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.

Is there a wrong way to grieve?

Over the past few months, I’ve written of several philosophers of the ancient past who taught that grief should not overwhelm us before themselves becoming overwhelmed by grief. Stoic philosophers taught that we should understand that death is nothing to fear or mourn, if only we can have the proper understanding, but the emotion of grief trumps rational explanations every time. I would conclude, then, that we should not attempt to suppress or diminish our grief but should let it unfold naturally and grieve for as long as necessary. Criticizing the grief of others seems counterproductive at best.

But this left me wondering whether there is a wrong way to grieve. What obligations can the bereaved have to others? Obligations to the dead? Does grief suspend normal obligations?

Like the rest of the world, I don’t know what caused Spc. Ivan Lopez to go on a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood. He certainly had experienced a great deal of stress in his life and had good reason to experience problems with mental health. According to a CNN article by Ray Sanchez, Lopez’s father said the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother, medical treatment, and changes related to transfer of military installations “surely affected his condition.” Grief often becomes unmanageable when it is combined with other complications, obstacles, and challenges. We do well not to ignore the impact of grief on those around us. We are part of a community, and the health of the community deals in part on how well we respond to grief.

For an example from fiction, I’m reminded of “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. Emily has much to grieve for: When she loses her father, she loses a loved one but also status, wealth, predictability, and honor. She responds by simply refusing to acknowledge her loss. In the beginning she denies that her father is even dead. Eventually, she relents and permits him to be buried, but continues her life as if nothing has changed. Her neighbors go along out of pity, not respect. As you probably remember, Emily eventually takes a lover from out of town, kills him, and sleeps with his body for the rest of her life.

Emily’s neighbors had tried to offer condolences to her when her father died, but she denied his death. After his death, the neighbors reacted to her with a mix of compassion, respect, suspicion, and disgust, but they also lacked the will to intervene as Emily continually pushed them away. They left Emily with her privacy and, as much as possible, a little dignity, which only led her to more extreme and destructive measures.

If I say that Emily grieved unethically, you may say that grieving wasn’t the core problem; rather, she was refusing to accept change. But grief is always a reaction to change, and all change is annihilation. The bereaved will often say the whole world changed, and that is exactly what has happened. Emily’s world changed, but she refused to accept either her father’s death or her change in fortune. By killing her lover, she tried to preserve a moment forever. Emily’s response to grief was understandable but not excusable. Then again, perhaps her neighbors did not respond ethically to Emily’s grief. The neighbors did reach out to Emily, even with follow-up visits, but failed to intervene more forcefully. Are they obligated to take matters into their own hands?

I recently had the opportunity to hear author Cheryl Strayed speak on her latest book, Wild, which is about Strayed’s own response to her mother’s death. Strayed is a talented and courageous writer and proficient speaker. As she talked about her grief journey, she only lost her composure once. She said that after her mother’s death she became the kind of daughter her mother would not have wanted her to be. She described her adultery, promiscuity, and substance abuse through tears that evaporated as she moved on to discuss how she began to manage her grief more positively (ethically?).

I ask whether there is an ethical way to grieve. We can see that people, overcome by grief, behave in ways that are certainly unethical in most contexts, but we may have such compassion for the bereaved that we soften our judgment of them. “What she did was wrong,” we may say, “But I can see why she did it. I might have reacted the same way.” But this may be true anytime someone acts unethically. In the exact same situation, I may have acted as Bernie Madoff acted. In fact, we have all acted in unethical ways. We had our reasons (grief, exhaustion, addiction, depression, or whatever), but our actions were unethical.

So what helps people behave more ethically? Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous Existentialist philosopher, says that with each of our actions we choose “the good.” He doesn’t mean we always make good choices, but given our options, we choose the one we thought was best, which means we write our ethical values for public view by the actions we choose. In this environment, other people become our hell. Nothing is more damaging to us than being trapped by the others’ perceptions of us.

When we choose an action, we are choosing the one that seems best to us at the time. The problem is that some of us have run out of good ideas for what to do. We often explain ourselves, rightly, by saying, “I didn’t know what to do!” If we had more ideas, we would have more choices and could make better decisions. Sartre claimed we have absolute freedom, but really we can increase our freedom by increasing the number of actions we have in our consciousness. Sartre saw others as our judge, jury, and executioner, but they can also become our community.

It is Sartre’s companion and lover who had a broader vision for existentialist ethics. Simone de Beauvoir was able to see the positive importance of others in our lives. Beauvoir declares “freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others.” If we want to be free, we must seek our freedom through the freedom of our community, and our freedom grows out of our love. Beauvoir says, “If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Without valuing others, our life truly loses meaning, and we will lose all hope.

When I was in China, I once thanked someone for helping me with a problem, and she responded, beautifully, “When we help each other, we are free.” Indeed, it is the only way for us to become free. And it is the only way for us to have more good ideas of what we can do.