it is the silence with which white men in this country have surrounded the anguish implicit in their racism

Wendell Berry in The Hidden Wound:

For whatever reasons, good or bad, 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, and to be augmented and deepened by my life. If I had thought it was only the black people who have suffered from the years of slavery and racism, then I could have dealt fully with the matter long ago; I could have filled myself with pity for them, and would no doubt have enjoyed it a great deal and thought highly of myself. But I am sure it is not so simple as that. If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. 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. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

…There is a peculiar tension in the casualness of this hereditary knowledge of hereditary evil; once it begins to be released, once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and in the events of your own life. The truth keeps leaping on you from behind. For me, that my people had owned slaves once seemed merely a curious fact. Later, I think, I took it to prove that I was somehow special, being thus associated with a historical scandal. It took me a long time, and in fact a good deal of effort, to finally realize that in owning slaves my ancestors assumed limitations and implicated themselves in troubles that have lived on to afflict me—and I still bear that knowledge with a sort of astonishment.

…I feel in the story as it has been told to me a peculiar muteness, which I now know has followed me through all my life; it is the silence with which white men in this country have surrounded the anguish implicit in their racism. The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror.

…I have already said enough, I think, to make clear the profound moral discomfort potential in a society ostensibly Christian and democratic and genteel, but based upon the institutionalized violence of slavery. Though he no doubt represented a minority, Bart Jenkins was not an anomaly in that society; he served one of its designated functions, and his mentality and behavior were therefore characteristic. His fellow citizens had to contend with him as a reflection of something in themselves, and short of attempting to change the society, they had to try to live as painlessly as possible with the harsh truth that he represented. Their solution was to romanticize him. Since he was indelibly a man of violence, the only ideal figure at all close to him was that of the knight, the archetypical “gentleman and soldier.” Once this mythology was accepted, the moral ground could be safely preempted by rhetoric. And so we arrive at the language of Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie—a poeticized, romanticized ornamental gentlemanly speech, so inflated with false sentimerit 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.

If the private language of family memory has conveyed what we know to have been true of ourselves but have not admitted or judged, then the public language of Mosgrove (and many others) conveys what we wish had been true. Between them they define the lack of a critical self-knowledge that would offer the hope of change. This lack is the historical and psychological vacuum in which the Walt Disney version of American history was not only possible but inevitable. To my mind Disney is nothing more than a slicked-out, commercial version of Mosgrove. As a people, we have been tolled farther and farther away from the facts of what we have done by the romanticizers, whose bait is nothing more than the wishful insinuation that we have done no harm. Speaking a public language of propaganda, uninfluenced by the real content of our history which we know only in a deep and guarded privacy, we are still in the throes of the paradox of the “gentleman and soldier.”

However conscious it may have been, there is no doubt in my mind hat all this moral and verbal obfuscation is intentional. Nor do I doubt that its purpose is to shelter us from the moral anguish implicit in our racism—an anguish that began, deep and mute, in the minds of Christian democratic freedom-loving owners of slaves.

Another interesting example of this sort of confusion used as moral insulation is to be found in the very fabric of the liberalism of early Kentucky. Niels Henry Sonne, in Liberal Kentucky, 1780- 1828, points out that the Kentuckians of that time supported all the principles of religious freedom, but gave their most fervid support to that of the separation of church and state. Political power was denied to practicing clergymen by the constitutions of 1792 and 1799, and it was not until 1843 that prayers were permitted to be said on any regular basis at the sessions of the legislature. According to some, one of the immediate reasons for this was “the clergy’s insistence upon attacking the institution of slavery.” And so beneath the public advocacy of the separation of church and state, an essential of religious liberty, we see working a mute anxiety to suppress within the government of the state such admonitory voices as might discomfort the practice of slavery. For separation of church and state, then, read separation of morality and state.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s