Thursday, January 19, 2012

Postscript: Faulkner and Race

I'm still mulling over the subject of my last post. Per a reader's recommendation, I've ordered from the library Haki Madhubuti's memoir Yellowblack, but in the meantime I also checked out Faulkner's Selected Letters, edited by Joseph Blotner. In it, I found a fascinating and troubling letter from Faulkner to Paul Pollard, a black man who had worked for the Faulkners in Charlottesville. Pollard had written to Faulkner asking Faulkner to subscribe for him a lifetime membership in the NAACP.

Faulkner's reply expresses many of the same sentiments about racial inequality in the South that Gavin Stevens expresses in
Intruder in the Dust. Here is what he wrote, in 1960:

I cannot send you this money. I will try to explain why. In the past I contributed indirectly to your organisation, since I believed it was the only organisation which offered your people any hope. But recently it has seemed to me that the organisation is making mistakes. Whether it instigates them, or merely condones and takes advantage of them, it is anyway on the side of, in favor of, actions which will do your people harm, by building up to a situation where the white people who hate and grieve over the injustice which your people have to suffer, will be forced to choose either for or against their own people, and they too, the ones which your people consider the best among my people, will have to choose the side of the rest of the white people.

I agree with your own two great men, Booker T. Washington, and Dr. Carver. Any social justice and equality which is compelled to your people by nothing but law and police force, will vanish as soon as the police force is removed, unless the individual members of your race have earned the right to it. As I see it, your people must earn by being individually responsible to bear it, the freedom and equality they want and should have. As Dr. Carver said, "We must make the white people need us, want us to be in equality with them."

I think that your organisation is not doing that. Years ago, I set aside a fund of money which I am using, and will continue to use, in education, to teach the people of your race to
earn the right to equality, and to show the white people that they are and will be responsible to keep it. In Dr. Carver's words, make, compel, the white people to want them equal, not just to accept them in equality because police or military bayonets compel them to, and that only until the bayonets are removed again.

As I see it, if the people of your race are to have equality and justice as human beings in our culture, the majority of them have got to be changed completely from the way they now act. Since they are a minority, they must behave better than white people. They must be
more responsible, more honest, more moral, more industrious, more literate and educated. They, not the law, have got to compel the white people to say, Please come and be equal with us. If the individual Negro does not do this by getting himself educated and trained in responsibility and morality, there will be more and more trouble between the two races.

This letter was later reprinted in the New York Times, on August 3, 1967. I don't know why or under what circumstances. 1967 was also the year that Madhubuti published Think Black. I don't know if Madhubuti read this letter before writing the preface to his book, but I'm sure that this letter would have only reaffirmed his determination to destroy Faulkner as a literary or political influence.

I do know that, in the future, I will use Faulkner's letter to explain to my students the rage toward Faulkner that comes out in Madhubuti's writing. The letter is an arresting primary source, one that I think will be very interesting for my students to read, having studied Booker T. Washington earlier in the course (and perhaps knowing Faulkner from previous courses).

What ironic and poignant and tragic about it, too, is that this is the same Faulkner who, also in Intruder in the Dust, could write this passage, which is so stirring that Eddy Harris quotes it approvingly in South of Haunted Dreams:

Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash; your picture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear it.

It seems that the tangled ideologies of race confused Faulkner into thinking that somehow the injustices and outrages and dishonors and shames of racism had to be borne until black people had somehow "earned" justice and equality.


twunch said...

"It seems that the tangled ideologies of race confused Faulkner..."
Doesn't this weird sentence construction attempt liberate Faulkner from responsibility? Isn't that the least obvious solution? It looks like Faulkner believes himself to be in the position of arbiter of who is entitled to Freedom, who is entitled to human rights. This seems to me to be the traditional position of the privilege- to use the structures in that are in power to support the privilege's position of arbitration.
Great piece. But I come away from it thinking Faulkner's no better than his era, worse maybe because he sets himself up as its moral gatekeeper.

framiko said...

Thanks for the comment, twunch. I guess I was trying not to absolve Faulkner, but instead to describe or explain how someone with such a wide and deep artistic vision—and a writer capable of making stirring statements about justice—could write and believe something that so obviously contradicts those statements. And I can only explain it by pointing to the ideas about race that Faulkner grew up in and lived in—that were the water in which he swam.

The contrast between the letter and the quote from Intruder seemed ironic to me, but also poignant and tragic—since it suggests how hard it is to escape from the deforming influences of one's era.

That's what Huck Finn is about (I'm looking ahead to teaching it in a couple weeks)—and in the end Huck, like Faulkner, is not able to escape either, though, like Faulkner arguably, he does have some noteworthy moments.

How many of us, when future generations look back at us, will be considered better than our era?

Again, I'm striving here not for a liberation from responsibility, but instead for a tragic awareness of human failings.

rfrank said...

I disagree with twunch's contention that, in this passage, Faulkner believes himself "the arbiter of who is entitled to Freedom, who is entitled to human rights." Faulkner focuses not on who is entitled to freedom but on what is the best strategy for achieving what all people are entitled to. We can disagree with him strategically and certainly accuse him of an irresponsible passivity in the struggle for human rights. But to me, it sounds more like complacent (and sadly paternalistic) advice about tactics than hostility to the goal.