Covering Our Nakedness With Lament

First posted in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

In his little book about race, The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry grapples with his history as a member of a southern land-owning family and how his racial whiteness impacts him in ways he’d previously been oblivious to. He’s willing himself to wake up. “What I had done caused my mind to be thrown back forcibly upon its sources: my home countryside, my own people and history. And for the first time I felt my nakedness.

This frightening vulnerability – nakedness – is an inevitable part of opening our eyes to the terrifying landscape in which we’ve blissfully made our homes. Those whose racial power has concealed reality from us are shocked by what we had missed. After all, the extent of the damage and the depth of the pain are profound. How is it that we had been so blind?

The racial terror that is is generally a strong current below the surface, powerfully felt if not seen by those of us with the privilege of remaining on the surface, is boiling over. Families grieve loved ones killed on video. Cities convulse and burn. The pandemic continues to ravage communities of color. And those of us, like Berry, who’d previously found the current to be a benign aid to our way of life are having a harder time sleeping. We are waking up, by choice or by force.

This is how we discover our nakedness. Our previously held assumptions slip through our hands. How we’d imagined the world, all evidence to the contrary, is revealed for the dumb fog it always was. Interpretations and ideologies crumble. Our eyes open to the horrors with which we’ve been complicit, the lies we’ve told with full-throated conviction, and we have to ask: What is left?

We’ll want to cover ourselves now. To be so exposed is a disorienting experience and too many white people choose, after glimpsing reality, to step back into the fog. There is another option.

In 1961 James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” For those of us who are not black, the righteous anger felt by black Americans is a guide. Yes, we will feel angry but there is something else for us too: lament.

I’ve come to think of lament as a sort of limp. It does not keep us from moving forward, from joining the struggle for freedom. But neither does it absolve or sooth us. Lament is always there. It serves not as a moment or a season but an ongoing posture for the previously deceived, the still complicit, the too-slowly waking up.

Baldwin asks about how to feel the rage without being consumed by it. The answer, according to some friends who have known this life-long anger, is to not forget it. Remember the rage even when this country pretends to have changed. By staying in touch with the anger, these friends are not shocked, though still wrecked, by the racist barrage at times like these.

This is what the limp of lament can offer us. We are steeled against false promises of comfort and invitations to old delusions. We clothe ourselves with grief, anger, prayer. We join the chorus of those singing on the edge of despair, teetering but not falling, held by that newly discovered tether: the truth.

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