a latino as a “wetback” or Rodney King was beat up by the LA police.

Moving out of Texas to Boulder, Colorado, the absence of color became suddenly loud in this town that talked a lot about multiculturalism and diversity with so little to show for it. So, years later when I was in the Boulder Bookstore to listen to Rob Bell speak on his surprisingly controversial book, Love Wins, I was in the right space of mind to catch site of a book by Wendell Berry that I had never seen. The book? The Hidden Wound.

Speaking to an unresolved part of my white soul

I opened it to a quote from Malcolm X: “But I want to tell you something. This pattern, this ‘system’ that the white man created, of teaching Negroes to hide the truth from him behind a façade of grinning, ‘yessir-bossing,’ foot-shuffling and head-scratching — that system has done the American white man more harm than an invading army would do to him.”

It drew me to the first chapter in which Berry confesses, ”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…if white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know.” I was no longer listening to Bell. Berry was speaking louder and poignantly to an unresolved part of my white soul. For making another less makes me less human.

Why was Berry writing about race, about slavery, about the unaddressed impact of it on the souls of white folks? I thought he told stories of small-town farming communities. I thought he wrote essays challenging the urban industrial mindset that neglects the land, fracturing the humanity in Americans.

It’s the wound he’s after. Something in the fractured humanity of white America has its beginning in this wound.

This wound isn’t just black.

This wound for me wasn’t just black, it was brown. In my Texas childhood, Mexicans were derided as easily as a black man would be in Alabama. (Which is odd since Texas technically is a rebel state of Mexico occupied by European immigrants, stolen from the Mexicans). I learned how to look at anyone south of the border as less or below me even though I found a greater acceptance and sense of belonging amidst the culture than I did in my white suburbia. Berry grew up in his family’s homestead in Kentucky and learned his own distinction of colors. This is where the hidden nature of the wound begins.

Reading Berry in a town that prides itself on its liberalism and “progressive-thinking”, but is populated by mostly white people made me all the more self-conscious. The liberal approach of making abashed, indirect acknowledgements of racism — a posture that looks more like shameful apology than honest confession, acceptance, and healing — doesn’t work. Neither does the more obvious posturing of irritated generalizations about “Negroes,” made under breath; the “that was over hundred years ago and can’t they just get over it” kind of statements heard among the more conservative bents.

The complaints of white, middle-class men who are tired of being blamed for the ills of America may be the outcomes failing to own the wound. It doesn’t justify such displays of ignorance as the strange tiki-torch parade of white nationalists and the attack on protesters in Charlottesville any more than a man who beats his wife is justified because he saw his dad hit his mother when he was a kid.

Wendell Berry receiving National Humanities Medal in 2010. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Berry’s genius isn’t only in addressing this complicated elephant in every white American heart. It is how he connects this abstract wound to the very real, broken nature of every white person’s striving in the corporate, industrialized world. He goes so far as to question why we think it’s progress if a black man wears a suit and tie in corporate America: “The ‘success’ of the black corporate executive, in fact, only reveals the shallowness, the jeopardy, and falseness of the ‘success’ of the white corporate executive. The ‘success’ is a private and highly questionable settlement that does not solve, indeed does not refer to, the issues associated with American racism. It only assumes that American blacks will be made better or more useful or more secure by becoming as greedy, selfish, wasteful and thoughtless as affluent American whites.”

We tend to fail into restoration

There is wholeness in Berry’s exploration for an answer. At the beginning of the book he says, “A work of art that grows out of a diseased culture has not only the limits of art but the limits of the disease — if it is not an affirmation of the disease, it is a reaction against it. The art of a man divided within himself and against his neighbors, no matter how sophisticated its techniques or beautiful its form and textures, will never have the communal power of the simplest tribal song.” He sets a precedent, subtle as it may be throughout the writing, that this hidden wound is not just a matter of reversing wrongs, but of addressing a disease that effects every aspect of culture, and thus community. A community is formed out of human beings BEING together healthily. The best art comes out of these spaces, and the best art tends to be a tell-tale sign of the more subtle thrivings in a culture, a visual or audible display of things unseen. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in Hope in the Dark, “Making an injury visible and public is often the first step to remedying it, and political change often follows culture, as what was long tolerated is seen to be intolerable, or what was overlooked becomes obvious.”

It is in his “Afterword” — written nearly 20 years after the original publication — that he draws some of his harshest statements but also his age-earned wisdom that the issue more deeply has to do with our character: ”All the issues I have discussed here are neither political nor economic, but moral and spiritual. What is at issue is our character as a people.” And if we choose not to deal with that, then we will fail. But it doesn’t end there. He says there is the possibility that we will “fail into a restoration of community life,” that gives a new angle of hope.

We are humans and by nature fail, but it seems truer still that we tend to fail into restoration. For when we fail, we are finally honest enough to let go the facades and shallow placations that keep us from seeing another human being across the table. It is then that the color of our skin matters in a more authentic sense as it tells a story of our heritage, our culture, and what you or I bring to the table. It is in the sharing of our story — even the less attractive pieces — that restoration has its greatest opportunity to flourish.