Commentary

Revisiting Berry’s ‘The Hidden Wound’

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In 1968, Midwesterner Wendell Berry turned his thoughts to the problem that had ushered in the Civil Rights movement: “It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us — and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them.” Berry wrote The Hidden Wound in the year of Dr. King’s assassination, when another piece of the shrapnel, buried in us all, broke to the surface.

We remain a nation divided, as if we have a national subconscious troubled by the accumulation of broken treaties and unequal liberties that began when the first colonists settled on the land of the Pamunkey Tribe in Jamestown, and Angela, along with “20 and odd other Africans” were brought to our shores to be traded for victuals. Here in Indiana on the lands of the Shawnee, Miami, Wea, Potawatomi, Delaware, Wyandot, Kickapoo, Piankashaw, Chickasaw and others, settlers broke over 17 treaties, resulting in the removal and loss of recognition of all tribes. To this day the Miami tribe is seeking recognition for its tribal lands home in Indiana.

In removing the people, rather than creating honorable treaties and adhering to them, we created this hidden wound. The question is whether we want to be healed. The healing process is frightening. It requires work of its own.

The work asks us to revisit our history, take off the flawed varnish and see what was hastily covered up. What is unfinished can be restored to its potential. What we learn when we expand to hear the full history, from the skills of the enslaved peoples, to Dawes Act, as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Alien Land Acts can help us enfranchise all peoples in the work of democracy.

According to the Library of Congress, although the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, white Americans believed Native Americans needed to assimilate before being enfranchised. Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887, taking hundreds of millions of acres of land from tribes, parceling it into 160 acre lots for Native families willing to register, settle and farm. This removed over half of Native lands from the tribes, which was redistributed to settlers in the Homestead Act. This was a “re-education” program for Native people, forcing them into a Euro-centric way of life, including sending Native children to boarding schools where they did not learn to farm.

The Dawes Act granted citizenship to those Native people who agreed to register. They should have received the right to vote, but as the Library of Congress documents, Native Americans faced the same obstacles as Black Americans: poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation. Even after the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924 granted citizenship to all Native Americans, states allowed these tactics to continue because they established election procedures. Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed on Aug. 6, and laws that strengthened it in 1970, 1975 and 1982, was the right to vote protected.

The situation for Asian Americans was similar. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, making every Chinese immigrant a permanent alien. Congress doubled down in 1924 with the Immigration Act. The latter prevented any Asian person from becoming a citizen. Even as many Chinese immigrants found safety in Chinatowns and tight-knit communities, some became activists and voices for suffrage. Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, who came to the U.S. with a scholarship in 1905, became a suffragist at the age of 16. She died in 1966 and there’s no record if she ever voted, but by 1943, the U.S. passed the Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and granted citizenship with the right to vote to Chinese Americans.

It’s taken vigilance and accountability for the right to vote for all. Arguably this is a paradox for a country that boasts freedom, but as Berry noted in The Hidden Wound, often our idea of freedom is more about “the freedom to do as we please: to sell ourselves for a high salary, a home in the suburbs, and idle weekends” instead of the other kind of freedom that makes a nation great: “the freedom to take care of ourselves and of each other.” In other words, to ensure we all have the rights to life, to vote, to self-governance and representation.

 

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.

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