About Me

My photo
Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

Popular Posts

Friday, May 02, 2014

Wendell Berry's Inquiries into Whiteness and It's Inherent Wounds

I'm going to analyze some thoughts from Wendell Berry's reflections on race.  It is a complicated book, and as he admits, not finally very satisfying to him or to the reader.  But before I get started, I want to comment on some of the impetus that led me to pull out the book and finish it.  I had started reading it over a decade ago, but put it away after a few sittings because the framing of the issues was too painful for me.  But with many years passed, I have worked through some of those hard questions and realities.  I found myself this time more ready to push through his process.  But first, why did I pick it up?

A few days ago I was thinking through some of the burdens that have weighed on me in my middle adult years.  Some of them go back to a church crisis when my family and other white people entered into conflict over the relevance of race for congregational life, and particularly whether it was appropriate for a traditionally all-white church to assume, even to prefer, that blacks not be part of their church if their presence means changes in the programs, worship, and habits of the congregation.  Some other burdens go back to workplace struggles and experiences of betrayal as colleagues set their faces against one another.  I did not come out of any of these experiences unscathed.  And I don't mean to say that I was a passive recipient of the conflicts.  I was in the middle of them, and certainly I deserve some blame for the way that things went.

It occurred to me that in my more recent struggle of grief, I have been very public and open about the wounds I have suffered through the illness, death, and loss of Everly.  My friend Willie Jennings, who listened and walked beside me in all of these struggles, has often urged me to write the story of my church's conflict over race.  It was two decades ago now.  I have told a version of the story in face-to-face gatherings, leaving out names to avoid demonizing people.  Sometimes, after this many years, I can tell the story without breaking down in tears, but not always. 

At Willie's insistence, I have tried a couple of times to sit down and write about it.  But I get bogged down in minute details or I get anxious about coming across as self-congratulatory while condemning others.  The anger and the disappointment remain, and there lingers also a level of confusion in those emotions and details that make it hard to tell a story I can believe in.  By comparison to my pain of living without Everly, these wounds remain hidden.  To those who know me, fragments of these watershed events exist in their image of who I am.  But much of it they would have little reason to know.

The sideways movements of thought are unpredictable, and that thought of my hidden wounds brought a mental leap to the title of a book by Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound.  It is a pair of essays, written approximately two decades apart, analyzing his personal story of growing up in white supremacist America (not the official Klan type, but the generic US white folk type).  He brings his memories of relationships into dialogue with poetry and other literature, looking for angles from which to gain greater insight into the significance of race in US culture.  He is intentionally trying to think outside the frames in which race is conventionally analyzed. 

Would any of his reflections on the hiddenness of the wound of white supremacy and black slavery breed insight into my own hidden wounds, interlinked as they are with race?  I'm not sure that I got a good answer to that question, but let's try to parse out what he believes the hidden wound or wounds to be.  I say wounds because it is an exploratory book.  By its nature, it arrives at partial conclusions, then turns another angle on the problem to see what has been missed or what else might appear.  Ultimately, by taking up the topic again after two decades, he again puts himself in the position of reframing the issues, renaming the wound:
once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and in the events of your own life. The truth keeps leaping on you from behind (6).
Berry initially focuses on the contrast between the myth of benevolence, which sees whites as looking out for their inferiors (the blacks), and the violence inherent in slavery.  He says that this violence might remain hidden from the believers of the myth most of the time.  But their complicity in the violence and dehumanization of slavery became clear if they ever came to sell or buy a slave.  This commercialization of a human being rips away the veil and shows the slaveholder for what she or he is--a purveyor in flesh, a user of persons, a profiteer on misery.  To sell a slave was to allow some other owner, perhaps one who does not believe the myth of benevolence, to do whatever he will with that person.  It was to hand the slave over to hell.  There could be no more blissful denial of the violence.


So one angle on the hidden wound goes back to the harm done to slaveowners' conscience as they came to face, and perhaps to adjust, to their willing terrorizing of blacks simply because of their racialized identity.  Here, perhaps, he foreshadows a theme taken up by contemporary black studies scholar Anthony Pinn.  In Terror and Triumph, Pinn argues that the quintessential moment of terror in the slave system was the auction block.  There, naked, displayed, handled, on the market for use and disposal by one's enemies, the slave faces the blank abyss of terror.  Pinn picks up themes here shared with existential philosophy, and follows them to similar conclusions about the necessity of building anthropocentric and humane systems of meaning to ward off and rise to the challenge of this terror of existence. 

So from the other side of the market exchange, Berry also finds the slave market, the auction block, as the quintessential signifier of the wound, a wound that remains and still fails to be healed.  He analyzes a certain type of literature which seeks to mask the horrors of slavery by side-stepping them, almost ignoring them, in order to elevate the heroic nature of Southern patriotism on the model of medieval chivalry and knightly virtue.  There are many strategies by which to keep the wounds hidden, and Berry is convinced that they do harm rather than heal.
I have already said enough, I think, to make clear the profound moral discomfort potential in a society ostensibly Christian and democratic and genteel, but based upon the institutionalized violence of slavery (14).
Berry links the hidden wound of slavery to the philosophical/political/social/theological/cultural conviction of the split between mind and body.  Of course, contemporary philosophy is filled with arguments about the origin of this dogma of modernity, with various figures, historical precedents, and movements contributing to it.  Mind-body dualism becomes a critical move of conscience, according to Berry, for slaveowners who profess to be Christian and to believe in democracy:
consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used. He thus placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own? To keep this question from articulating itself in his thoughts and demanding an answer, he had to perfect an empty space in his mind, a silence, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between body and spirit (15-16).
Here in this empty space Berry locates the wound.  It is a wound he finds to be born from the contradictions of a slaveholding society.

Yet their wound from the era of slavery is not fully descriptive or explanatory of the continuing hidden wound of a culture.  It is generative of the wound that continues, but it does not encompass all that the wound has become in our times.  This wound of personal conscience, manifest and multiplied across congregations and a nation, exists as a structural feature of culture.  It takes form and gains momentum, reshaping Christianity, democracy, morality, law, and whatever aspects of society and culture in which its implications spin out to their conclusions.

If there is such a duality of mind and body, it is more than an inward analysis of the white man, a theory of human nature applied to each atomistic person.  Ultimately, Berry says that whiteness comes to be identified with mind or spirit.  And by dyadic reasoning, blacks are the body of society.  Mind rules over body, rises above body.  Body serves mind, does the hard, necessary work, so that mind can flourish.

Such a dualistic structuring of culture leads to another way of understanding the hidden wound.  Whiteness separates itself from the material necessities of existence.  Thus, even though in the nineteenth century, almost all people were engaged in farming, it was coming to be looked upon as n----- work, work to be avoided by the people at the top.  White culture shifts its understanding of a good life toward monetary success, measured by competition to have the most, be the richest with the best things, the greatest status.  The dirty, sweaty, exhausting side of farming life can't be good life.  This judgment carries over to all hard and dirty work, from cleaning and scrubbing to disposal of garbage to any necessary but difficult labor.

Berry says that this transition was underway during his formative years (65ff).  As a child, his generation was groomed to leave the farm in order to achieve and succeed.  His grandfather still had some memory of the goodness of work on a farm, of knowing the land, of observing each plant, insect, bird, and animal. 
He kept the farmer’s passion that sees beyond the market values into the intricacy and beauty of the lives of things, and that hungers to preserve and enrich the land. To him crops and animals were not only to be sold, but to be studied, understood, admired for their own sakes (70-71).
But probably better than his grandfather, their hired black farm worker Nick knew that good came from provision, and provision came from daily hard work.  As a boy, Wendell found himself linked to Nick, and to an older black woman, Aunt Georgie, in ways that gave him a glimpse of a different world in which success was not the rat race.  It was a view of reality that did not require the denial of dependence upon the earth.
As for this world, there were two heavy facts that Nick accepted and lived with: life is hard, full of work and pain and weariness, and at the end of it a man has got to go farther than he can imagine from any place he knows. And yet within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all. There were the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot. There was pleasure to be taken in good work animals, as long as you remembered the bother and irritation of using the other kind. There was pleasure in the appetites and in the well-being of good animals. There was pleasure in quitting work. There were certain pleasures in the work itself. There was pleasure in hunting and in going to town, and in visiting and in having company. There was pleasure in observing and remembering the behavior of things, and in telling about it. There was pleasure in knowing where a fox lived, and in planning to run it, and in running it. And as I have already made clear, Nick knew how to use his mind for pleasure; he remembered and thought and pondered and imagined. He was a master of what William Carlos Williams called the customs of necessity (72-74).
Again, the wound of racism on whiteness takes a more complex form.  Unlike the standard frame of saying that racism is simplistically white oppression and black misery, Berry believes that he finds in the memories of Nick and Aunt Georgie another account of reality.  Yes, they suffered from racial oppression.  They were denied opportunities.  They lacked what others had capacity to acquire.  None of their misery or oppressions should be denied or diminished.

They also were part of a community of people who had found a path to goodness in life that was linked to their closeness to the soil and to the land.  They understood the way that life is not fully under our personal control.  They recognized that they had the skills and desire to make a life no matter what others might hatefully seek to deny to them.

Whites, separated from the land, from the knowledge that comes from living with the land, from doing hard work and producing basic necessities, lost all sense of their dependence.  They were the captains of their fate, the shapers of their destinies.  Yet they had forgotten and abandoned the basic knowledge of how to live in the world, demanding that others deemed less valuable provide for them.  Whites have, by Berry's judgment, lost key elements of their humanity by creating for themselves an artificial environment of monetary transactions and technologies of power, a mechanized world which devalues people and celebrates accumulation.  Berry describes here numerous sociological insights one might find in Anthony Giddens's account of the modern nation-state.
That I have thought to ponder at such length over the lives and the influence of two black people is due largely to my growing sense that, in the effort to live meaningfully and decently in America, a white man simply cannot learn all that he needs to know from other American white men. That is because the white man’s experience of this continent has so far been incomplete, partly, perhaps mostly, because he has assigned certain critical aspects of the American experience to people he has considered his racial or social inferiors (77-78).
This division of people takes theological form through the doctrine of salvation.  As J. Kameron Carter has recently demonstrated, a certain kind of soteriology emerges as Christianity accommodates itself to white supremacy.  It is a version of Gnosticism, by which salvation becomes an elevation into the spiritual and intellectual being of whiteness, and the bodily aspects of humanity become relegated to the lower races, be they Jews, blacks, or others.  Scot McKnight has called the Evangelical theological version of this turn "the soterian gospel."  Berry points toward this problem as well, describing the turn to "believing" as the essence of salvation, by which the churches set aside the transformation of a whole person and focus on the mind.
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 (18-19).
Having restructured social goods around abstractions of success, stocks, bureaucracies, paper empires, bank accounts, and such, salvation would seem to be to take joy in not being tied to such material concerns as soil, crops, care of animals, rain and sunshine, drought and flood, famine and plenty.  The wound remains hidden and the wounded do not even know what they have lost.  Not caring whose lesser bodies do the hard work, the model of the executive moves production from this town to a far country, replaces human workers with machines, and produces thousands upon millions of items for consumption without ever having to put hands to the task of making anything.  The achievement comes at the cost of a great, gaping emptiness, a wound that is hidden, that separates people from the beauty, the power, the joy of creation and knowing our place in it.

Berry's agrarian themes emerge as an essential aspect of his arguments.  He draws upon literary works which bring a powerful and distant successful person into relationship with the peasant, the worker, the lowly person.  In all of these works by Thoreau, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Homer, Mark Twain, and Dostoevsky, he examines the way that the person of elevated class gains insight into goodness and joy through conversation, sharing meals, and living alongside those who are deemed inferior.

Trying to understand whiteness from the inside, one faces the challenges and limitations of one's own perspective and formation.  Berry acknowledges that blacks generally know "harsher truths about the whites than the whites have ever admitted to themselves--and the whites know it" (92).  Thus he knows it is dangerous and questionable for him to try to interpret his memories of the life of Nick as a key to understanding what is lost to whites through their assumptions of whiteness (75).

This confession, at the heart of his methodology for the first essay, points toward what emerges as a key idea in his overall analysis.  That is, in the language of Willie Jennings, the appearance of a racialized world and the rise of white supremacy represents a fundamental "disordering of desire" in humanity.  Misdirected, distorted, perverted desire comes to be accepted as the natural desire of human existence.  As Berry often states, the wound is in part the inability to recognize our common humanity.  Jennings says that we have deserted, even lost, the God-given desire to know one another in the beauty of all our differences.  This does not go away simply by acknowledging that blacks and whites can be equals.  The structures of culture and society, that have formed as scar tissue around the hidden wound of white supremacy and black slavery, reach much farther. 

It remains that the understanding of reality and of success means to have the most stuff, to live in abstract relation to the land, and to take care of the hard work and necessities of life by "sending a n-----" to do it (106-07).  Whether it is killing in war, cleaning up trash, monitoring machines that produce, or simply dispossessing the unnecessary people and putting them aside to waste away, the class/race divisions still demand that those at the top "send a n-----" to do it.

These kinds of divisions undermine the possibility of recovering the kind of joy and love intended for human social existence.  They still rank people by false measures and ignore the common need for food, clean air, worthwhile work, shelter, and friendship.  This wound also means that the land and its intricate web of life, unknown to the ones who are at the top and making the decisions that move the lesser beings around the chessboard, is being used up, abused, and thrown away. 

The human link to place, to soil, to everyday needs, to hard work, has been broken.  All momentum is away from those things, which are the very things that give life.  Desiring to be separate from those with whom we are made to share the bounty of creation, and desiring to be unimpeded by the limits of sustaining the land on which we thrive--this is the disordering of desire.  And the wound will not be healed until we learn to desire to know and love one another as persons, and to know our land, our home, and rejoice in its intricate beauty and power to provide for us.

So through several transformations, the inquiry into the nature of the hidden wound of slavery, of white supremacy, entails a longer narrative linked to modernity, to colonialism, to European world domination, to the destruction of the natural world, and to the alienation from creation in humanity, in the land, and in all other existing things.  Berry's inquisitive journey sheds valuable light on the legacy of racism and its continued emanations and productions, the ongoing woundedness that wounds the world.

As for the relevance of the book to my recognition of "hidden wounds" in my history, there certainly are some insights for me to draw from Berry's work in these essays.  First, I have not always recognized the expansive character of the construction of white supremacy that through its creation of an inferior blackness extends to the entirety of creation.  Willie Jennings's work on colonialism in Peru also makes this sort of argument, and the links between race and species extinction and environmental degradation are demonstrable.  My own occupational and self-imposed confinement to an abstracted world shows me to be swept along by this torrent.  Remembering my past fascination and engagement with the details of the world around me, my previous participation in the hard labor of daily existence, pulls me toward a different way of organizing my days.  That's a bigger set of issues that I will not pretend to quickly solve in a paragraph.

Second, observing the complicated and adventurous intellectual work Berry did in these essays speaks to me about the intricacy of the task before me as I seek to understand, describe, and find healing for wounds I have allowed to remain hidden from myself and the world.  The road of progress is itself difficult to find.  It may depend on memories, previously considered irrelevant and even trivial, that must be brought to the foreground and examined in new light.  It may require study of comparable narratives through which to shed light on my own story.  It demands willingness to think outside of the standard ways of telling the past, of my way vs. your way, of simplistic dyads, of comfortable cover stories.  And it probably only happens as I risk to tell and retell the stories in which I live.

No comments:

Baptist Bloggers
Powered By Ringsurf
Christian Peace Bloggers
Powered By Ringsurf