Light in August by William Faulkner
This is a book about race. It can’t be about anything else. It’s ostensibly about outcasts — a woman pregnant outside of wedlock, a defrocked minister and a man who is half black and half white living in Mississippi. The man, Joe Christmas, is on the run for most of the book because he’s accused of killing a white woman with whom he had a relationship. His story makes up most of the novel, with interludes of other stories. Between the time I started it and when I finished it, a white woman was “outed” as pretending to be black and a white man shot nine people in a historically African-American church.
The first thing that entered my mind when I reached about page 50 was, “this is the type of book the Coeur d’Alene school district wants to ban.” Objectively speaking, it’s horrifying, full of all of the violence and language and sex that parents don’t like their kids exposed to. Reading it on my own, without the benefit of scholarly literature or a trusted professor, it was difficult for me to tell sometimes if Faulkner was a terrible racist or just writing about people who are.
It’s amazing that I can read this book more than 80 years after it was written and know exactly why Joe Christmas felt lost, alienated and terrified by who he was. It’s not a matter of being black or white; it’s not fitting either mold exactly, as a half-black man raised in a white orphanage and with a white family in the Jim Crow South. He tries to live with other African-Americans — to “identify as black,” to borrow a catchphrase. And then he tries to “identify as white,” only to discover that society won’t let it work that way.
It is not hard to imagine that a black man in a small, rural community somewhere could be lynched today for having a relationship with a white woman. It’s not hard to imagine, because not long ago, a white man went into a black church and shot nine people, because, he said, black men were “raping [white] women.”
The murder, as far as I can see, is never proven, but it’s beside the point. Joe, born on Christmas like the other Son of Man, was cast out by society. His grandfather thinks he’s an abomination; his adoptive father represents intolerant, Puritanical religion; he’s kicked out of brothels without paying when he reveals his ancestry; the black people in the book continually refer to him as white. He has been taught violence and alienation by a society that refuses to accept him — all embodied in his lover, a virginal white woman who sees him as black, as her connection to the black community (a community he isn’t part of), who is willing to sleep with this self-loathing man and even have his child, and who tries to make him pray. By killing her, Joe would be rejecting Puritanism and the idea of white superiority, but also rejecting a way to become more deeply engrained in black society and the possibility of having children who were like him.
I shouldn’t be able to understand that, in 2015. I should be confused about why Joe feels so alone and why people react to him the way they do. I should be baffled and somewhat self-righteous about the fact that we have come so far since the 1930s. I should need to keep reminding myself throughout the book that things were different then, and that color was so much more a part of things.
But I look around my small Idaho town, where maybe one black person lives. There’s joke that’s made about how a white woman was able to pass as black in Spokane because there are no black people in Spokane. The sad thing is, it’s not really a joke.
We still have an incredibly long way to go.
Like Lena Grove in this novel, we’ve come “a fur piece.” But like her, we have to keep moving, we have to keep going, we have to keep putting one foot in front of the other with fierce determination and figure out how we can go even further, because our nation cannot go on like this. It can’t go on, white cops pointing guns at unarmed teenaged black girls, young white men being encouraged to start civil wars, white woman thinking getting a tan and putting in a weave means knowing what it’s like to be black. It has to stop, and it has to stop now, before our country rips itself in half.
So while this novel is supposed to be about hope and perseverance, I found myself thinking about it with unbearable sadness. We have not gotten to the point where we should be, where Light in August feels like science fiction.
Because as Joe Christmas is dying, looking at the man in a gray uniform killing him, he might as well have whispered, “I can’t breathe.”