Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Faulkner, race, and the eye of the beholder

Now with a bit of additional writing.

Faulkner's burial, Oxford Mississippi, July 7, 1962. Image found here.

"[R]acism is in the eye of the beholder." --Andrew Breitbart

(Well, yes, in some sense. And the corollary of that remark is that if the beholder has designated himself to be a hammer, everything looks like a nail.)

The immediate context for Breitbart's quote was his (stated) understanding of what the 2-minute excerpt of the Shirley Sherrod video showed. I've already said my piece about all that. But I've been experiencing all that through another context yesterday and today, that of some reading I've been doing for my book project--in particular, some older (late-'80s and early-'90s) criticism on William Faulkner's novel, Go Down, Moses. As those who, like me, were in graduate literature programs back then may recall, those were the days of the ascendancy of theory and the resulting intra-departmental turf wars among the New Historicists, post-colonialists, feminists, Marxists, etc., etc.; the desire to expand the canon and, for some, seeing theoretical work as a way to do some not-so-incidental political work via inserting the inevitable "oh, by the way" kinds of passages in articles and books that point out the sociocultural blindnesses of the author and/or the characters s/he has created.

Just about the only work those moments accomplish in these pieces is that they inoculate their writers from the potential charge that they, too, must be blind to their subjects' blindnesses for not having pointed them out. They are purely defensive moves that add little to the reader's understanding of the text . . . apart from reminding us of the bleedin' obvious, that human beings, try as they might, can never fully erase from their language or behavior whatever virtues or prejudices their environment have imprinted on them.

As you've probably gathered, I've run into a couple such pieces during my reading yesterday and today. Of course, given that these articles' subject is Faulkner's depictions of African-Americans in Go Down, Moses, it would be naïve not to expect them. Moreover, because this novel is dedicated to Caroline Barr, the hundred-year-old black woman who served the Faulkner family from the time that William was a small boy and who died during the writing of the material that would become the novel, we're provided with a legitimate excuse to examine the novel in comparison with Faulkner's (genuine, heartfelt, but yes, socially and culturally awkward (at best; offensive, some have characterized it) with regard to Barr's family's wishes) public actions and statements about Barr before and at her death. But this post isn't about that, exactly. Rather, it's to ask a question: What would we have Faulkner do about this? It is difficult to speak with him about his attitudes regarding race, seeing as he's inconveniently dead (see the picture at the top of this post); however much we may wish otherwise, he's no longer in a position to revisit and rethink them.

That may sound a bit snarky, but the fact either not well known or forgotten or ignored is that when Faulkner was alive and given the opportunity to do so, he did revisit his public statements on race and, as he felt necessary, revised them. Louis Daniel Brodsky recounts (.pdf) the public response to Faulkner's "Letter to the North," published in Life on March 5, 1956, regarding the Supreme Court-imposed integration of the University of Alabama. The quickie summary: Faulkner gave a couple of interviews during this time while quite drunk and said some things that, had he been sober, he never would have said, not even in jest; in his writing, though, his position on desegregation was that it was just, it was inevitable, and it must happen, but that he wanted it to happen on the South's terms, not imposed from without by the federal government. I don't know if it was he who popularized the phrase "go slow," but those exact words appear in some of his writings on the subject. You can imagine how this played. Some blacks and white Northern liberals accused him of deliberate delay; white Southerners called him a scalawag and sent him threats via the mail. Moreover, you can imagine how some people read all this now: Why advocate moderation (read: delay) when you yourself say desegregation is both just and inevitable?

There are two replies to this. The first is, Faulkner didn't have to say a word on this subject to begin with, and certainly not in fora as public as Life magazine. However, as a result of having won the Nobel Prize for literature, he took on, uncomfortably to be sure, the role of public figure; in the specific case of the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama, he feared that people would be killed and felt obligated to do whatever he could to keep that from happening. Given the time and circumstances, he was pretty damned brave. The other reply also has to do with time and circumstance: My mother, not quite 70, remembers swimming in a whites-only swimming pool in Austin (yes--Austin, that bluer-than-blue island in the very-red state of Texas) when she was a kid. I mention that to make two points: a) How those times are not all that distant from our own; b) how dramatically, how fundamentally our society has changed in that short a time, thus making it exceedingly difficult to remember how, not so long ago, people fought and died both for and against even the smallest incremental changes in the status quo. Sure, Faulkner's moderate course seems mealy-mouthed now--how could it not?--but, as I noted above, extremists on both sides of the desegregation question were driving the debate, and his position, calculated to ensure that as few people were killed as possible, was both brave for him to make as a white Southern man, and sane.

Another way of putting all this: Passing judgment on the racial attitudes of someone living in a time and place very different from our own frankly seems like a cheap way to score rhetorical points, especially if we're not asking an equally-important question: had we been living in the same time and place, would we have done differently? Or better? Or, for that matter, anything at all?

I think it's also true of Faulkner that he was even braver on the issue of race in his fiction and that it's possible to see his thinking evolve over the course of his career, Go Down, Moses being, again, not as direct and affirming of social justice as we in our own relatively-more-enlightened time might wish, but (at least as I read it) powerfully moving--perhaps (I contend) in ways that Faulkner doesn't fully control.

Like all of us, Faulkner was a product of his place and time. He was wise enough to see the South, a place he loved deeply, as terribly flawed by the legacy of slavery, its blacks' and whites' mutual fear and hatred and mistrust, and felt compelled as an artist to explore, as honestly as he knew how, all that very unpleasant heritage. All of which makes quite funny a short "P.S." in a letter he received from a New Yorker in support of Faulkner's "Letter to the North," which Brodsky quotes in his article:

"I was fascinated by the 3 novels of yours that I read. If only you had grown up in N.Y.!"


R. Sherman said...

I visited early yesterday, so missed the last two entries until this morning. I had been wondering whether you'd address this, so I'll comment to both entries in reverse order.

As you know, I've addressed the issue of race, especially from a Southern perspective, given my mother's origins in Alabama. What has been disappointing to me, is that I think many Americans, myself included, feel we were sold a bill of goods with the whole "post racial" thing. I had great hopes that given that we'd just elected a mixed race president, our discussion could now move to substance without the constant distraction of race muddying up the waters.

Alas, it was not to be. Almost from the moment of the election, it seemed any disagreement with policy was defended by questioning the motives of the questioners and attributing racial animus to them, as opposed to good faith rational exception to policies. I hated the GM bailouts because of already high deficits during Bush; I hated the Stimulus for the same reason during Obama. Now, however, what was righteous and holy in 2008 is racially bigoted in 2010. That's offensive to most of us.

This Breitbart thing is, of course, an abomination and says a lot about a lot of things, not the least of which is that one should never trust what one reads/sees these days. (I'm mulling a post on that, at the moment.) When I saw the full story, I was reminded of the story I told on my blog about my mother as a little girl on the streetcar. You may recall it. I think those stories are the ones that need to be told, because I think they are much more common than we believe and are what caused/facilitated a black man to be president.

I find myself fearing that the vision of Martin Luther King will never be realized, not because of the American people, but because there are certain people in leadership positions of various factions have vested power interests in maintaining the status quo.

Finally, re: "Go Slow" It was the founding partner of my law firm, who, when on Fed. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, held that "go slow" wasn't an option, when it was tried in Little Rock at Central High School. It's an interesting back story, which I'll tell you some time.

Cheers, and sorry, for the long comment.

John B. said...

It's I who needs to apologize for not having thanked you sooner for your comment.

I agree with you that some use racism as a tool for critiquing either the President's policies or the motives of those who question them instead of, say, cost-benefit analysis or some other metric that actually has something to do with the policies themselves. I'll also say, though, that certain media outlets go more out of their way than do others to find people willing to speak in print or on the air about how things look to them through the prism of race--that, for example, among progressives there is LOTS of pointed criticism of, say, the bail-outs or the stimulus or health care reform or the climate bill in which race never got mentioned.

The same is true of responsible, thoughtful conservative critiques of those same policies--unfortunately, though, those folks get laughed at or ignored entirely by places like FOX or others with the eye/ear of conservative audiences because, well, they see the Republican strategy for what it is and don't like it: at the level of legislation, even when conservative critiques found accomodation in the bills, Republicans have all but voted in lock-step in opposition to those bills because of another narrative at work, the desire to see this President and Congress fail so as to gain electoral advantage, the country, frankly, be damned. That may be a short-sighted, callous and cynical strategy that Republicans, if not all of us, will one day rue--nope, not a thing learned from the Bush years--but it's not racist. But among conservatives, as I said in the Sherrod post, there are some awfully prominent people--some of them elected to Congress, no less--who explicitly and publicly read both Obama's policies and oppostion to them through the prism of race, and rarely if ever are they called on it by other conservatives. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, for example, was never reprimanded by anyone I know for saying, with no proof, that Obama's inclination was to favor black people over white people (by which, logically, if Obama favored whites over blacks, then everything would be hunky-dory by him).

So, yeah--I'm tired of seeing race used as a cudgel by both sides; like you, I had high hopes that our politics could move to higher ground. But it's clear to me that one side is much, much more predisposed to use that cudgel than the other.

As to your other comment: No question that, during slavery and the Jim Crow years, at the level of the personal blacks and whites extended innumerable acts of kindness and shows of mutual respect and, yes, genuine intimacy toward each other in defiance of institutionalized segregation. It's that fact that in part led me to my dissertation topic: that as I ran across these stories in narratives and in the historical record, I was astounded that I hadn't heard them before. I mean, when the colony of Virginia felt it necessary to keep increasing the punishment for white women who have sexual relations with black men, well, that's what's known as a counter-narrative. I'm not going to argue that these stories are more numerous than the prevailiing ones--would that that were the case--but they are more numerous than the prevailing ones would lead you to think.