Teaching the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s this past semester, I shared with my students the introduction to Think Black, Haki R. Madhubuti’s 1967 collection of poetry. In this aesthetic and political manifesto, Madhubuti (born Don L. Lee in 1942) sets out a boldly racial vision of himself as an artist:
Black. Poet. Black poet am I. This should leave little doubt in the minds of anyone as to which is first. Black art is created from black forces that live within the body.
He then presents a succinct formulation of the goals of the Black Arts Movement:
Black art will elevate and enlighten our people and lead them toward an awareness of self, i.e., their blackness. It will show them mirrors. Beautiful symbols. And will aid in the destruction of anything nasty and detrimental to our advancement as a people.
For example, Madhubuti writes, “We must destroy Faulkner, dick, jane, and other perpetrators of evil.”
This is obviously not a literal threat of destruction, a fatwa like the one declared against Salman Rushdie in 1989. Faulkner died in 1962, five years before Madhubuti published this declaration. Madhubuti is calling for a more literary destruction. Yet his singling out of Faulkner strikes me as noteworthy and curious. Of all the “perpetrators of evil” Madhubuti might have targeted, why Faulkner?
Was Faulkner truly a perpetrator of evil? A racist?
According to Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man was shocked and disappointed when Faulkner, a writer he deeply admired, was quoted in a magazine in 1956 saying that he was ready to shoot blacks in the street if necessary to save the Old South. (Ellison himself would have a complicated if not antagonistic relationship to the Black Arts Movement. In the same introduction that calls for Faulkner’s destruction, Madhubuti also asserts that the “black forces” that live within the body “can be lost at any time as in the case of Louis Lomax, Frank Yerby, and Ralph Ellison”).
According to the chronology included in the Library of America editions of Faulkner’s novels, however, in the 1950s Faulkner wrote letters to editors advocating school integration and publicly spoke against segregation. He disavowed the sentiments that so shocked Ellison, saying “They are statements which no sober man would make, nor it seems to me, any sane man believe.”
So Faulkner blamed his racially offensive comments on booze. Realistically, though, how could someone who grew up in Mississippi in the first half of the twentieth century not be in some way influenced by the mindset of racism?
But surely there were plenty of less ambiguous racists. The question remains: Why single out Faulkner?
The subject of race in Faulkner’s novels and stories has been well covered by the academy, and while I can’t claim to have read a lot of this scholarly work, it seems to me that John Cooley’s overview of its critique is as good as any:
… most of Faulkner's African American characters represent stereotypic categories: the tragic mulatto, the Mammie, the faithful retainer, the rebellious marginal man. [Bernard] Bell and other African-American critics have also observed that Faulkner's blacks are defined in relationship to his whites, and that they frequently express white, rather than black, cultural values. White life and racial perspectives remain the primary orbit of action and thought for black characters, rather than attention to their own goals and strategies.
Yet Faulkner also wrote some of the most incisive fictional portraits ever created of the pathologies of white racism. “Dry September,” for instance, delivers a multifaceted dramatization of the horror of lynching. Stories like “Pantaloon in Black” and “That Evening Sun” display great empathy for the pain of black characters as well as pitiless eviscerations of white characters’ callous blindness to their suffering.
In The Unvanquished, black Ringo may be white Bayard’s faithful retainer, but he’s also usually two or three steps ahead of Bayard. Even Bayard’s father, the Confederate colonel John Sartoris, believes that Ringo is smarter than his son.
As noted in the Appendix to The Sound and the Fury, in contrast to the dysfunctional and self-destructive white Compson family, their black servants “endured”—including Luster, “A man, aged 14. Who was not only capable of the complete care and security of an idiot twice his age and three times his size, but could also keep him entertained.”
In his groundbreaking collection The Portable Faulkner, which helped to bring Faulkner out of obscurity in the mid-1940s, Malcolm Cowley identifies in Go Down, Moses what he calls “one of Faulkner’s most impressive themes: the belief in Isaac McCaslin’s heart that the land itself has been cursed by slavery, and that the only way for him to escape the curse is to relinquish the land.” This sounds not too far from the idea of reparations for slavery—an idea that one might think would endear Faulkner to someone like Madhubuti.
On the other hand, Faulkner’s 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, appears to present a liberal version of the classic Southern resistance to “outside agitators” for civil rights. Gavin Stevens, the lawyer who often seems like a mouthpiece for Faulkner himself (and who, in this novel, is defending a black man against those who would wrongly convict and lynch him for murder) talks about “the outlanders who will fling [the black man] decades back not merely into injustice but into grief and agony and violence too by forcing on us laws based on the idea that man’s injustice to man can be abolished overnight.” Stay out, Attorneys General and National Guardsmen: “the injustice is ours, the South’s. We must expiate it and abolish it ourselves, alone and without help nor even (with thanks) advice.”
Did Madhubuti wade through all these abstruse novels and stories, though? Did he parse Faulkner’s fiction this closely to tease out, underneath it all, the truth about Faulkner’s racial attitudes? Was Madhubuti thinking about any of this when he called for Faulkner’s destruction?
Or was it about what Faulkner symbolized for Madhubuti?
For any writer in 1967, Faulkner must have represented an image of literary excellence. A Nobel laureate, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a recently deceased American legend whose final comic novel, The Reivers, capped a monumental career, Faulkner had composed a corpus epic in scope though mostly limited to a single Mississippi county.
The map that Faulkner drew of Yoknapatawpha County for his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! lists that county’s population as 6,298 whites and 9,313 blacks. A white man, Faulkner was writing about a society in which blacks were the majority. And his portrayal of that society was no doubt given considerable credence as an accurate depiction of reality.
To black writers especially, Faulkner’s work must have represented a daunting challenge. In David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue, Lewis writes of the struggles of black writers during the Harlem Renaissance to create great black art—and he uses Faulkner as the yardstick. “Where, in the fiction of the Renaissance,” Lewis writes, “was there a character portrait to equal Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August?”
If the writers of the Renaissance strove to compete with Faulkner, as Lewis suggests, then it stands to reason that the writers of a subsequent literary flowering, the Black Arts Movement, would also strive to do so.
Perhaps we can understand Madhubuti’s desire to destroy Faulkner as another instance of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence—the writer’s Oedipal need to kill off his literary father in order to make room for himself to create.
Killing off Faulkner, the (great white) Father, probably seemed even more necessary for Madhubuti because of race—because Faulkner’s depictions of black characters were at once indelible, given Faulkner’s powers as a writer, but also limited, ultimately, because of who Faulkner was.
The black writer Eddy L. Harris, in his work of literary nonfiction South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery’s Old Backyard, uses a motorcycle journey through the South as an opportunity to reflect on race, writing, and America. Near the end of the book, he has a realization:
I see now why certain themes are not only expected from black writers, but why black writers themselves feel compelled to explore them…. No one else but a black man knows their contours. It doesn’t have to be, but a black man’s point of view—a black writer’s point of view—is different precisely because he is black.
Faulkner knew the contours of race in the South pretty well, I would argue, and he dramatized them more powerfully and thoroughly than perhaps any other writer in American history.
Yet, for those very reasons, someone like Madhubuti must have felt a strong need to destroy Faulkner. Without doing so, without rejecting the authority of Faulkner’s imposing body of work, how could black artists gain the self-assurance to explore the contours of black experience with the authority of their own eyes and voices? For all of its rhetorical excess, Madhubuti’s introduction is ultimately a call to arms, an exhortation to a new generation of black writers to shake off the weight of white literary tradition and to breathe new life into their own tradition.
Three years later, Toni Morrison would heed Madhubuti’s call with her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Morrison begins her novel by destroying “dick and jane,” as Madhubuti demanded. In a series of three increasingly degraded iterations of the schoolhouse primers featuring these generic white characters, Morrison suggests their inadequacy to reflect and instruct the lives of people like her protagonists. Taking a tip from Whitman’s declaration that “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher,” Morrison, who had done her master’s thesis on Faulkner, would go on to win the Nobel Prize by transforming his style to dramatize more directly the black lives that often occupied only the periphery of Faulkner’s world.
Morrison’s novels do not destroy Faulkner. They do, however, destroy any notion that his works present a complete truth about the lives of African Americans, and they occupy a towering place in the literary tradition that Madhubuti sought to invigorate.