Sparks in the Tinderbox

William Faulkner’s Light in August was published in the early 1930s, which was also the span of years during which the number of lynchings of African-Americans in the United States reached its peak (   The central character, Joe Christmas, is haunted throughout his life by the assumption, never confirmed, that his father was a “Negro.”  Although he looks white and can pass for white, he considers himself a biological and hence a psychological hybrid, believing the common imputation of specific character traits to different races:

“But his blood would not be quiet, let him save it.  It would not be either one or the other…Because the black blood drove him first to the negro cabin.  And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it… ” (Light in August, p. 448)

Christmas leads an unsettled, violent life, ultimately killing his white lover (who, at that moment, is pointing a gun at him).  Several days later, he is caught, killed, and castrated by a national guardsman who exclaims hotly, “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell” (Light in August, p. 464).

The Southern Rape Complex and Fear of Black Males

The “Southern Rape Complex “ is a term coined by W. J. Cash in 1941 to describe a cultural trope in which the rape of a Southern white woman by a black man symbolizes the desecration and destruction of the South, but the fear of black male lust targeted at white women predates that formulation and lingered for many decades afterward, to the extent that its traces remain apparent in some quarters.   Nor has the stereotype suggesting that darker-skinned men have a special predilection for white women been confined to the American South, or even to the United States:  in E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India, an Indian Muslim doctor is on the point of being convicted for sexual assault on a white Englishwoman when she suddenly retracts her accusation.

In Toni Morrison’s novel  Beloved, which is set during Reconstruction but includes many flashbacks to slave times, the white slave owner Garner boasts that his slaves, who are allowed to carry guns and to whom he turns for advice, are not boys but men and taunts his cohort.  (Morrison’s text spells out the word represented in this post as “n______.”)

“Now at Sweet Home, my n_____s  is men every one of em.  Bought em thataway, raised em thataway.  Men every one.”

“Beg to differ, Garner.  Ain’t no n_______ men.”

“Not if you scared, they ain’t.”  Garner’s smile was wide. “But if you a man yourself, you’ll want your n______s to be men too.”

“I wouldn’t have no n_______ men round my wife.”

It was the reaction Garner loved and waited for.  “Neither would I,” he said.  “Neither would I,” and there was always a pause before the neighbor, or stranger, or peddler, or brother-in-law or whoever it was got the meaning.  Then a fierce argument, sometimes a fight, and Garner came home bruised and pleased…” (Beloved, p. 11)

In the short story “Dry September,” published in Scribner’s in 1931, Faulkner vividly portrays the mentality of a lynch mob forming to avenge a presumed insult perpetrated on a white woman by a black man.  The story is not only short but highly accessible; reading it in full might shed light on one aspect of the Emmett Till story not developed in Emmett Till, a river  (New Bulgarian University)

And in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi.  Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” she uses the imagined point of view of Carolyn Bryant to explore the dissonance between an ennobling fantasy in which “the ‘maid mild’/Of the ballad” is “Pursued/By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince” and the distasteful realities Bryant must confront in her memory and her marriage:

William Faulkner on Emmett Till

William Faulkner was still alive at the time of Emmett Till’s murder and made a statement, which he reiterated during an interview he gave to The Paris Review in 1956.  The full interview, which touches on many aspects of the writer’s craft, is available at

INTERVIEWER:  You gave a statement to the papers at the time of the Emmett Till killing.  Have you anything to add to it?

FAULKNER:  No, only to repeat what I said before: that if we Americans are to survive it will have to be because we choose and elect and defend to be first of all Americans; to present to the world one homogeneous and unbroken front, whether of white Americans or black ones or purple or blue or green.  Maybe the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults on an afflicted Negro child is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive.  Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.

Faulkner’s words continue to resonate more than fifty years after he uttered them.

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