Conversations Fifty Years Ago

You think having them today is rough, consider Wendell Berry’s experience:

While at Stanford, Berry witnessed several outdoor meetings called by black students for the purpose of establishing a Black Studies program on campus. In Berry’s recollection, the meetings were what historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has called a “harangue-flagellation” ritual in which the black students condemned the white students and faculty for their racism and the whites in attendance nodded in agreement mixed with occasional applause.[30] In another situation on campus, Berry found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest. When a student in the protest heard Berry ask his companion a question in his Kentucky drawl what was going on, his accent prompted the response, “You damned well better find out!”

Berry thought there was no way for him to speak meaningfully in that context, and so The Hidden Wound is what he would have said had the moment allowed it. He wrote it during the winter break in the Bender Room at Stanford University’s Green Library. The essay was motivated by the feeling that the civil rights milieu at the time was at a stalemate and would stay there if the focus on power eclipsed other possible ends. Though Berry agreed that racism was a moral evil and political problem, he thought the most visible sentiments guiding these events were dangerous. Just as in his writing about agriculture, nature, and land—and in his, “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the University of Kentucky the winter before—he fought abstractions and the separations that oversimplify: of means and ends, of thought and emotion, intentions and actions.

He wrote that the “speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks where absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement.” In his interview with hooks he said more simply: “I thought guilt and anger were the wrong motives for a conversation about race.” People can be more “dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable.” By arguing that power is a necessary part of the discussion, but no more necessary than love, Berry refused the false dichotomy between structure and personal responsibility. During the demonstrations, in contrast, “one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love.”

So why is it that adding Jesus to discussions of racism only heightens a sense of what is deplorable?

Yet, even some activists are willing to listen to Berry:

The Hidden Wound, an extended essay in which Berry traced the grim legacy of slavery and racism in Kentucky, and his family’s role in the perpetuation of these evils, was the result. The book was not widely read on publication in 1970, but it has been granted a second life through republication and the sustained admiration of poet, essayist, and activist bell hooks, another Kentuckian who went to Stanford a decade after Berry and later, partly due to Berry’s influence, returned to Kentucky. Since she returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College in 2004, hooks has been teaching from The Hidden Wound and wrote a sustained reflection on it in Belonging: A Culture of Place. An interview with Berry follows the reflection.

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3 thoughts on “Conversations Fifty Years Ago

  1. My guess is that Berry knew about racism but didn’t understand it. Understanding involves having an intimate knowledge of the context of the charges made against Whites. The same can be said of those who respond to the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ with ‘All Lives Matter.

    Understanding racism in America doesn’t mean one justifies all response to racism. Understanding is the result of having shared experiences.

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  2. Curt, by that standard — an intimate knowledge of the context of the charges made against whites — you don’t understand racism either. No one does other than an African-American LIVING AT THAT TIME.

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