Nate Shaw's Voice
Updated: Feb 12
In 1975, Wendell Berry reviewed a book I've never heard of, about a black farmer I've never heard of. His name was Nate Shaw and the book is called All God's Dangers: the Life of Nate Shaw. It was written in 1971 by a fella named Theodore Rosengarten. The review appears in Berry's What Are People For (1990) which I'm working my way through this year.
Nate Shaw was an old man when he was interviewed by Mr. Rosengarten for the book -- in his 80s. Over the course of 120 hours, he shared the story of his life, which began in Alabama in 1885 and traced an ascent from field hand to sharecropper to president of the sharecropper union and owner of an 80-acre farm. In 1933, the law came to foreclose on a neighbor's farm, and Ned (as he was called) rode over to help his neighbor and union brother, believing it his duty.
Shaw's interdiction was unconscionable to white lawmen of the Jim Crow south, intent on taking what they pleased. Thus on that day he was threatened, falsely accused, wounded by gunfire that broke out, arrested and later sentenced to 12 years in prison -- a sentence that he served every day of, despite having been offered a plea bargain that would have commuted the sentence in exchange for his agreement to move to Birmingham.
Nate Shaw was a highly principled person -- an intelligent, industrious and courageous man who sacrificed most of what he was able to gain for himself by standing against racism and economic oppression. You can hear his daughter and granddaughter tell a bit of his story on YouTube here.
Wendell, being Wendell, covers all that biography in, oh, a couple hundred words. It takes another couple thousand for him to drill all the way into what he really wants to say. Which is that Nate Shaw was redoubtably intelligent and that his culture -- both his old farming ways and his vernacular language -- are not just forgotten, but badly misjudged. These themes will surprise no one, especially considering that Shaw, like Berry, was a teamster.
But about Shaw's language, we need pay close attention. For one thing, Shaw was uneducated and illiterate, but his speech, to Berry, evinces a superior intelligence and reason. And in that same manner of speech, Berry hears the antithethis of what we've only recently come to know as the "truth" problem, wherein words have become less reliable as signifiers of common meaning and more the objects of alternative reality creation. In 1975, Wendell had already fingered the fix that would take the rest of us another 45 years to figure out.
Let me try to explain.
In Dr. Iain McGilchrist's right brain/left brain theory described in my last post, the left hemisphere is home to language but more specifically, to the system that makes language possible -- the arrangement of symbols (letters, words, grammer) that re-presents the world of experience. In this way, it's kind of like math -- a system of symbols and rules that is representatively true, and incredibly useful for understanding aspects of the physical world, but not, in and of itself, vital. Though language is born of experience, it only works as a system by abstracting experience. Having a clear set of rules and a universal order is necessary for any system to be comprehensible to all the users of that system. That's the miracle of language, and also its limitation. I write "snowy evening" and you know what I mean, but we've not shared anything of a snowy evening experience in that exchange. When Robert Frost writes "snowy evening," in the context of Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening, we are getting closer to a shared experience thanks to poetics, but we are still locked out of experience by the language itself.
Poets use language to bring us closer to experience, closer to life. But most always, politicians and experts use it to take us farther into abstraction, away from life. So when Buckminster Fuller writes "cutting the metabilical cord," we don't really know what he means at all, but surely we are familiar with his cryptic language: it has always been, and remains, the acoustic of intellectual thought and ideation.
That phrase, "cutting the metabilical cord," is the name of a Bucky Fuller essay from around the same time as All God's Dangers and Berry points to it as an example of speech devoid of meaning. Fuller was writing up a still-familar argument -- that technological progress had unleashed humanity from all tradition and authority, and in just a matter of a few years, the universe would adapt accordingly. The problem with this kind of speech, Berry writes, is that
"It is speech so abstract, so far removed from anybody's experience, that it is virtually out of control; anything can be said in it that the speaker has the foolishness or the audacity to say."
Well well well. Who does this remind you of? What political party? What era but the very one we find ourselves in now? Speech so audacious and so foolish that it's out of control. Speech that's out of bounds. Speech that can mean anything, can excuse anything.
Nate Shaw, we learn, didn't speak like Buckminster Fuller or like anyone we're used to listening to. "He speaks as a man who has seen....His words keep an almost physical hold on 'what I have touched with my hands and what has touched me.' On the black race, for example, Shaw says "My color, the colored race of people on earth, goin to shed theirselves of these slavery ways. But it takes many a trip to the river to get clean." His language, says Berry, is under the disclipline of experience, not of ideas and rules. "Shaw's words, always interposed between intelligence and experience, have the exactitude of conviction, whereas the words of an analyst or theorist can only have the exactitude of definition."
"Conviction vs. definition" is a perfect of example of how Wendell Berry writes and thinks in a McGilchristian way.
Conviction is belief -- firmly held, but never provable. That's the domain of our right hemisphere, which engages with life as it is, and so includes the limitation of never being able to fully know it. Definition is man-made delineation. That's our left brain working. It separates everything it can, so to delineate and define. It's useful, but only insofar as a theory or a model is useful.
Berry wants us to understand Nate Shaw and to do that, we have to appreciate Nate Shaw's language -- not what it denotes linguistically, but how it reveals a certain kind of truth about men and about life. The Nate Shaw's of history, and of our current time, are not seen (or heard, rather), because their speech comes across as naive, ignorant, insipid or tasteless. This is perfectly wrong. In this review, Wendell is is helping us hear how well Shaw speaks; how poetically he is able to say what he thinks; how moral and practical that thinking is; and how responsible his speech is, reflecting as it does what the man has done, and not what the man claims.
Wendell seems to be at pains to show us something more than Nate Shaw's heroic stand for justice; he wants to show us what a man of integrity sounds like. It's a sound completely unlike what we're used to hearing. In this, yes, Berry is idiosyncratic, lifting one kind of intelligence above many others, which I reckon, if asked, he would acknowledge.
But let's put this all in a 2021 context. Wendell Berry, in this review, is saying something we desperately need to remember: Truth is not necessarily found in the speech of others, but it's important to listen for it there nevertheless. Because the authentic voice of human experience speaks truths that can be discovered through no other means. Speech that describes what a person has done, where a person has been, who a person has known -- this the voice of truth, no matter how parochial, or hick or unartful it may sound. This is Nate Shaw's voice. The voice of the farmer, for example. Of the poor. Of the ex-con. Of black people. Of the oppressed.
Nate Shaw lives among us still. We need to hear his voice now, and to hear it like never before.