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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Place, Race and Disgrace

One might surmise that a fiction writer wouldn’t get very far in his craft without a healthy imagination. Wendell Berry has been spinning tales about make-believe Port William for more than fifty years now, conjuring people and events from the wisps of his fertile mind.

Berry talks about imagination a lot. In reading him so closely, I’ve discovered that imagination is one of the steel cables that suspend many of his core ideas and values. The Berry book I’m working through now is Imagination in Place, and the essay I’m contemplating is American Imagination and the Civil War. It’s in that essay that Wendell explains what he means by imagination. It’s not what you think.

“By ‘imagination’ I do not mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of one’s enemy.”

Imagination, Berry concludes from studying Coleridge, Blake, and the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams, is not a passive reflection of “reality.” It is, Berry writes, “a changing force.” How so? By functioning in the human being as the catalytic converter between what’s seen and experienced, and what’s felt to be real. It’s our imagination, therefore, that prefigures what we love and sometimes value.

“Imagination in this high sense shatters the frameworks of realism in the arts and empiricism in the sciences. It does so by placing the world and its creatures within a context of sanctity in which their worth is absolute and insoluble.”

Those two sentences are important to get, for they transverse the whole of a Berryist metaphysics, such as might exist. What he is saying, I think, is that we can’t objectively know anything that we don’t experience firsthand, and even then, will we only know what we know in part. The best we can do, and what we must do, is to imagine the life of the other. In so doing, though we won’t know the place, person or thing considered perfectly, we will know that we don’t know. Thus do we avoid hubris. Thus do we avoid mistakenly confusing our limited knowledge with god’s omniscience.

Let’s call this idea particularity. It’s a very different way of looking at things, in essence dropping all effort to notice common qualities or categorical similarities in favor of seeing all things in their irreducible uniqueness. For example the biological universe is replete with unique, singular events occurring all the time and everywhere. A particularizing mind, aware of this fact, should be more capable of imagining the interior life and worth of a blue jay, oak leaf, field hand or farm, when such a thing is come upon.

This same idea is what warrants the standing that humans have given one another in our legal system. It is precisely because people and events are particularly unique that we’ve fashioned a justice system (supposedly) predicated on the right of each and every person, and their case, to be heard before the law. The quality of mercy arises from the particularizing force of imagination, or so believes Wendell Berry.

These are the ideas spun through his Civil War essay, and they must be comprehended to understand how Wendell Berry identifies with his southern heritage, including his descent from slave-owning ancestors, and why he feels the Civil War marks the starting point in a curse of generalized bias that persists to this day.

For Mr. Berry, the original sin of sloppy and dangerous thinking is the conceptual process we call abstraction. And in his takedown of the tragedy of the Civil War – its lead-up and its legacy, he sees abstraction, the opposite of imagination, as everywhere to blame.

The notion of a region of the country called the “South,” and people called “Southerners,” he claims, “belong sometimes to a taxonomy of clichés, stereotypes and prejudices that have intruded between ourselves and our actual country.” Generalization is one way of making sense, to be sure. Scientists and historians work from their knowledge toward generalities “as must we all.”

But this way of thinking is monocular: without the countervailing force of particularizing imagination, he says, generalization, no matter how precise, is dehumanizing and destructive. So the “South,” for Berry, is a concept of little use, now and then. It is and was a region of many regions, just as Kentucky is a place of many places. Berry’s neighbors, he says, “don’t look like Southerners or Kentuckians…they look like themselves.”

Armies too are abstractions. Wars may be fought by them in theory, but they are fought by boys and men in particular – and in particular, many end up dead boys and men. Having fallen, Berry argues, soldiers are “conscripted again into abstraction by political leaders and governments…made hostages of policy to sanctify the acts and intentions of their side.” Berry eschews the currency of statisticians who might render the suffering of the war in numbers of lives lost, for the photographs of Matthew Brady which more effectively transfigure this suffering into our imagination, thereby giving it status in our consciousness and in our hearts. “To me the dead in Matthew Brady’s photographs don’t look like Unionists or Confederates; they look like dead boys, once uniquely themselves, undiminished by whatever half of the national quarrel they died for.”

You can see now how Wendell Berry looks at the world, or more precisely, how he wants the world to look. If we would only end our congenital American hypnosis and begin to see the particular, honor the local and defer to the wisdom of those closest to the ground, then through the force of imagination might we end our violent and usurping occupations. Even the Civil War could have been averted, he surmises, had only Americans of that time not succumbed to the “slur and blur” of generalities and abstract biases.

It’s a compelling case and I probably would buy it whole cloth had I not just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a haunting book that has caused me to ask a hard question about Wendell Berry. How, with his monumental power of imagination and insistence on taking truth from particulars, has he seemed to miss entirely the particularly harrowing plight of black people? For as much as Mr. Berry is correct that fanaticism, sectional loyalty and pride and hatred, self-righteousness and the wish to protect one’s faults from the corrections of others all contributed to the declaration of war, he invites questioning for his light treatment of the one cause that inflamed all these others: slavery.

As an intellectual and agrarian from a southern state, with a familial history in that state as old as the slave trade there, it’s notable that Berry has had so little to say on race. In the Civil War essay, he includes few paragraphs about his growing up in a segregated place and time. His angle will be familiar to you now.

Yes, he says, his upbringing in Henry County, Kentucky was impaired by racial segregation, but that phrase “now has only the currency of an abstraction…segregation itself can only be experienced in particular.” And in particular, though segregation involved the “wicked prejudice on which it was based,” he recalls that it also involved much familiarity and many exceptions. Without wanting to make Wendell Berry into an apologist for racial bigotry which I am sure he is not, I do want to cast a light on the quote that follows:

Racial inequality was a theory that performed its customary disservices and sometimes justified horrors, but that theory was inevitably qualified by the daily life in which the two races were separate only to an extent. In those places, the history of segregation was lived out familiarly by black and white people who knew one another, told stories about one another to one another, helped or harmed one another, liked or disliked one another, and often worked together.

Here and elsewhere in the essay, I find myself wincing a little from familiarity (i.e. sounds vaguely like my experience too) and a little from insensitivity. This recollection rings a familiar and discordant note of separate-but-equal, made shriller by his insistence everywhere else on the “absolute and insoluble sanctity” of the world and all its creatures. Isn’t the premise and promise of his “imaginative particularity” the attendant mercy and sympathy due to everyone and everything? When it comes to black people and the path to war in 1861, in Mr. Berry’s analysis, their particular experience just doesn’t rise (or sink, rather), to the appropriate tableau.

Over and again Berry urges us beyond the rhetoric – to comprehend how the war resulted from a lack of lenity (i.e. lenience, gentleness, mercy) between the sides. “Why,” he asks, “could both sides not have treated slavery as a problem with a practical solution short of war?” Like Edmund Burke, the English parliamentarian who believed that the American Revolution (a civil war from the British perspective) could have been avoided through reconciliation on just terms, or amicable separation, Berry holds that the short supply of lenity between the north and south is what ultimately guaranteed the spilling of blood. Naïve or not, what’s telling here is Wendell back-casting for a peace that could have been made between the combatants. Not one that could have made between the races. On that he’s silent.

It stands to reason, given his life’s work, that the fact and fate of black slaves would preoccupy Berry less than the industrial domination foretold by the North’s victory. However when he notes that the great advantage of the war’s aftermath was not to the “ex-slaves, farmers or small tradesmen of either side…but to the Main Chancers, the Manifest Destinarians, the railroads, the timber and mineral companies,” he is not wrong, but neither is he correct. Only indentured blacks -- not farmers, small tradesmen or any other group -- had their labor stolen from them, their bodies raped and tortured, their husbands, wives and children stolen and murdered. To miss this point is to reveal a bias, or an unawareness.

Or perhaps a racism of a very subtle kind.

Coates also wrote about the Civil War in an essay entitled “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” The answer is because the Civil War's legacy in America is white. The story of the war – how it’s taught, remembered, reenacted and reified, is not for black people nor is it fundamentally about their emancipation from white bondage. It is instead a legacy that seeks to reconcile white Americans to one another, who have required and still do, the atonement of guilt and disgrace through an ennobling story of failed compromise and individual gallantry. Wendell Berry’s mournful reconstruction is the version you get from a peacemaker and pragmatist. But it’s still the white version of the story, in the main.

From the black point of view, the slaves of the mid-1800’s knew they were in a war that began in the mid-1600’s when the Virginia Colony began passing the first black codes that rendered blacks a permanent servile class. Black people in the southern states behaved like a people at war, and so did whites. Slaves tried to escape; they fled to the British; they murdered slave-catchers and, less explosively, broke tools; refused to work; and furtively, where possible, taught themselves to read. Meanwhile a police state apparatus had come to define Mississippi and South Carolina where by 1860, slave patrols roamed the streets and a majority of people living there required travel passes.

Berry, a white southerner and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a black man from Baltimore, each have an ax to grind with the American narrative broadly told. Berry is a defender of the parochial, a champion of small places and common people in all their particularity not because they are small and common, but because he understands that in the fullness of imagination, smallness and commonality recede into meaninglessness. In terms of power, however, it’s another story. Up against governments, corporations and universities which cannot exercise imagination, the common man is necessarily demeaned and objectified as a subject -- either of the state or the economy.

Or, if he’s black, as a subject of white people or white institutions, though Berry fails to make that point.

Coates recognizes, in a way that Wendell Berry cannot, that the American narrative of abuse and neglect will be inadequate and incomplete until it speaks the truth about American racism – specifically white racism against black people. Which means that it hasn’t been fully told yet, not by Wendell Berry nor anyone. Black people don’t study the Civil War for the same reason that they don’t study American history much; their role in it, according to Coates, is a problem. The black point of view is neither recorded nor represented very well if at all, and until black people themselves take up the burden of moving “past protest to production,” says Coates, so will the erasure continue. Theirs is a story to be told, however, and Coates ends his essay with the hope that black people will choose to shoulder the most terrible burden of all, “the burden of summoning our own departed hands so that they too might leave a mark.”

At the close of his piece, Berry also turns to storytelling, summoning his friend and fellow writer Earnest Gaines, who, as a black southerner “inherited the harder side of racial history.” Could Gaines, Berry wonders, imagine a fictional place like Port William -- or Port Royal for that matter – Berry’s real life hometown where blacks and whites were separate but not really, and more conjoined by place than segregated by race. Because that’s the thesis that Wendell Berry is so keen to prove; that our imaginative faculty can remake history into a chronicle of mercy, dignity and beauty, even in the mind and hands of a black man from the south. And Berry’s esteem for Gaines’ imaginative prowess is unabashedly admiring. Wendell commends Gaines as an author true to his place, his people and their story. “He has shown that the local, fully imagined, becomes universal. He has brought his place and his people to such a pitch of realization again and again that as I read him, he seems to speak also for me and mine.”

To illustrate, Berry ends by recounting a passage of Gaines’ fiction in which an angry young black man named Billy, just back from Vietnam, rants in fury at the ruination of his home town by industrial machines and disinvestment. “And I am caught,” says Wendell. “I see Billy and I are joined by a mutual sense of calamity and loss…He has spoken from grief felt by many rural Americans, of whatever race, and certainly by me.” Billy’s embittered response to abuse and injustice is understandable, Wendell says. But so too is Earnest Gaines’, and his own, which are not despairing but instead are responses filled with work, hope and love.

It’s nice as far as it goes. I understand and even share the Christian impulse toward redemption through hope and love. But only by holding up Ta-Nehisi Coates to Wendell Berry can you make out the wishfulness and dis-grace (and whiteness) embedded in this conclusion. Grief “of whatever race” may indeed be universal. But the grief of black Americans, brought here against their will and confined in an array of psuedo-legalized captivity schemes, is an anguish so particular, so specific, that to generalize about it is to rationalize it. That Wendell Berry -- destroyer of the abstraction, slayer of the generality – would fail to appreciate this, demonstrates all too well our miscarried racial reconciliation, and the insidiousness of our sightlessness.

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