There’s a phrase in a sentence in last week’s “Notes from Home” that hooked in my cheek. I wrote “we need to stop needing racial inequality.” I wondered what I meant by that all week.
It pestered me to pick up my well-worn copy of Wendell Berry’s book The Hidden Wound. Written in the winter of 1968, published twenty years later, it is Berry’s beautiful unwinding of the racist society of rural Kentucky in which he was raised. It’s the book I would recommend to anyone wanting to start unraveling racism from the white side of our nation’s racial divide.
For many years I have been telling people that in this book Berry says racism is the excuse we have contrived to explain why we (white people) have (and deserve to have) land, and you (black, brown, yellow, you-name-it folks) don’t. I have gone back to the book many times trying to find a sentence or paragraph to quote and failed. You know how it is when you’re looking for something… it just won’t show up.
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This time I found it, and it’s a little different than I thought. What he actually says is that “what we now call 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.”
He goes on to say “That this is true is suggested by our present treatment of other social groups to whom we assign the laborious jobs of caretaking.” He then unfolds a huge portfolio of underpaid jobs in America that would have fallen under the heading “[N-word] work.” This category includes the domestic family work that most women have done all their lives. We are now to the point that anyone who does the work of caretaking is automatically considered inferior just for doing it.
In the afterword written in 1988, Berry writes:
“When I wrote The Hidden Wound in 1968… I believed then, and I believe more strongly now, that the root of our racial problem in America is not racism. The root is our inordinate desire to be superior – not to some inferior or subject people – but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything – of ourselves, of each other, or of our country. We did not enslave African blacks because they were black, but because their labor promised to free us of the obligations of stewardship, and because they were unable to prevent us from enslaving them. They were economically valuable and militarily weak.”
Which might explain why the most dangerous thing a black person can do is to look strong, even now.
It’s easy to assign the roots of our present troubles to the bad history of the plantation South. It strikes me as painful that so many of those people still raging to fly the Confederate flag are people for whom few opportunities exist beyond doing our dirty work, serving The Man themselves in some fashion.
But the inordinate desire to be superior to our condition spans all 50 states. I think what I meant last week when I wrote “we need to stop needing racial (or any) inequality” is that we need to step down from that dreadful attempt to rise above our condition, to transcend life on earth standing on someone else’s back.
There will be time enough for heaven – later – if we give up trying to make it here now.
Trudy Wischemann is a neophyte agrarian preacher who writes. You can send her your thoughts on inequality c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
– This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.