Monday, March 10, 2008

what we don't see

i've gotten hold of ryan's copy of wendell berry's "andy catlett."  in this work of fiction, berry recounts a childhood like his own.  it is a sweet remembrance and a delightful read.  it is set in the period of world war II.  in it, a nine year old boy relishes a trip to his grandparents' farm and his relationships with the farm hands.  in one conversation the boy has with the wife (sarah jane) of a beloved black worker (dick), berry gives us a moving and eloquently forceful reflection about issues of race:

"but not everything she told me came from the realm of wonder.  she also spoke that day, as she often did, of the rights that her people had been promised but had never been given.  she was my first preceptor in the matters of race and civil rights.  because i always listened attentively to her, everything she said struck in.  she made me feel responsible, for i knew, as she required me to know, that i was a product of my culture; but i felt it vaguely, for i could not precisely locate in myself the cause of the injury.  i had no ill will toward her or dick, or in fact toward any of the black people i knew, and besides, if i were greatly to blame, why was she so nice to me?

both the sense of responsibility and the perhaps necessary vagueness have stayed with me until now.  starting probably with those conversations so long ago with aunt sarah jane, i have learned to understand the old structure of racism as a malevolent convention, the malevolence of which is hard to locate in the conscious intentions of most people.  it was a circumstance that was mostly taken for granted.  it was inexcusable, and yet we had the formidable excuse of being used to it.  it was an injustice both accommodated and varyingly obscured not only by daily custom, but also by the exigencies and preoccupations of daily life.  we left the issue alone, not exactly by ignoring it, but by observing an elaborate etiquette that permitted us to ignore it.  white people who wished to think well of themselves did not use the language of racial insult in front of black people.  but the problem for us white people, as we had finally to understand, was that we could not be selectively complicit.  to be complicit at all, even thoughtlessly by custom, was to be complicit in the whole extent and reach of the injustice.  it is hard for a customary indifference to unstick itself from the abominations to which it tacitly consents.  but we were used to it.  what is hardest to get used to maybe, once you are aware, is the range of things humans are able to get used to."

i think these words of art capture a bit of the magnitude of unreconciled differences between races, the unacknowledged power within society and the gap that stands, even today, between comprehension and action.  as i begin to contemplate the gospel work of reconciliation in our neighborhood, this passage brings me painful humility (and humiliation).  it also demonstrates wendell berry's almost unending capacity for the prophetic.


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