By Robert F. Hull Jr.
The Hidden Wound is a wonderful book by Wendell Berry.1 It’s really an extended essay he wrote in 1969 during a fellowship at Stanford University. The reflections in the book were touched off by protests going on around him during the racial unrest of that era. He came to realize his family and community in rural Kentucky had inflicted a wound on him, hidden until he became old enough and experienced enough to give that wound a name. And then he knew that the wound was called racism.
His parents and grandparents were not bad people. They did not ride with the Ku Klux Klan or openly insult black people. They simply treated them as an underclass; they hired them for menial labor, and they called that labor “nigger work.”
Neither Berry nor his family entertained the possibility that Nick Watkins, who lived on the place and could work livestock with the best of them, had the same intellectual capacity as they did and largely cherished the same desires: to have a place of his own, and a family of his own, and to be able to go where he wanted, when he wanted.
As a child, Wendell Berry had loved Nick Watkins and held his hand as Nick walked with him across the fields and taught him the lore of things wonderful and mysterious—plants and animals and, especially, fox hunting. When Wendell was preparing to celebrate his 10th birthday, he wrote out an invitation for Nick. But then he could not understand why, during the party, Nick had not been able to come into the house. Wendell had gone out and sat with him on the garden wall. Now, in his 35th year, Wendell Berry was writing a lengthy essay about the wound that had been so subtly, but so painfully, inflicted upon him.
Reading this book unleashed a flood of memories for me.
I was 11 when the Supreme Court struck down the state laws that enforced racial segregation in public schools. Slowly, one grade at a time, my school began to desegregate. I was in the seventh grade when the first little African-American children, first-graders, got off the school bus at the bottom of the hill. Through the open windows of my classroom, we could hear the angry chant, “Two, four, six, eight; we don’t want to integrate!”
Well, of course, the school did integrate, although they were only up through the sixth grade by the time I graduated.
Like the Berry family, ours has no rabid racists. My father used to joke that inside a coal mine everybody”s face was black. In fact, the coal-mining counties of West Virginia were choice destinations for what we usually called colored people, who moved up from the deep South for better wages. The state legislature even levied a tax on coal to fund educational services in both white and black schools, and the schools were probably the best in Appalachia.
So I did not grow up with a hatred for African-Americans. I did not inherit a hard bigotry; but I did inherit a soft bigotry—the kind that felt black people were all right in their places, but their places were farther up the hollow in the shantytowns of the coalcamps, and away from the main roads.
When a prominent black woman, a preacher, and mother of one of our students, stood in the pulpit at Emmanuel School of Religion and told us that she was a freshman at Shaw University in North Carolina when the civil rights movement really took off, I had an almost visceral reaction. I realized that only one year later I was a freshman at Milligan College. She and I are contemporaries; but I was on the wrong side of most of what was happening.
When the Greensboro boys staged their famous sit-down at the lunch counter, I thought they were just troublemakers. Of course, I knew it was wrong that they were being refused service at that lunch counter. But I thought they ought to just be patient and wait for state laws in the South to catch up with those of the North.
When I saw TV coverage of white college students and ministers from Boston and New York riding school buses down South and marching arm-in-arm with students from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham and Montgomery, I thought they were just “rabble-rousers and carpetbaggers.” Why didn’t they stay at home, where they belonged, and leave Alabama and Mississippi to work out their racial problems themselves?
Like Berry, I had been deeply wounded by the unstated, but omnipresent, racism all around me as I grew up.
The most painful memory that came back to me after reading Berry’s book was of an incident at Milligan College during the mid-1960s, when there were no black students on campus. The decision was made to have an entertainment built around the concept of a minstrel show, a show in which I appeared, sitting on a bale of straw and singing—in blackface. The fact that I have never before told this story in public is a measure of how deeply, how humiliatingly, the wound has cut.
I had forgotten about that incident, perhaps deliberately, until my wife, Loretta, discovered an old program tucked away in a Milligan annual. I remarked to her that if I had gone into politics and run for high public office, that program would have buried me. Some enterprising investigative reporter doing a deep background check would have sniffed it out and written an article telling the world, “Bob Hull is a racist. In 1963 he appeared on stage in blackface.”
We cannot purge our pasts. As Frederick Buechner reminds us:
We cannot undo our old mistakes or their consequences any more than we can erase old wounds that we have both suffered and inflicted, but through the power that memory gives us of thinking, feeling, imagining our way back through time we can at long last finally finish with the past in the sense of removing its power to hurt us and other people and to stunt our growth as human beings.2
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful message in history. The forgiveness that God extends to us through the death of Jesus is a medicine to the heart that has wounded, and been wounded, by racism.
There is no more astonishing testimony to the power of the gospel than this: Thousands of black Africans were bought and sold by people calling themselves Christians, and those black Africans still managed to hear and believe the gospel. Every year the master could send his white preacher down to the slave cabins to preach from those texts that tell slaves to be obedient to their masters, as to the Lord. And when the white preacher would leave, those slaves would have their own worship services and still manage to hear the gospel.
Thank God the table of the Lord is a healing table. Through the years God has brought me together with all sorts of people around the Communion table. Here I have found African-American brothers and sisters. The saying is true, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. It is cause for hope that some of our inner-city congregations are now truly integrated, with a half-dozen racial and ethnic groups represented.
But even in places where there is very little racial diversity, our hearts need to embrace our black brothers and sisters in Christ and our hands need to join with them at every opportunity to break the bread and drink the cup that brings peace and forgiveness to our souls and healing to the wounds of the body of Christ.
1Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound (New York: North Point Press, 1989).
2Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 32.
Robert Hull is dean and professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee. This essay is adapted from a Communion meditation he delivered at the school, February 4, 2005.