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.