Can We Fail Into Restoration?
While standing amidst a crowd in the upper room of the Boulder Bookstore to listen to one author, I caught site of a book by Wendell Berry that I have never seen. Before the title page, I read a quote from Malcolm X:”But I want to tell you something. This pattern, this ‘system’ that the white man created, of teaching Negroes to hide the truth from him behind a façade of grinning, ‘yessir-bossing,’ foot-shuffling and head-scratching - that system has done the American white man more harm than an invading army would do to him.” It draws me to the first chapter in which Berry confesses, ”I have been unwilling until now to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound – a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease…if white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost as been greater perhaps than we can yet know.” So begins Berry’s uncomfortable, poignant navigation of The Hidden Wound.
Why was Berry writing about race, about slavery, about the unaddressed effects of it on the souls of white folks? I thought he told stories of small town farming communities. I thought he wrote essays challenging the urban industrial mindset that neglects the land, fracturing the humanity in Americans.
It’s the wound he’s after. It’s a wound I have mulled over and contemplated, too, as a white male, especially growing up in Texas where Mexicans were derided as easily as a black man is in Alabama. It’s a thing I see even living in a town that prides itself on its liberalism and “progressive-thinking” but is populated by nearly only white people. The liberal approach of making abashed, indirect acknowledgements of racism - a posture that looks more like shameful apology than honest confession, acceptance and healing – doesn’t work. Neither does the more obvious posture of irritated generalizations about “Negroes,” made under breath; the “that was over hundred years ago and can’t they just get over it” kind of statements heard amongst more conservative bents.
The genius of Berry’s book, though, is not just addressing the complicated elephant in the room of every white person’s heart. It is connecting that abstract wound to the very concrete fractured nature of every white person’s striving in the corporate, industrialized world. He goes so far as to question why we think it’s progress if a black man wears a suit and tie in corporate America: “The ‘success’ of the black corporate executive, in fact, only reveals the shallowness, the jeopardy, and falseness of the ‘success’ of the white corporate executive. The ‘success’ is a private and highly questionable settlement that does not solve, indeed does not refer to, the issues associated with American racism. It only assumes that American blacks will be made better or more useful or more secure by becoming as greedy, selfish, wasteful and thoughtless as affluent American whites.”
There is wholeness in Berry’s exploration for an answer. At the beginning of the book he says ” A work of art that grows out of a diseased culture has not only the limits of art but the limits of the disease – if it is not an affirmation of the disease, it is a reaction against it. The art of a man divided within himself and against his neighbors, no matter how sophisticated its techniques or beautiful its form and textures, will never have the communal power of the simplest tribal song.” He sets a precedent, subtle as it may be throughout the writing, that this hidden wound is not just a matter of reversing wrongs, but of addressing a disease that effects every aspect of culture, and thus community. A community is formed out of human beings BEING together healthily. The best art comes out of these spaces, and the best art tends to be a tell-tale sign of the more subtle thrivings in a culture, a visual or audible display of things unseen.
It is in his “Afterword” – written nearly 20 years after the fact – that he draws some of his harshest statements but also his age-earned wisdom that the issue more deeply has to do with our character. ”All the issues I have discussed here are neither political nor economic, but moral and spiritual. What is at issue is our character as a people.” And if we choose not to deal with that, then we will fail. But it is how he says there is the possibility that we will “fail into a restoration of community life,” that gives a new angle of hope. We are humans and by nature fail, but it seems truer still that we tend to fail into restoration. For when we fail, we are finally honest enough to let go the facades and shallow placations that keep us from seeing another human being across the table. It is then that the color of our skin matters in a more authentic sense as it tells a story of our heritage, our culture, and what you or I bring to the table.