Wendell Berry’s book about American racism, The Hidden Wound, is half-a-century old this year. Politically, culturally, and rhetorically much has changed—and yet much has not. Now discourse about race and racism is, if not less awkward, at least more common. And even though Berry’s personal reflections anticipated many insights of current anti-racism theorists, they do so with an unfamiliar and sadly neglected accent.
Last year, the novelist, critic, and scholar Jess Row included The Hidden Wound in a syllabus, “Reading Whiteness.” Row commends Berry for “describing the psychologically debilitating effects of racism” on racists, and calls the work “an excellent counterpoint to more recent books on racism, poverty, and rural life.” His comparisons—to Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland—highlight the socioeconomic dimension of Berry’s book, but Row’s list implicitly suggests that The Hidden Wound is also a counterpoint to recent models of anti-racist theory.
The concept of “white fragility” popularized by Robin DiAngelo (also on Row’s list) captures a defensiveness and avoidance of culpability for racism on the part of white people. Berry’s book—like the present essay and almost any reflection about racism by a white person—could be interpreted as an expression of white fragility. But such an interpretation would obscure the ways in which Berry intentionally makes himself vulnerable, as well as the ways in which he uses this vulnerability to seek healing, grow stronger, and foster broader social reform. The Hidden Wound could better be considered an exercise in white anti-fragility.
Berry started writing The Hidden Wound late in 1968. Then thirty-four years old, he had already published a collection of poems and two novels. His first book of essays, The Long-Legged House (1969), was forthcoming. He had not yet written The Unsettling of America (1977), the book that would secure his reputation as a major cultural critic. More relevant: Martin Luther King Jr. had recently been assassinated, and three years earlier Berry had left an academic position at New York University (after a fellowship at Stanford and a Guggenheim) to return to farming in Kentucky. Civil rights dominated American attention; in focusing on race, Berry was also trying to articulate a sense of solidarity, connecting his acknowledgment of woundedness with the choice to turn away from dominant standards of success and take up a life close to the soil.
Berry begins The Hidden Wound by reflecting on personal experience, including stories shared in childhood. Learning about his great-grandfather selling an “unmanageable” slave brought home to him the inescapable brutality, the “innate violence,” of slavery. The violence was systemic, and every slave owner complicit. Even a master who did not want to use cruelty had to exercise at least the cruelty of abandonment: selling the slave into cruelty somewhere else.
As Berry notes, many accounts of Southern culture were unable to face this. The oddly nostalgic book Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie used “a poeticized, romanticized, ornamental gentlemanly speech, so inflated with false sentiment as to sail lightly over all discrepancies in logic or in fact, shrugging off what it cannot accommodate, blandly affirming what it cannot shrug off.” Looking for models of honest treatment of race, Berry even found much Christian preaching evasive, and much Christian practice hypocritical.
Berry saw racism as something constructed to protect a sensitivity. He compares racism to Puritanism; the two “have meshed so perfectly in the United States” because both are contrived to insulate uncomfortable lies from being exposed by the uninhibited honesty of childlike candor. They deny something in human nature in order to enforce an oppressive code of behavior.
Chapters four through eight of The Hidden Wound (the only ones included in the 2019 Library of America edition of Berry’s selected essays) recount his memories of neighbors who worked on his father’s farm: Nick Watkins, diligent, loyal, and “possessed of a considerable dignity,” and Aunt Georgie, eccentric and forcefully intelligent, simultaneously superstitious and sane. Aware of the awkwardness of drawing lessons about race relations from his youthful experience of two beloved neighbors, Berry acknowledges the potential for what some today call microaggressions: “[I]n the face of the extreme racial sensitivity of the present time, I can hardly ignore the possibility that my black contemporaries may find some of my assumptions highly objectionable.” What is Berry’s goal in taking this risk, of offending others by recounting his personal attachments?
I am trying to establish the outlines of an understanding of myself in regard to what 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 racisms that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak.
The conditions Berry describes here are now commonly referred to as systemic racism, white privilege, and the curse of implicit bias (not to mention white fragility). It is clear that Berry finds the stain of racism so stubborn that it would be foolish to think anyone can be exempt, individually or collectively, and we should be suspicious of even our attempts to seek healing as themselves deceptive and defensive “reflexes” of racism. In a move that was not yet common, Berry even criticizes “Western individualism,” and the notion of transcending race through art. Racism, he argues, is no less real for being socially constructed, and evasions of racism are themselves a “cultural disease.”
But Berry cannot be suspicious of his own deeply personal experience: he was formed by Nick and Aunt Georgie, and is still formed by his memories of them. In writing this book, he is formed by his ongoing reflection on and renewal of these memories. Berry relates how he invited Nick to his birthday party, and then, realizing that Nick would not be welcome inside with the white guests, stayed outside with him at the cellar wall. The experience awakened in Berry a consciousness of race, in and through a consciousness of others’ consciousness of race. Young Berry had invited Nick and chose solidarity with him, but he sees now that he had also become more conscious of race because he had “scratched the wound of racism.”
In this and other ways Berry credits his black neighbors with his sense of self: Nick and Aunt Georgie are “ancestors” of his mind, “friends and teachers...the forebears of certain essential strains in my thinking.” The emphasis on knowing and ways of knowing is a pervasive theme. For Berry, Nick and Aunt Georgie are models of work ethic, manners, and neighborliness, but most of all habits of intelligence.
Berry learned from them how to use the mind not in acquisitiveness, but in prudent resilience, stoic discipline, and growth through suffering: anti-fragility. Berry says his childhood friendship with two poor black adults helped him appreciate that
what a man most needs is not a knowledge of how to get more, but a knowledge of the most he can do without, and of how to get along without it. The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.
Berry sees racism as more than a historical problem, and feared its larger challenges may yet be ahead: “I am a good deal more grieved by what I am afraid will be the racism of the future than I am about that of the past.” Part of his concern is the tendency to resort to superficial binaries. Among the most visible activists, he notes, “there has been a regrettable tendency to deal with the black man’s past almost exclusively in terms of what I take to be a political oversimplification, which has it that from 1619 to the present the black people in America have been miserable.”
What the oversimplification misses, for Berry, is the ways in which white society is also miserable. Overcoming black oppression, according to Berry, will also involve addressing more general social ills. Thus, for the last third of The Hidden Wound, Berry explores the woundedness of modern American culture as a whole, the diseases of alienation and mechanization in economics, education, marriage, and agriculture, seeking especially to hear the voices of the poor who do not meet mainstream conceptions of respectability and success.
Central here are the themes of economic and social injustice that became the main thread of Berry’s career. He connects racism, along with the exploitation of women, of indigenous peoples, and of poor whites, to our alienation from work and our abuse of land. We might call this agrarian intersectionality:
It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds.
The mundane but, in retrospect, remarkable contribution of Berry’s analysis is that whites, as guilty oppressors, are also victims of their own racism. Whites have withheld responsibility for land, but in so doing they have also deprived themselves of the lessons of working with the land, assigning that work to others as undignified, inferior, menial. It is as if the inequality of power leaves a reverse impression in the soul:
It seems to me that the black people developed the emotional resilience and equilibrium and the culture necessary to endure and even to enjoy hard manual labor wholly aside from the dynamics of ambition.... What we should have learned willingly ourselves we forced the blacks to learn, and so prevented ourselves from learning it.
One might dismiss this as romanticizing rhetoric if Berry’s words were not rooted in both his boyhood experience and his adult commitment to farming as an alternative, non-exploitive model of economic activity. Berry’s return to the land wasn’t symbolic. It was the only choice that could address the central social problem he saw in America, the decline of productive homesteads. In relinquishing the trappings of conventional social and economic success, and submitting to manual labor himself, Berry was putting his skin in the game, personally seeking the virtues he attributed to black Americans.
Berry’s agrarian-distributist vision may seem an odd antidote to racism, but consider the statistics Berry included in the new afterword to the 1989 edition of The Hidden Wound: between 1920 and 1988, the number of black-owned farms in the United States decreased from 916,000, covering 15 million acres, to 30,000, covering only 3 million acres. In Mississippi alone, there had been 164,000 black farmers in 1910; seventy years later there were fewer than 9,000. (According to the 2017 U.S. agriculture census, the number and acreage of black-owned farms has remained about the same over the past forty years.)
Berry does not mention here—or anywhere else, as far as I can tell—James Baldwin, but it is hard to imagine that he had not read Baldwin’s essay, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” first published in the New Yorker in 1962. Although Baldwin’s experience could not be called agrarian, he also traces the pain of racism in America not only to an unjust distribution of power but also to a sense of dispossession, of not having a home and specifically of not having land: “When the white man came to Africa, the white man had the Bible and the African had the land, but now it is the white man who is being, reluctantly and bloodily, separated from the land, and the African who is still attempting to digest or to vomit up the Bible.”
Besides their shared critique of Christian hypocrisy when it comes to race, there are other surprising similarities between Baldwin’s ideas and Berry’s. Above all, they agree that white racism is rooted in a kind of insecurity and moral blindness. In addition to being a grave injustice to black Americans, it is for white Americans a self-inflicted wound—and a far-deeper and persistent wound than many of us realize. Finally, like Baldwin, Berry believed that the imaginative space for healing had to be explored through careful and courageous attention to language.
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.