I picked up 6-7 books (and a couple pounds of coffee) from my favorite local bookstore in the height of quarantine to help support them while everything was closed. Three of them were for me: Hillbilly Elegy, Appalacian Reckoning (notes on those two coming later) and The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry. I have (and love) several books of Berry’s poetry but the first of his prose I have read. I will admit to identifying with his work in a way that I don’t with other authors or poets, simply becaise we are both from Kentucky.
I recall having heard the book mentioned in a podcast or something else I had read…but honestly I am not sure what I thought it was about. When I bought it, I didn’t know it was contained his reflections on race, written orginally in 1968 with an extensive afterword added in the eighties.
I haven’t looked into other critical reviews of this book, so I don’t know where it fits amongst other more recent books on race issues, nor what may be considered a problem in his views. That being said, I did find it a compelling read, with a few spots of trouble. Its rather short, but packs in a lot of ideas. I’ll only touch on a few of them here.
Berry starts with an extensive telling of his own personal story and two of the black people that were most important to him growing up, Nick and Aunt Georgie. I got the sense reading this part that he was both trying to establish some credibility, but more so to establish some context for his analysis and reccomendations that come later. One theme that appears over and over is that whites have also been hurt by our racism (hence the title of the book I believe). I don’t think Berry is in any way trying to minimize the greater hurt that blacks have and continue to experiences as a resut of racism, but rather to give a reason to white’s to change other than “white guilt”. Berry builds a really compelling case for diversity, not built on platitudes or virtue signaling, but rather on his own experience of seeing the world through Nick’s eyes:
This much is clear to me: insofar as I am capable of feeling such pleasures as I believe Nick felt, I am strong; insofar as I am dependent on pleasures on the pleasures made available by my salary and the things I own, I am weak. I feel much more secure in those pleasures for which I am dependent on the world, as Nick was for most of his, than in those for which I am dependent on the government or on a power company or on the manufacturers of appliances.
This is where I felt a bit of unease, concerned that Berry might be heading into some sort of “magical negro” territory or more generally romanticising the poor. But my read of Berry through the book as a whole is that this is not that. Berry recognizes that he is better off having had shared, deep experiences with Nick. Those experiences have made him better than he would otherwise be by letting him see things from another perspective. I do wonder what Nick might say if asked whether he was better off for his relationship with a young Wendell Berry?
A second theme which stood out to me is Berry’s idea that any solution to racism will start with the individual:
I beleive that the experience of all honest men stands, like these books, against the political fantasy that deep human problems can be satifactorily solved by legislation. On the contrary, it is likely that the best and least oppresive laws come as a result or the reflection of honest solutions that men have already made in their own lives. The widespread assumption that men can be set free or dignified or improved by monkeying with some mere aspect of their lives – politics, or economics or technology – promises no solution, but only an unlimited growth of the public apparatus.
This really got my recovering anarcho-libertarian jucies flowing ;-). From what I can tell, the idea of systemic racism has only recently entered the public conciousness, so I don’t think Berry had anything to say on that idea. If it he had known about it however, I am guessing from the above that he might see some of the proposed solutions to systemic racism at best as partial remedies. This is not to say that systemtic racism isn’t a thing. Rather it is to say that if we want to actually make progress in reducing racism, we have to address both what is in our hearts as well as how we build our institutions.
The afterword outlines four specific problems that Berry sees in actually making progress to resolve racism (with 20 more years of life experience to inform him). He offers no solutions, rather he hopes to highlight how complicated the problems are so that we aren’t fooled into thinking there are easy solutions.
Since my last post, I have been trying to do more than just read and think and write. I did march this past Sunday in downtown Cincinnati. I was motivated by a combination of wanting to see for myself what was going on in these marches and of wanting to do something / anything (more than read and think and write). I am happy to have done it. I felt safe the entire time. I didn’t agree with everything I heard or read, but I got a better (albeit small) sense of what animated those that I marched with. I also attended a Crittenden city council meeting. That was less of a life experience, but was still worth doing, simply to see the wheels of government working at the most local and personal of levels.
Reading the Hidden Wound has made me realize that I lack any deep shared experiences or ongoing relationships with anyone of color. I don’t feel guilty, but rather less than I could be. I feel blind to an entire way of seeing and experiencing the world. My instinct to take action kicks in, but I know I need to be careful here – the chance for a mis step seems extremely high. I am OK with making a mistake, but not with unintentionally hurting someone. Suggestions are sincerely welcome.