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Faulkner at 117, and the tragedy of race in America

Faulkner
William Faulkner, 1954: His perceptions about race in America have gone unheeded.
(Carl Van Vechten / )

William Faulkner, who was born in Mississippi 117 years ago today, was America’s poet and prophet of race. It’s unconventional to observe a man’s 117th birthday, but in the wake of a long summer that brought the nation’s unresolved racial divide back to the surface in spectacular fashion, there may be no better time to re-examine how Faulkner understood this unique national burden.

Faulkner perceived race relations through the prism of his Mississippi upbringing, but his artistry allowed him to penetrate the complexities of daily interactions to find the universal truths within. What he saw was that race lay inescapably just below the surface of the American experience. America’s racial diversity could enrich society, but only if it were recognized and celebrated; suppressed and unheeded, it spreads only madness.

That is the lesson of this summer’s events in Ferguson. The killing of a black youth by a white policeman seems to have jolted America awake to the divergent daily lives of blacks and whites. In Ferguson, as the white world discovered to its surprise and, perhaps, dismay, black residents were systematically harassed by police and treated as profit centers for local government.

As we reported last month, racial profiling was the rule in Ferguson, where “86% of vehicle stops involved a black motorist, although blacks make up just 67% of the population,” according to a legal aid organization’s report. Once stopped, blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested.”

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The process of fining residents for trivial infractions and punishing them for failing to pay expanded into a system that resembled the no-exit debtors’ prisons of yore. “Clients reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members.”

In Ferguson’s wake, America has discovered that racial discrimination has re-infiltrated our social fabric, a half-century after the civil rights movement produced a veneer of equality. But the reality was hidden only from the white community, and largely by its own choice. It certainly has been no secret to black Americans that they’re disproportionately the target of “contempt of cop” arrests by white police officers; one didn’t need the spectacle of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ arrest on his own doorstep in Cambridge, Mass., to know that--if one was black. The incident, which produced a moment of racial introspection that reached as far as the Obama White House, was quickly forgotten--if one was not black.

Faulkner’s effort to examine this persistent dilemma took the form of two characters of indeterminate race in his two greatest novels--two of the greatest in American literature--"Light in August” (1932) and “Absalom, Absalom!” (1936).

In many ways, “Light in August” is the most accessible of Faulkner’s masterpieces. Its sweetness of soul derives from the presence of the innocent and determined Lena Grove at its heart, but Faulkner doesn’t spare the sinister, Gothic elements that are the hallmarks of so many of his other books--murder, arson, rape. Lena is the book’s sentimental anchor, but its plot and counterpoint are provided by Joe Christmas, who may or may not be part black and lives in a netherworld of racial indeterminacy, presenting himself as black to his white fellows and white to blacks; whether he actually has any black blood is unknown, but irrelevant. Just outside Lena’s aura, the horrors of “Light in August” unfold. They are the handiwork of Joe Christmas, and they arise from his own racial confusion. 

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It is in “Absalom, Absalom!” where Faulkner fully examines the tragedy and curse of race. “Absalom” represents the summit of Faulkner’s craftsmanship, which he employed to elevate life in a rural Mississippi county to the level of Biblical parable. Its reputation is that of an unintelligible read, but that’s wrong: its narrative may be intricate, but Faulkner’s artistry yields prose of exceptional vigor, images of exceptional clarity and moral truth worthy of Tolstoy. 

“Absalom” is superficially the story of Thomas Sutpen, who rises from a backwoods upbringing to ownership of a hundred-square-mile plantation (“Sutpen’s Hundred”) in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. But it’s really the story of how race collapses Sutpen’s dreams into tragedy and condemns his family to ruination.

One instrument of that destruction is the Civil War, certainly an artifact of America’s racial burden. But as the story unfolds through a series of interlocking narrations, we learn that deeper still lies Sutpen’s imprisonment by his own conceit of racial purity. The embodiment of Sutpen’s misjudgment is Charles Bon, another of Faulkner’s racially indeterminate characters. Shunned by Sutpen for reasons readers will have to discover for themselves, Bon also casts an inescapable shadow over Sutpen’s life, as the question of race does over American society.

For Sutpen’s tragedy arises from his determination to build a racial wall around his family. This is a fantasy, as Sutpen himself knows. It is America’s fantasy. In Faulkner’s conception, America’s refusal to acknowledge that we are a diverse society in which daily life and long-term opportunity remain inextricably tied to race will lead to tragedy and destruction as surely as it reduced Sutpen’s Hundred to an overgrown wasteland commanded by a burned-out mansion.

“Absalom, Absalom!”, according to a judgment repeated by the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan in his foreword to the 2012 Modern Library edition, was “the most serious attempt by any white writer to confront the problem of race in America.”

This summer’s events suggest that Faulkner’s perceptions and warnings have gone unheeded. The unacknowledged realities of race have spread the madness he foretold. We celebrate this greatest American writer’s birth today, wondering whether in his grave he sleeps an uneasy and disappointed sleep. 

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