Faulkner’s and My Racist Past

I’m currently reading Faulkner’s A Light in August, and I’m not sure I will ever finish it. It is a difficult read, of course, because it is Faulkner, and his writing is challenging in the best of circumstances, but it is also difficult because of the violence, sexual abuse and unmitigated racism. The entire fabric of the narrative is woven from the common threads of racism and misogyny, and I was cut from this cloth of southern bigotry. I’ve spent most of my life trying to unravel that fabric and create a new narrative from the threads of compassion and universal human dignity, but it’s hard to destroy what you can’t see.

For the most part, the principle characters in the novel are white. I say for the most part because one character suspects and is suspected of having at least “one drop” of mixed-race heritage. He and all the other characters use the n-word prodigiously, and violence simmers just below the surface even in the times when it is not erupting, which is far too often. Just beneath the racial violence is misogyny and violence against women. At the root of it all, of course, is the abysmal treatment of children. This is a critical story, if you have the stomach for it, and we should all have the stomach for it.

Some might think this is a grotesque exaggeration of white culture or some throw-back to days long since passed, The language and attitudes of these characters will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the American south, especially the rural south. [I should add here that I don’t for one minute think the rest of the country is or ever was free from racism, but I speak here only of my and Faulkner’s context.] In this setting, violence, or the threat of violence, pervades every living space and every waking moment. And it is meted out with a righteous religious fervour.

We currently live in a time when the overt, unabashed and unapologetic racism of Faulkner’s story is gaining acceptance in the public sphere. I had hoped we had put such times behind us. Perhaps it is good that we’ve dropped the facade of political correctness and pulled the veil off the danger lurking beneath.

It makes me think back to an earlier time (it was the 1980s) when I had a particularly upsetting encounter with this bald-faced style of racism, and it came, of course, from my own family. I was in my 20s then, and I tried to fulfil family obligations when possible. Wanting to keep the remains of his family together, my grandfather would host family reunions from time to time, and he insisted that we all attend, because nothing was more important than family.

This reunion would be my last, though. Before the food was set out and served, the family was sitting around in lawn chairs just passing the time. The weather should have provided enough fodder for mindless chat, but their minds turned to their own suffering, which was caused (they thought) by having to work with people who were not white. Even worse (they thought) was the fact that their colleagues demanded minimum levels of respect and human decency.

As you already realise, they described these people using the n-word in every sentence, and sometimes used it more than once in a single sentence. The hatred flowed like water from the tap. They said many upsetting things, but the sentence that still echos in my mind said, “We got us a bunch of sensitive (this word was drawn out for emphasis) _________. It’s bad enough we have to work with __________. Now they don’t even want to be called __________.”

I left. My wife and children and I all got in the car and left. Later, I was scolded by family members. They told me family was paramount, and that we all have to accept family unconditionally. Blood is thicker than water, and all that. The problem, which I knew at the time, is that this demand for unconditional love and acceptance only goes one way.

Would they embrace a family member who was not Christian? Not straight? A vegetarian? Gender nonconforming? Not white? I can assure you they would not. While demanding unconditional love and acceptance, they offered only hatred and judgment for anyone who veered from their vision of a “good” person.

I remember a conversation with my grandmother where she described how nice and helpful some of the local boys were. I tried to explain to her that I was the target of their bullying. I tried to tell her they were only nice to members of their own group. I tried to explain that they were violent toward outsiders. They were violent toward me. It turns out my family thought I was the one who needed to change, but I never did.

Cancelling Cancel Culture for Beginners

I’m not old enough to remember a time before cancel culture existed. In the 1950s in the US, anyone suspected of being a socialist was labeled a communist and blacklisted. Anyone who was gay or suspected of being gay (or otherwise queer) was forced to marry opposite sex partners for appearances in order to appear in any media. 

Atheists kept their religious beliefs secret if they wanted to hold any kind of community leadership position or even be accepted. Muslims were simply not seen or heard in the public arena. Many Jewish people in the public eye adopted names that would conceal their Jewishness. 

Non-white performers might try to “pass” as white in order to work, and those who could not were often prevented from even entering venues that would be appropriate. Many black performers watched in poverty as white performers gained wealth and fame off the art they stole. 

People were less offended? Lenny Bruce, who was taken off to jail for offending community standards, would have been surprised to hear it. People could criticise the government? The Smothers Brothers were fired and blacklisted from TV for daring political satire. 

Of course, cancel culture began long before the examples I gave, and it will continue long after. The difference at the moment is that people who are accustomed to censoring, and censuring, others are now finding that non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-cis people have found their voices and have a thing or two to say. People aren’t now losing their voices. People are now finding their voices. 

Poem: You Tried to Keep Your Head Up (for James Byrd)

You lived a life that made your family proud,
But the weak-minded hated the colour of your skin.
You lived a life that made your family proud,
But fuelled master race fantasies for neighbour kids.

You trusted the boys who claimed supremacy.
To be generous and relieve your heavy burden.
You trusted the boys who claimed supremacy
as they brought your death and your ascent began.

You tried to keep your head up,
as those bastards laughed through your screams.
You tried to keep your head up,
with pain and blood in free flowing streams.

You were the only man there
as you were tortured by these boys.
You were the only man there,
Your body drug through gravel like a toy.

You lived gently and kept your head up,
And you died in excruciating pain.
You lived gently and kept your head up,
So we must ensure white supremacy never rises again.

Other works inspired by the murder of James Byrd, Jr.

 

Reclaiming My Voice

I guess some people thought (and I was one of those people) I might lose my accent after moving to the UK. I was sort of hoping I might lose it, because I associated my East Texas accent from my youth with ignorance, bigotry, and violence. And, yes, I have been assaulted more than once or twice by someone dripping with the twangy tones of east Texas intolerance.

I always knew, but tended to put aside, the fact that my suppressed accent was similar to the voices of people like Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, John Henry Faulk, Ann Richards, Robert Earl Keen, Dr. Red Duke, Ray Wiley Hubbard, Joe Ely, and many more. Now that I’m further away from the KKK-loving shit-kickers, I often miss the sounds of home. I miss a voice I strangled more than 40 years ago.

Lately, I’ve been trying to write and speak in the voice I lost so long ago. Coming out of the closet, so to speak. I’m stepping from the shadow of shame, I guess. It turns out you can sound like that and not be a total asshole. You can be queer, embrace religious tolerance, celebrate your neighbours’ differences, and just try to be a decent but hopelessly flawed individual (just like everybody else).

Photo by Roudy Salameh on Pexels.com

Meandering Metaphors as Rivers (#poem)

brown boat
Photo by Jennifer Hubacher on Pexels.com

The Mississippi River is a metaphor for life,
Mostly because Samuel Clemens made it so.
At least that’s what you would’ve learned
In your literature class—that a huge, meandering
River held the secrets of innocence, knowledge,

Guilt, and wisdom. So much is hidden under
The surface, see, and so much changes as you
Drift along. You may start your journey with
A piece of property and end it with a human being.
Not everyone learns to feel. Not everyone feels shame.

Mark Twain sort of got that, but some people pretty
Much think he dropped the ball at the end there,
And it is hard to see why Huck couldn’t have
Ended up being a slightly better person than
He ended up being. Everyone is disappointed

The novel ended the way it did, instead
Of some other way, but it’s what Clemens wanted.
It may be that ol’ Mark Twain ended up no more
Developed than his young creation, or maybe he just
Wanted us to take the next step ourselves.

 

On the Failed Attempt to Prevent Miscegenation in Polk County, Texas (#poem #NaPoWriMo)

love people romance engagement
Photo by Katie Salerno on Pexels.com

“I don’t want you to be mean to nobody, now.
When you go into town, you should wave
And smile and say, ‘How y’all doing?
Nice to see ya.’ Be nice and friendly
And respectful and then be on your way.
They have their lives to live, and you
Should just leave ‘em to it. You don’t
Need to be in their houses, and you
Damn sure don’t need to bring ‘em
Into mine. ‘Cause if you bring ‘em
Here again, you and me gotta problem,
You got that, boy? And you don’t wanna
Have a problem with me. If you wanna be
Welcome in my house, you better just
Let your new ‘friends’ go their own way.”

With that, he poured another coffee, lit
Another cigarette, and went out on the porch.

It didn’t involve the child listening from the next room.
Nothing in the world changed, except a boy’s heart.

Horton’s Taxonomy of Racial Prejudice

It seems we keep having people make racist remarks and then proclaim, defensively, that they are not racists. Some people are so hostile that their claims of innocence are both laughable and infuriating, but others seem genuinely bemused by the accusation that they are racist. It doesn’t seem possible that anyone could be so clueless, their critics think, that their attitudes would not be obvious to them. In other cases, people strive with everything they have against being racist, only to find to their dismay and horror that they have unconscious racial biases.

In order to sort things out, I think we need to recognize a few categories of racism:

1. Overt racial hostility. In this category we have white supremacists (or other kinds of supremacists, even, depending on your location and circumstances). People in this category believe other races are inferior and will not apologize for saying so. We can renounce them, but we aren’t likely to shame them, as they are quite self-righteous in their belief in their own superiority (leaving their latent fears and anxieties aside for the moment).

2. Racial Prejudice. Some people say they don’t hate anyone or want anyone harmed, but they just happen to believe it is a brute fact that people from different races are different and have different abilities and preferences. People in this category can be the most confounding, as they might say things that are outlandish to the rest of us and then become extremely offended that anyone could possibly accuse them of racism. “I don’t hate such and such people, but they sure hate hard work. God love ‘em.”

3. Racial insensitivity. Sometimes people genuinely don’t mean any harm at all but have no idea how their comments may hurt others. Assuming a person of a particular race enjoys a certain kind of music, dance, food, or whatever may seem completely reasonable to you while it reduces that person to a broad stereotype. Even if the person does happen to like that music or food, he or she may resent you making any assumptions about their taste based merely on race or ethnicity.

4. Racial privilege. A member of my family once said he couldn’t understand why certain groups were always complaining about police harassment. He mentioned that he had many experiences with the police and he had always been treated with respect and courtesy. It didn’t occur to him that his skin color, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class had anything to do with his treatment. That certain groups are targeted for mistreatment seemed inconceivable to him because he never had to experience what others endure regularly. This is the nature of racial privilege. (Yes, many kinds of privilege exist, but they aren’t relevant to this discussion.)

5. Unconscious and undesired racial bias. Finally, we all have biases without realizing it. When people take psychological tests (you can take one here) to see what biases they have, they may be chagrined to find they are biased against others without wanting to, but some of us are even surprised to find we hold implicit biases against our own social groups. Even those who are aware of no bias whatsoever find that some biases are so deeply entrenched that they are difficult to detect. Ironically, those with the least ill feelings toward other races are, in my experience, more aware of implicit bias. Confront an obvious racist about overt racial attitudes, and he or she will often declare, loudly, that he or she is completely indifferent to race. In my experience, those who are most committed to ending racial prejudice are the ones who are also most willing to examine their own implicit biases. Such is life.