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William Faulkner, Race Relations Then And Now

posted on: Feb 11 2015

William Faulkner, Race Relations Then And Now


Light In August






All writers have first loves, those authors who inspired us to pick up a pen and try our unpracticed hand at the art of poetry and prose. One of mine is William Faulkner, whose stunning The Sound and The Fury, made me want to write a novel that treated time as fluidly as he did. I read the book last year and was again wholly impressed.

This year my son, also a writer, asked for Faulkner’s Light In August as a Christmas present. I’d read this one years before, and decided to return for another look. Published in 1932, the novel transports us to rural Mississippi where most people got anywhere either on foot or in a wagon drawn by mules, the roads were tracks in the dust, bootleg whiskey an expensive and perilous delight, and words from the pulpit revered, if not always followed. It’s also a world with a firm racial divide. Whites and African-Americans don’t mix and maintain a strict and uneasy distance from one another, unless called together by economic necessity, where African-Americans labor and whites profit.

There are a number of memorable characters in the novel, but the racial tensions Faulkner so brilliantly portrays center around Joe Christmas, a mysterious man who arrives in the small town of Jefferson and finds work in a sawmill. He sells bootleg whiskey on the side, and keeps to himself with the exception of another man he hires to help in his moonlighting operation, Brown. Where Brown is noisy and flamboyant, Christmas is quiet, brooding, almost menacing in his silence. Christmas moves into a cabin in the woods behind a large house occupied by a forty-something white woman, Joanna Burden.    Burden lives there alone. She devotes herself to various African-American causes (or in Faulkner’s vocabulary of the time, negro causes) and for this reason is shunned by the rest of the town. Her forebears are Northerners, and though she has lived all her live in the South, is never really accepted.

They become lovers, though he never actually moves into her house. Their relationship goes on for three years. At one point, Christmas shares with Joanna the suspicion that he has African-American blood. He has suffered from this gnawing doubt his whole life, belonging to neither race, a freak of nature – again, this is Faulkner’s portrayal of the mores of his time. His confession thrills Joanna. She seeks to enlist him in her efforts. He wants none of it. Joanna becomes progressively unhinged, and brings spiritual pressure to bear. At this point, Christmas loses his mind and kills her. Brown, drunk, sets fire to the house to cover up the crime. A passer-by sees the house in flames, goes in, and pushes past Brown who assures him that there no one is in the house. Joanna’s body is found.

Her relatives are notified, a reward is offered, and Brown fingers Christmas as the killer. The sheriff tries to make sense of his ramblings. His attention focusses ever further when Brown says that Christmas is in fact African-American. He expresses some outrage at having been fooled, for the man having passed among the other employees at the sawmill as white.

The cabin is discovered, though Brown has said nothing about his having lived there with Christmas. The sheriff needs to know who occupied it, certain that whoever it was would have direct knowledge of the fatal events.

This is where Faulkner’s writing stopped me cold. I have to warn my readers that I’m going to quote directly from the novel, which uses the n-word liberally, as was the sad custom of the time.

                “The Sheriff looked at them. ‘Who lived in that cabin?’”

                “’I didn’t know anybody did,” the deputy said. ‘Niggers, I reckon. She might have had niggers living the house with her, from what I have heard. What I am surprised at is that it was this long before one of them done for her.’”

                “’Get me a nigger,’ the sheriff said. The deputy and two or three others got him a nigger. ‘Who’s been living in that cabin?’” the sheriff said.

                “’I dont know, Mr Watt,’ the negro said. ‘I aint never paid it no mind. I aint even knowed anybody lived in it.’” 

The African-American is not named. His name doesn’t matter.  His life doesn’t matter. The only important thing about him is the color of his skin.

We all know what racism is. But we don’t always know or see how it lives. Faulkner makes it clear. The Sheriff could have been asking for a can, or a broom, or pot to be brought. An African-American in that time was not really a person. He walked, and ate, and slept, but he wasn’t quite human.

Has anything changed since the publication of the book in 1932? In 83 years?

Ask the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Ask the white police officers if they thought they were shooting unarmed men, animals, or objects. Ask the members of The Friendship Nine, who were jailed for thirty days in 1961 after refusing to leave a “Whites Only” lunch counter in South Carolina, whether the recent vacating of their sentences really feels like justice. Read the new book by Jill Leovy, GEHHOTSIDE, A True Story of Murder in America (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), where she says bluntly that African-American males make up just 6 per cent of the country’s population, but nearly 40 % of those murdered. Think about what it’s like to be reduced to skin color, to have no humanity, no “being.” And then to be targeted.

Keep asking, keep reading, keep talking. It’s the only way forward, this uneasy dialog. It’s going to make you mad, and probably a little crazy, but what other choice do we have?

1 Comment
  • Mary Ellen Latela

    Reading your essay triggered an instant, deep in the gut, response in me.

    I had read about the symbolic victim before. Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of the Holocaust, While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Wiesenthal was taken one day from his work detail to the bedside of a dying SS man. Haunted by the crimes in which he’d participated, the soldier wanted to confess to–and obtain absolution from–a Jew. Faced with the choice between compassion & justice, silence & truth, Wiesenthal said nothing. But even years after the war had ended, he wondered: Had he done the right thing? What would you have done in his place? (

    The dying soldier, who had murdered many “nameless Jews,” decides he cannot leave this life without making a confession. The soldier, swathed in bandages so that he cannot see, not can the observer see his face, only his eyes, decides that he must confess. Confession usually calls for a priest. This soldier decides that his “admission” will have more meaning if he were to confess to “a Jew, any Jew.”

    Wiesenthal is chosen. He is forced to sit and listen to a long account of the soldier’s evil acts, which he says he regrets. The soldier ends his account with the question, “Will you forgive me?” We have the impression that if young Wiesenthal were to absolve the man, it would be as if G-d himself had pronounced the words.
    The story, which runs only about forty pages, is the seed for The Sunflower, edited by Wiesenthal, and recently updated. It is a searing look at racism/Anti-Semitism. He asks the question that still haunts him: “What would you have done?”

    When I was a young girl, I lived in a city in the Northeast where there was no violence against African-Americans, but I heard many older people muttering about them, using those unkind words we avoid. In the 1960s, something changed. I remembered a conversation with my cousin Angelo, who agreed that there was no good reason for the turn of events – for riots, for racially-based killing, for treating our African-American friends any differently. We decided it was the fault of parents.

    However, hatred or fear that comes from deep inside, is never the fault of only one sinner. We need fewer silent bystanders, and more people unafraid to confront evil, even though they may be shunned. I choose to avoid national news, except for the Internet updates, but I read, and I reflect. And I write. What are we doing today so that our children will not take on the exclusion of “the other” in a world as rich in diversity as our world is?
    We do what we can. @LatelaMary

    February 11, 2015 at 9:36 am

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