Wendell Berry’s Reflections on Racism

wendell berry

Wendell Berry

As regular readers of this blog know, many other contributors to it have addressed the subject of racism. Sharon Kyle, LA Progressive publisher, recently mentioned Michelle Alexander’s new book The New Jim Crow, which looks at our mass incarceration of black people as a new form of Jim Crow segregation. In an earlier piece, Sharon wrote about the different views she, a black woman, and a white man once had when discussing Thomas Jefferson. She added that “when talking about race—or specifically about racism—it’s difficult to bridge the gap in understanding that exists between whites and blacks. It’s not impossible but all too often our vastly different experiences lead us to draw conclusions that are hard to reconcile and even harder to dismantle.”

Another contributor, Charles Hayes, a white man, has written, “growing up in the South during the 1940s and ’50s, I had no idea I was internalizing a racist attitude.” As another white man, but one growing up in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, I have only occasionally touched on the subject of racism (see, e.g., here). But a few weeks ago, after watching Bill Moyers interview Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, I became more interested in Berry’s views and wrote briefly about them. Since then I have read his The Hidden Wound, written about racism while he was at Stanford in 1968-69, and a later essay of his on “Racism and the Economy” (1988) which appears in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. In both of these works, he has things to say about racism that seem worthy of consideration. (His essay in slightly altered form also appears as an “Afterword” in the later edition of The Hidden Wound linked to above.)

In relating his thoughts about racism in his book and essay, I do not endorse all that he says. Some may find his use of the word “nigger” offensive, as others have of its use (more than 200 times) by Mark Twain in his Huckleberry Finn, even though neither writer was/is a racist. Regardless of these caveats, Berry’s perspective offers a refreshing otherness, even decades after he first offered it, to the continuing dialogue our country needs to have about race and racism.

What I like most about Berry’s comments on racism is his linking it with a broader perspective on what type of society and culture he thinks the United States should have. More about that later, but first it should be noted that his general view is consistent with most liberal/progressive thinking.

He believes that slavery and racial injustice have done great harm to our country. Although he is mainly concerned with the injustice directed toward blacks, he also writes of that against Native American Indians. He indicates some of the consequences of racial injustice, such as a 40 percent unemployment rate (in 1988) among young blacks in Harlem and many other blacks “working at the most menial jobs.” He cites Martin Luther King, Jr. and refers to Malcolm X as “a man of vision and hope.” He also begins his book with a quote from the latter: “This ‘system’ that the white man created, of teaching Negroes to hide the truth from him behind a facade of grinning, ‘yessir-bossing,’ foot-shuffling and headscratching—that system has done the American white man more harm than an invading army would do to him.” And Berry agrees.

But the uniqueness of his view comes from several factors. One is his own background. Born in Kentucky, some of his ancestors were slave owners. Although Kentucky was not one of the secessionist southern states during the Civil War, Berry grew up quite familiar with many southern myths that defended slavery or minimized its negative impact. He thinks of himself as “being doomed” by his 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 his mind. And he adds, “So I write with the feeling that the truth I may tell [about racism] will not be definitive or objective or even demonstrable, but in the strictest sense subjective, relative to the peculiar self-consciousness of a diseased man struggling towards a cure.”

Coming from the South, he is well equipped to deal with such southern myths as the one that depicted slave-owners as generally treating their slaves kindly. But Berry points out, “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.”

Although a deeply religious man who cherishes his Bible, Berry also criticizes southern Christian churches that “with their strong ties to the pocketbooks of racists” emphasized faith but ignored the unethical behavior implicit in slavery and racism.

Also important regarding his background is his decades-long occupation as not just a prolific writer (of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction), but as a small Kentucky farmer and environmentalist. His love of the land and his agrarianism affect his views on racism in a major way.

One of his major premises, as he explained in his 1988 essay, was that whites enslaved African blacks because they wished “to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything.” Slave-owning whites wanted to feel superior to those who had to toil long hours in the fields. “Racism came about as a justification of slavery after the fact, not as its cause. We decided that blacks were inferior in order to persuade ourselves that it was all right to enslave them.” But for Berry, labor on the land (and the land itself) is precious, not something to be shunned or looked down upon.

What really adds to the uniqueness of his view on racism is his indictment of mainstream American society and culture. As he expresses it:

The problem of race, nevertheless, is generally treated as if it could be solved merely by recruiting more blacks and other racial minorities into colleges and then into high-paying jobs. This is to assume, simply, that we can solve the problems of racial minorities by elevating them to full partnership in the problems of the racial majority. We assume that when a young black person acquires a degree, puts on a suit, and achieves a sit-down job with a corporation, the problem is to that extent solved.

The larger, graver, more dangerous problem, however, is that we have thought of no better way of solving the race problem.

Berry does not believe the answer to the American race problem is fully integrating minorities into mainstream American society because he believes that society is deeply flawed.

In several pages of his book, he lists 10 points that describe the mainstream white society he knew while growing up. They can be summed up as follows: Most rural people wanted to flee the countryside to go to the towns and cities, “to go where the money was to be made.” “Society was conceived as a pyramid. . . . People not at the top envied those above them, despised those below them.” People rushed around seeking (as William James said decades earlier) “the bitch-goddess Success.”  And happiness was equated with it. Things not profitable, like leisure and “pleasure in small profitless things, joy, wonder, ecstasy,” were shunned. “There was no art of living.” Even “knowledge was conceived as a way to get money.” And “the church saving the souls of pagans of other continents in the gleeful imperialism of self-righteousness, functioned locally as a fashion show, moral painkiller, women’s club, soporific.” The white society around him “took for granted: marriage without love; sex without joy; drink without conviviality; birth, celebration, and death without adequate ceremony; faith without doubt or trial; belief without deeds; [and] manners without generosity. . . . This was, and is, a society artificial in the extreme, both in its values and in its appearance.”

To this artificial society Berry contrasts the lives of two black people he admired. One was Nick Watkins, who worked for his grandfather on a farm where the young Wendell spent many hours.  “And against the anxiety and the greed and the haste and the self-doubt of the white man scrambling for the top,” says Berry, “let us place the great serenity and pleasantness of Nick’s mind. . . . He was a man rich in pleasures.” The other was a woman who shared the two-room house of Nick and was known as Aunt Georgie. She was a font of all sorts of knowledge and lore, some of it mysterious and occult, some of it practical, but overall a woman of “great intelligence.” Berry concludes, “Against minds governed by . . . the egotistical impetus and the secure logic of the drive toward success, a mind such as Aunt Georgie’s was a most instructive balance.”

Berry’s contrast reminds one of the contrast perceived by the Senegalese statesman and poet Leopold Senghor and others, who championed the principle of negritude. These individuals believed that Africans were more community oriented, spontaneous, intuitive, creative, spiritual, and in harmony with nature than Western whites, who emphasized individualism, logic, and the scientific-technological mastering of nature.

Just as Senghor did not wish Africans to blindly adopt harmful Western ways, so Berry warns against seeking to solve our racial problems by just integrating minorities into our deeply flawed consumer culture, where power is determined by wealth and we lay waste our environment. “It is increasingly apparent,” he writes “that we cannot value things except by selling them, and that we think it acceptable, indeed respectable, to sell anything.”

Wendell Berry on RacismBerry was especially troubled, he tells us in his essay, when he attended a graduation ceremony at a California university where some of the business graduates, including some who were black, wore “For Sale” signs around their necks. Although the graduates were joking, Berry insists that “in fact, these graduates were for sale, they knew that they were, and they intended to be. They had just spent four years at a university to increase their ‘marketability.’” Regarding the blacks who wore the signs, he asks: “Had their forebears served and suffered and struggled in America for 368 years in order for these now certified and privileged few to sell themselves? Did they not know that only 122 years, two lifetimes, ago, their forebears had worn in effect that very sign? It seemed to me that I was witnessing the tragedy of history that the forgetfulness of history always is—and a tragedy not for blacks alone.”

If Berry does not wish to see blacks and other minorities just become more fully integrated into a corrupt mainstream society, what does he hope to see? His vision, as we see in his 1988 essay, leads back to his agrarianism. Individuals and groups, he believes, need to get back to cherishing land and a sense of community with it and other people, realizing we are all part of something larger than ourselves.

A true and appropriate answer to our race problem, as to many others, would be a restoration of our communities—it being understood that a community, properly speaking, cannot exclude or mistreat any of its members. This is what we forgot during slavery and the industrialization that followed, and have never remembered. A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, and an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members—among them the need to need one another. The answer to the present alignment of political power with wealth is the restoration of the identity of community and economy.

Is this something that the government could help with? Of course it is. Community cannot be made by government prescription and mandate, but the government, in its proper role as promoter of the general welfare, preserver of the public peace, and forbidder of injustice, could do much to promote the improvement of communities. If it wanted to, it could end its collusion with the wealthy and the corporations.  It could stand, as it is supposed to, between wealth and power. It could assure the possibility that a poor person might hold office. It could protect, by strict forbiddings, the disruption of the integrity of a community or a local economy or an ecosystem by any sort of commercial or industrial enterprise.

Today, when most blacks (and whites) live in urban areas and we have more prisoners than farmers in our country, Berry’s emphasis on agrarian values such as reverence for land and emphasis on community may seem abstract and outdated, too far removed from the concrete, everyday problems of race and racism.

But at about the same time that Berry was composing his 1988 essay, a young Barack Obama was also emphasizing the importance of community, as he was close to completing his three years as a community organizer in Chicago. And Martin Luther King, among others, perceived the necessity, as Michelle Alexander has written, of “openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and will reward greed, hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage,” and he ignored “all those who told him to just stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights.” Instead, he “committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order. . . . He said that nothing less than ‘a radical restructuring of society’ could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all.” Alexander herself, after spending the years necessary to complete the book mentioned in this essay’s second sentence, concluded that she needed to broaden her focus to also speak of problems such as “the connections between the corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas, and forecloses on homes with zeal.”

Nor can the environmental concerns that Berry so eloquently voices be ignored by any of us. Failure to adequately address them will endanger us all whatever our skin color.

Beyond writing of the importance that the mentalities that Nick Watkins and Aunt Georgie had to offer him, Berry writes little of the existing and possible future contributions of black culture to American society. Black writers such as Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. are much better prepared to do so, and indeed have done so.

walter moss

Walter Moss

The subject of racism is like the elephant in the fable of the blind men who touched different parts of it and therefore each described it differently. What we should learn from the fable (as I have written elsewhere) is that we all have different experiences and should learn from each other. Berry’s perspective on racism is thus limited, as are all views, but still valuable.

Walter G. Moss

Monday, 28 October 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on October 29, 2013
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About Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm