The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010 (Original edition 1968, with Afterword 1988).
Summary: An extended essay on racism in America, our collective attempts to conceal this wound upon American life, and its connections to our deformed ideas of work.
Wendell Berry wrote words that would be exceptional for most whites today. These were written in 1968 by a white man of the South, making them all the more exceptional:
“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. 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 the wound into 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.
This wound is in me….I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it….”
Berry begins by acknowledging the story of his family as a slaveholding family, one that sold as well as acquired slaves. He acknowledges a family that went to church with its slaves but inured itself to the teachings about moral obligations that would have unraveled slavery.
He then turns to a childhood memory of Nick, a Black man who worked for his grandfather. He spoke of the racist structures that assigned Nick a place of being a worker and tenant and the dignity with which Nick accepted these but also the dignity of Nick’s work–his careful study of saddle horses, of the requirements of the land. Nick took Berry under his wing and taught him about the work of the farm. But the wound was there, evident in Nick not being able to accept the invitation to Berry’s birthday party, and Berry deciding that the only decent thing to do was to sit with Nick outside.
Berry recognizes in both what he learned from Nick in all his dignity and the underlying social divisions between them a picture of the deformities of our American society that defined success as distancing oneself from the physical labor of the farm and that used knowledge and status to make money off of the labors of others. So we have diminished ourselves, even as we had to diminish the personhood of Blacks to enslave them, something we have done since 1619. In doing so, we have alienated ourselves from good work and from the land upon which our lives depend. We have considered that work to be “n***** work” (Berry’s terminology, objectionable today but reflecting the demeaning character of its historical usage). By this we have not only demeaned persons but also lost our connection to the pleasures of good physical work and the land where this work is done.
Berry’s argument isn’t for legislation or structural change (and I believe this may be a weakness in ignoring the goods that can be done by addressing unjust structures). He argues that we need one another to heal the wounds racism has inflicted. Just as Nick taught Berry the wisdom of the farm and good work while Berry bridged the divide by sitting with Nick rather than staying with the white folks during his birthday, Berry argues that the task is not so much for whites to “free” Blacks but rather to “recognize the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity” and that “they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain.”
In his Afterword, written twenty years later, Berry addresses the displacement of racism from rural to urban settings and the decline of family farms, including Black farms. What has happened is simply a shift of the deformed ideas of work from the farm to the city with high paid executives and others who do “menial” work. Overcoming racism means no longer perpetuating these destructive ideas of work but paying just wages for all good and necessary work. Berry, drawing on his deep values of community also argues that integration without the restoration of the fabric of community is inadequate.
Perhaps the most significant thing in this extended essay, which I felt stands well on its own without the Afterword, is Berry’s courageous acknowledgement of the wound of racism on our national body. It is a wound caused by whites, but one from which whites suffer as well as Blacks. A strength of this work is that he owns his own complicity and his own learning with no “yes, buts.” It is vintage Berry, utterly consistent with other works of his on the dignity of manual work, of knowledge of the land, of caring for place, and of membership in community. What is striking is that Berry here offers a generous vision of community and membership that includes Black and white and the value in the humanity of each person. While Berry downplays systemic issues and may be faulted for this, his integration of issues of race into the larger themes of his work makes this more than merely a writing of place by a rural agriculturalist. It is an essay that discerns the fabric of society we are weaving, the rents in that fabric, and the crucial threads needed for a durable and useful garment.