As we attend today to Berry’s language, it is surprising how little is genuinely new in recent theorizations of race and racism. As we have seen, Berry characterizes racism as unconscious and inculturated; as hidden and perpetuated by silences, avoidances, and anxieties; as systemic; as connected to other forms of oppression; and as a matter of economic injustice. In short, Berry’s treatment of racism encompasses all the elements of anti-racist theory trending under new terminology: implicit bias, social construction, white fragility, structural racism, intersectionality, white supremacy.
And yet Berry’s distinctive understanding of racism as a wound seems incommensurate with this new authorized discourse. Why? There is a clue in Berry’s appeal to literature. Berry selects various passages from classic literature to illuminate the insight that material divisions implicate something more personal. His chosen literary scenes
are written out of the awareness that divisions of class or race within a society are not superficial, but have the most profound spiritual effect both on the society and on the individuals in it. The writers say or imply that men on both sides of these divisions suffer because of them, and that only in the healing of the divisions are they made whole.
The lessons of literature are interpersonal: they are spiritual encounters, in the absence of which any institutional change will likely be superficial.
I believe that the experience of all honest men stands...against the political fantasy that deep human problems can be satisfactorily solved by legislation. On the contrary, it is likely that the best and least oppressive laws come as the 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 or manifestation of their lives—politics or economics or technology—promises no solution, but only an unlimited growth of the public apparatus.
The only escape from oppressive impersonal systems is personal knowledge, including personal knowledge of embodied community, of place. “It is not out of the abstract ministrations of priests and teachers from outside the immediate life of a place that the ceremonies of atonement with the creation arise, but out of the thousand small acts repeated year after year and generation after generation, by which men relate to their soil.” For Berry, the mode of healing is incarnational, communal, even liturgical.
There are lessons here for today’s race-awareness advocates, as well as for their critics. Berry insists that racism is a serious problem, and that it must be discussed; but the abstract ministrations of pundits, sensitivity trainers, and fragility consultants, no matter how well-intentioned, often fail because, coming from outside, they do not participate in the ongoing life of a particular place. The healing steps Berry advocates can’t be captured in a campaign or a tweet, much less in a human-resources certification module.
This may explain the irony that a modern classic of American reflection on racism, which specifically calls for honest discussion, barely registers in mainstream discourse of race, neither in the literature of anti-racism and whiteness, nor in attempts to critique such literature on ideological grounds. The Hidden Wound is a reproach to those who don’t take the persistent pain of racism seriously; but it is also an implicit indictment of a corporate industry of “anti-racist” programming.
The few who do engage Berry often misunderstand him. A 1999 paper by Debian Marty, cited more often than The Hidden Wound itself, argues that Berry uses the mode of apologia to “defend himself” and “defend white racial privilege” and “reject responsibility for racism.” There is much to learn from Marty’s analysis, but mainly lessons in deconstructive reading and misdirection. The Hidden Wound is not beyond criticism, but to read it as a defense of white supremacy is to misread it completely.
Marty’s rhetorical analysis makes a category mistake right from the start. In structure, tone, and argument, The Hidden Wound is not an apologia: it is a lament, a confession, and an exercise in atonement. The original publisher selected this passage for the front of the dust jacket: “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 that wound into himself.... I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured.” And on the inside flap: “I should write something of my history as a white man, the sense of my whiteness forming out of and in the presence of black people.... I will undertake to correct myself.”
The Hidden Wound is part memoir and part argument, but these serve the primary goal: to acknowledge and understand a failure, and to seek repair. Its purpose is not to defend Berry or his inherited privilege, but to call attention to personal and cultural pain, and to imagine a healing only possible through deeper understanding. There are also elements of thanksgiving—especially to Nick and Aunt Georgie—for intellectual and spiritual formation. By offering that humble and pious gratitude, Berry makes himself vulnerable and acknowledges his racist ancestors, his own racist past, and his ongoing complicity in racist systems.
As far as I can tell, our most prominent white anti-racism speakers and writers, such as Tim Wise, Debby Irving, Jim Wallis, and Robin DiAngelo, have never engaged with Berry’s work, despite the fact that it anticipates so many of their ideas. Yet The Hidden Wound has not been totally ignored by anti-racist thinkers. It is hard to imagine a more enthusiastic and insightful reception than that by the African-American author and social activist Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pen name is bell hooks. Her essay collection Belonging: A Culture of Place (2008) includes “Returning to the Wound,” which draws on her many years of teaching Berry’s book. This is followed by “Healing Talk,” the record of a conversation between her and Berry at his farm.
As a writer with her own agrarian roots who spent time at Stanford and returned to Kentucky, hooks has much in common with Berry. Early on she found that reading his work helped her “enter that space where words renew the spirit and make it possible for one to hold onto life.” Her appreciation helps us notice that it is precisely the spiritual perspective that makes Berry’s treatment of racism as a “disorder of the heart” so radical—and so orthogonal to the most prominent public back-and-forth about race. I have not seen a better, more sympathetic response to Berry’s argument about the connection between racism and the contempt for labor than hooks’s comments to Berry on redemptive suffering:
Most people imagine that black folks working the land were just victims, working for little and living a starvation life. We both know that the life of a small farmer can be terribly hard. What outsiders rarely see is the spiritual reward — the power of redemptive suffering. When you live in a capitalist culture that tells you all forms of suffering is bad (take this pill, this shot, have this operation, make the pain go away), then you lose the mystery and magic of redemptive suffering.
The affectionate conversation between hooks and Berry perfectly exhibits Berry’s emphasis on the concrete and personal over the abstract and institutional; land and labor and harvest over money and status and power.
What if Berry is right, that racism is the epithelial layer of a deeper wound, that a more primal human tendency to exploitation is the cause of racism, not the effect? Then to heal racism, we must address exploitation, and to address exploitation, we must recognize our common humanity—not in the abstract, but in concrete relations of mutual dependence and care. This doesn’t mean ignoring race, but it does mean finding an awareness of shared experience in and through our awareness of difference. It means accepting the humanity of the other as a contribution to one’s own humanity:
Empowered by technology, the abstractions of the white man’s domination of the continent threaten now to annihilate the specific characteristics of all races, virtues and vices alike, absorbing them as neutral components into a machine society. It is, then, not simply a question of black power or white power, but of how meaningfully to reenfranchise human power. This, as I think Martin Luther King understood, is the real point, the real gift to America, of the struggle of the black people. In accepting the humanity of the black race, the white race will not be giving accommodation to an alien people; it will be receiving into itself half of its own experience, vital and indispensable to it, which it has so far denied at great cost.
In my reading, this uncommodifiable aspiration is absent from the most common treatments of whiteness and anti-racism. It was shared by hooks, and I find something akin to it in other theorizations of blackness. Philosopher Tommy Curry has recently advocated “black humanity studies.” “Blackness,” Curry says, “is humanity unrealized.”
[I]t’s the version of humanity that humanizes what rational man was. Because it’s compassionate, it’s built from the wretchedness of all of experience, it survives, and it’s resilient. Blackness is the human possible; the human that’s possible.
Curry and hooks both seem to approach, by paths somewhat different from Berry’s, the same territory, like a clearing in the forest: a welcoming space of shared self-knowledge. Here is Berry, describing blackness as something that needs to be recognized and received as a gift:
Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us—and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them.
Interviewed last year, Berry said he was at work on another book about race. One wonders if, in light of the volatility of recent reactions and counter-reactions to racially charged events, he would still feel welcome venturing again into the public conversation about this subject. Another lesson of The Hidden Wound is that honest discussion of race is a risk, but a necessary one. The tragedy is that such discussion builds exactly what it needs to sustain itself, exactly what so many today feel they lack: organic communities where people feel a strong enough sense of belonging that honest differences can be discussed. As bell hooks understood, “returning to the wound” requires “healing talk,” which presumes “a culture of place.” For how much longer can we expect that even a farmer’s porch or a professor’s classroom might remain places for such earnest and vulnerable interpersonal encounters?
Berry ended his 1989 afterword with characteristic hopefulness, mixed with humility about what can be known about the future:
We must be aware too of the certainty that the present way of things will eventually fail. If it fails quickly, by any of several predicted causes, then we will have no need, being absent, to worry about what to do next. If it fails slowly, and if we have been careful to preserve the most necessary and valuable things, then it may fail into a restoration of community life—that is, into understanding of our need to help and comfort each other.
We have been failing slowly, and now perhaps we are failing quickly. In the midst of great pain, we can be blinded to sources of insight, especially when long ignoring that insight is part of the cause of our pain. Even so, fifty years after it first appeared, The Hidden Wound risks the kind of speech needed for healing, and offers a vision for community restored.