Wendell Berry is mainly acclaimed for his environmental writings, urging a very Amish kind of labor-intensive, organic agriculture. Over the years I’ve read many of his 50+ books and consider them akin to works of monastic spirituality—models of an exemplary way to live but unfortunately impractical for ordinary folks. Berry has also authored two books pondering the significance of race in American history and culture. The first book, The Hidden Wound (Berkely, CA: Catapult; Kindle Edition), was written in the Stanford University library during the Christmas holiday of 1968-1969 amidst the “civil rights agitation” evident in various meetings on campus, mainly featuring blacks berating whites—“sometimes addressing them by obscene epithets,” to which “the whites cheered and applauded. Speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks were absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement” (p. 110).
Deeply rooted in the soil and history of his native Kentucky, personally knowing and working closely with blacks on his family farm, Berry knew the simplistic “racist” rhetoric of the ‘60s was false and could never resolve the deep divide—the “hidden wound”—troubling this nation. He was both educated and wise enough to know how unhinged rhetoric preceded and help cause the Civil War. So decided to reflect on his memories and think about race without indulging in either pious outrage or affected innocence. He took seriously the advice of Confucius’ The Great Digest: “wanting good government in their own states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts (the tones given off by the heart).” Berry noted that if he only attended to the sufferings of slaves their descendants he would have felt bad for them and thus “highly of myself.” But he also knows that though “white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly” (p. 4). He also knew that while suffering discrimination many blacks lived lives of nobility and joy.
This became evident as he remembered the stories he heard as a boy, for there were still many children of both slaves and slave owners living in northern Kentucky. As an adult Berry now considered “the casualness of this hereditary knowledge of hereditary evil” and it shocked him when he realized its actuality and acknowledged his “complicity in history and in the events of your own life” (p. 6). He thought about the stories, both oral and written, of Bart Jenkins, a slave-seller, that praised him for his heroics in the Confederate army. Berry reflected on the stories of slave owners kindly treating their slaves but realized that “if there was any kindness in slavery it was dependent on the docility of the slaves; any slave who was unwilling to be a slave broke through the myth of paternalism and benevolence, and brought down on himself the violence inherent in the system” (p. 6). He weighed “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” (p. 16).
But Berry also remembered the black people, particularly Nick and Aunt Georgie, to whom he devotes many pages of the book, who “figured large in my experience.” Working with and listening to them, “it was inevitable that we should come to like and even to love some of those black people” (p. 21). They were not in the least “objects of pity, but rather as friends and teachers, ancestors you could say, the forebears of certain essential strains in my thinking” (p. 64). Though they called themselves and were called by whites “colored people,” he always thought about Nick and Aunt Georgie, not that they were “colored. Certainly there was race prejudice, black-white relations were rooted in very particular, and often very affectionate, bonds.
Thus Berry was conflicted by this mixture of guilt and gratitude. He struggled to balance his memories of the blacks he personally knew with the reality of racism in America. For him, he said, it “was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness—the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak” (p. 49). Yet he believed both blacks and whites want to get along, to find ways to “tear away the centuries of hypocrisy and lies, and enfranchise our best hopes” (p. 92). Can it happen? Perhaps, though deep divisions persist.
Reflecting on four episodes in great literary works—Homer’s Odyssey, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace—Berry appropriated their wisdom. “Men are whole,” it seems, “not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. And perhaps most important of all, these four encounters testify that the real healings and renewals in human life occur in individual lives, not in the process of adjusting or changing their abstractions or their institutions” (p. 104). Characters were not touched by political movements but experienced deeply spiritual “metamorphoses” that changed their hearts. “No matter what laws or governments say, men can only know and come to care for one another by meeting face to face, arduously, and by the willing loss of comfort. I believe that the experience of all honest men stands, like these books, against the political fantasy that deep human problems can be satisfactorily solved by legislation” (p. 104).
Indulging in a fanciful, romantic vision of tribal peoples on this continent, Berry suggested that indigenous Americans—Indians—might help us understand how we need to mend our ways. He explored this theme in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture nearly 50 years ago. “That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity—a racial stupidity—that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. Inheriting the cultural growth of thousands of years, they had a responsible sense of living within the creation—which is to say that they had, among much else, an ecological morality—and a complex awareness of the life of their land which we have hardly begun to have. They had a cultural and spiritual whole-ness of which the white and black races have so far had only the divided halves” (p. 107). As a historian who has read and reflected and written on the influence of Indians on America, I must simply say Berry’s views contain some truths and many falsehoods. When writing about blacks and whites in the South he’s an insider; when writing about Indians he’s manifestly an outsider.
Recently evaluating The Hidden Wound, Berry remains persuaded that you cannot separate “the freedom and prosperity of the people” from “the health of the land. “I wrote the book because it seemed to me that the psychic wound of racism had resulted inevitably in wounds in the land, the country itself. I believed then, and I believe more strongly now, that the root of our racial problem in America is not racism. The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior—not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people—but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything—of ourselves, of each other, or of our country” (p. 112). We think of ourselves as free, but it’s only a freedom “to do as we please.” The finer form of freedom, what’s needed to resolve the racial divide, is the freedom “to take care of ourselves and of each other” (p. 129). In fact, we need not more laws and forced integration. We need a moral and spiritual renewal to makes us a better people.
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Five decades after writing on racism in The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry revisited the subject in The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice (Shoemaker & Company, c. 2022; Kindle Edition). The book is more a collection of essays than a systematic treatise, and as always he wants us to see holistically, understanding how whites as well as blacks have suffered as a result of racism, for as Plato realized long ago the person suffering a wrong is harmed physically whereas the person doing the wrong harms his soul. To Berry: “People of some experience and some self-knowledge know that the contest between right and wrong is perennial in the soul of every human, and that right and wrong cannot be geographically divided” (p. 88). He rejects the notion that blacks and whites are radically dissimilar, for that would eliminate the possibility of coming together, understanding and working with one another. We ought never “think with concern of black Americans without eventually thinking also of white Americans, with whom the black Americans share somewhat the same identity, as for example consumers in a consumptive economy, and more than somewhat the same fate—just as it would certainly be wrong to think at any length about white Americans without thinking also of black Americans” (p. 274). “In fact, much that’s gone wrong during the past half-century has been suffered by both races, for in the deepest sense what’s been lost is authentic communities wherein love and forgiveness, families and churches, may be found. The prejudice that most concerns him is not racial prejudice, but the ‘prejudice against community life itself’ ” (p. 13).
As a pacifist Christian, seeking to follow “the teachings of Jesus and of Martin Luther King Jr.” Berry wants to stop the violence of all kinds and to live at peace with all creation. Dr. King “was not thinking of white people as ‘the enemy,’ even though he and his people had to confront the enmity of many white people. It was clear to me that he saw the freedom he sought for black people as a freedom needed also by white people, and I agreed. No freedom could belong securely to any part of the people that did not securely belong to all of them. Dr. King’s movement in this way escaped the specialization that usually afflicts movements. He said, ‘Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.’ This is a version of love uncommonly serious, deliberately a religious, a Christian, version, readily allied to Jefferson’s inspired glimpse of human rights as a divine endowment, as opposed to a gift from the state. This love is not much subject to control or limitation by humans. It was love’s impulse, its self-moving, toward wholeness that moved King from concern for black people to concern for poor people to concern at last for all people, their land and culture. So I have understood him” (p. 47). Berry thinks “there is a law of love operating in this world. If you see the world’s goodness and beauty, and if you love your own place in it (no deed required), then your love itself will be one of your life’s great rewards. That is the law that rules the ‘sticker,’ the settler, the actual patriot. The opposite law is that of greed, which sees the goodness and beauty of the world as wealth and power. It says: Take what you want. No individual person is purely a settler or an exploiter, but perhaps every person must submit to the rule of one law or the other” (p. 51).
Berry’s “a rural American, a writer who by birth and choice is a country person,” and sees things “from ground-level.” He judges “things above the ground by their effect or influence on the ground” and considers “the good care of the land as the highest human obligation, and the good care of the human community as the second highest.” Aldo Leopold’s classic essay “The Land Ethic,” has been a lode star for Berry, and Leopold said “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land.” Reading that, Berry’s “thoughts of the land and the community became one thought.” Rather than conquer others we need to live harmoniously with them, but from “the point of view of the land-community” America is declining because we’ve failed to care for the land. “The country is in decline because the people are not properly using it and caring for it. The people are in decline for the same reason.” To Berry “both the land and the people are unhealthy” and we need to restore them to health. Berry thinks urban liberals who dominate discussion of race relations fail to see how “our race problem is intertangled with our land and land use problem, our farm and forest problem, our water and waterways problem, our food problem, our air problem, our health problem.” Though they talk much and prescribe endless solutions, their focus on equity and diversity and inclusiveness never considers the “land community” so crucial to a people’s well-being. “They don’t know or think about or talk about the rural problems that are the causes or the results of urban problems. This makes a great silence into which this book tries to speak” (p. 26).
He also tries to speak to persons rather than institutions. Prejudice cannot be eliminated by edict. Laws desegregating public places have limited worth. Says Berry: “To understand the limits of the public means of opposing prejudice is to understand as well how limited must be the effectiveness of public protest. I have taken part in quite a few public protests myself, as I have said. But these events seem now to be too much regarded as ‘all we can do.’ Too many of us appear to have decided that all our problems can or should be solved by the government. And so the protesters, like nests of baby birds, look upward and cry out for sustenance from on high. But the government as it now stands is an unlikely mother bird, for it is mainly a flock of caged layers. We certainly do need to protest, but not to the neglect of the small local tasks and projects that, with the help only of ourselves, can make things a little better. John Ruskin said that ‘all effectual advancement towards . . . true felicity of the human race must be by individual, not public effort.’ And before Ruskin, William Blake had written: ‘He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars; “General Good” is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite & flatterer’” (pp. 264-265).
Though not a historian, Berry thinks much about the past and its abiding presence, aware that we cannot escape it even when ignorant of it. He’s particularly concerned with the local history shaping his region, a twenty-mile square section of northern Kentucky. Both sides of his family lived in and around Port Royal, Kentucky, for more than 200 years. Thus he gives attention to his home’s state song—“My Old Kentucky Home”—and thinks it has, despite allusions to slavery, enduring worth. Though Kentucky never joined the Confederacy, many Kentuckians fought for the South and the state suffered considerably during the war, in part because federal troops occupied the state and ruled tyrannically. For instance, a fourth of its horses and a third of its mules were stolen, largely by Union soldiers, severely harming the farmers needing them to survive. The “soldiers and marauders” also destroyed fences, barns, and houses. Staying neutral during the war hardly preserved the state’s residents’ well-being.
Berry also writes wisely about Robert E. Lee and the many monuments memorializing him, seeking to rightly appreciate the man despite his leadership in a war to preserve slavery. We need to remember Lee fought for Virginia, for what Allen Tate said was a “local community which he could not abstract into fragments.” Berry notes that Lee’s “significance for my purpose in this book is that he embodied and suffered, as did no other prominent person of his time, the division between nation and country, nationalism and patriotism, that some of us in rural America are feeling at present” (p. 199). Evaluating an attack on a Lee statue, Berry found “nothing admirable or reassuring in a photograph of comparatively well-fed college boys kicking the pulled-down statue of a Confederate soldier. Why should we not remember the compassion and generosity of General Grant toward just such soldiers at Appomattox?” (p. 188). Following their meeting, Grant and his soldiers raised their hats to Lee as he rode away, and Lee never allowed “anybody in his hearing to speak unkindly of Grant” (p. 232).
Importantly, Confederate generals “were not all alike. After the war, some of them acted in good faith to heal the wound that afflicted—and still afflicts—this nation” (p. 184). Think for a moment about Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s best general. How do you treat a man “who thought slavery immoral, and who never owned a slave, a man ferocious and devout? And what of General P. G. T. Beauregard, who after the war led a biracial political movement in Louisiana?” (p. 210). After the war, Lee sought to be a peace maker, writing: “‘We shall have to be patient, and suffer for a while at least; and all controversy, I think, will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feeling’” (p. 184). There was a grace and forgiveness in Lee sorely lacking in many of today’s militants.
Unlike Lee and Grant, “People who hate all Confederates, it seems to me, are oversimplifying themselves in order to do so. They seem to be war propagandists looking for a war, relishing the division of people into abstract or stereotypic categories of Good and Evil, placing themselves among the Good—the Good, as ever in such divisions, being divested of imagination, sympathy, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and thus another version of evil” (p. 235).
Those tearing down monuments to Southern soldiers see them as “symbols of slavery and racism,” utterly obscuring “a passage of our history that in actuality is hard to understand and, for those with some understanding of it, hard to bear. And this simplifying and obscuring symbolism seems to have enabled, in some of the liberal writing about this issue, an implicit sequence of equations: Confederate soldier = only a defender of slavery = only a racist = only a white supremacist = purely a Nazi or neo-Nazi. And so the verdict of the monument controversy so far is the startling consensus that Robert E. Lee was no more than both sides agree that he was: a Nazi or a proto-Nazi, eligible to be hated by everybody except Nazis. The problem, and it belongs to all of us, is that the story of Robert E. Lee, not the statue but the actual man, is a story inextricably involving love, love of several kinds, all inextricably involving grief. He is one of the great tragic figures of our history, who embodied and suffered in his personal life our national tragedy. As such, he deserves our study and thought. I don’t think we can understand our Civil War and our history since without a competent understanding of the character and the life of Robert E. Lee” (p. 190). Anti-monument zealots operate under “the exceedingly perilous delusion of human perfectability: If we who are perfect, or nearly so, could demolish present evils or present reminders of past evils, then all of us would be perfect” (p. 186). Their determination to pursue “a policy of perpetual, presumably eternal, unforgiveness against many thousands of dead people, the ‘modern-day critics’ have got to be people who are morally perfect” (p. 198). Which, of course, they manifestly are not.
The Need to Be Made Whole continually prods us to broaden the scope of our concerns, for “we need to pay some attention to unprominent prejudices that are merely habits of ordinary life: prejudices, I mean, against farmers, country people, people of small towns, white southerners, white people, white men, men, Kentuckians, Kansans, manual workers, poor people, people who have not attended college” (p. 266). Hillary Clinton, PBS personalities, and New York Times pundits hardly hesitate when discounting the worth of Rural Americans. Such prejudices are as onerous and perverse in their own ways as race prejudice, for they eat away at the actual communities we need. Lauding racial “diversity” the nation’s elites “still freely insult farmers,” who “may now be the most threatened minority among us. It is wrong to rank prejudices as good or bad. All prejudices are of a kind and are allied. They thrive on ignorance, and they belong to human nature” (p. 267). To the extent prejudices percolate through ignorance, learning to know actual persons is the only way to defuse them. “It is love that leads us toward particular knowledge, and it helps us to learn what we need to know. It leads us toward vocation, the work we truly want to do, are born to do, and therefore must learn to do well” (p. 268). What we need is “the hardworking familial and neighborly love that commits itself and hangs on like a hair in a biscuit. This is love that can be enacted, whether or not it is felt. The solutions that this love advocates come from knowing what is right, not for the future, but now and always. Its solutions propose everybody’s good, not spoils to the victors, not victory” (p. 268).
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