by Terry Barr
In William Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August, a man named Joe Christmas, whose racial identity sits at the center of the work, asks the following question of the middle-aged woman who has become his lover and whom he will later kill:
“Just when do men who have different blood in them stop hating one another…” (249).
That we still don’t have an answer to his question in 2021 is profoundly troubling. In the course I will discuss momentarily, we will almost certainly fail to provide any comforting or enlightening answers. Nevertheless, we’ll keep trying.
I have been a Professor of English for the last thirty-four years at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, a private, liberal arts college, drawing students mainly form the deep southeast. My Senior Capstone seminar focuses on American Literature and Racial Identity, using three texts: Faulkner’s Light in August, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Each of these novels explores a character or characters who are caught in a racial limbo. Some know their parentage and its mixed racial makeup; others have no clear idea of their racial background but have heard rumors. All are caught in a society where racial identity is a life or death matter.
Our class meets twice a week for the first six weeks of the term, and in those weeks, we talk about the theme as it applies to these novels, slowly building in research from critical sources. The students will write 500-word responses to two of the novels as part of their requirement, and they will also select a critical essay on one of the novels and make a presentation on that essay as it pertains to racial identity.
In consultation with me, each student will then come up with a central research question that he or she will pursue independently for the next several weeks, eventually turning that question into a thesis. The students are free to select one or more of the novels we’ve discussed in class, though they are not strictly bound to these texts, or to literature per se. They are free to pursue film and music, too. I can see the recent comic books-turned-films like Black Panther and The Watchmen bearing bittersweet and strange fruit for this topic. With their research, the students will write a MLA documented essay roughly fifteen pages long, and then present their research on Honors Day to the rest of the English Department and to anyone else in the college community who chooses to attend.
Our college, like many in these times, has had intense and ongoing discussions about racial diversity and what that looks like and means today. We are a very “white” college, and so as I considered the theme for this year’s seminar, Racial Identity seemed a timely choice, especially given the history of the American South and its reluctance, recalcitrance, in seeking racial equality.
As we discuss these works, I have asked the students to consider the following questions:
- Who in our culture gets to determine Racial Identity, and how has this group/person been allowed to make such determinations?
- What do we know about our own racial identity, our family’s genetic and historical background?
- As a child, were you given sets of social evils or taboos? If so, what were they?
- Has a racial hierarchy ever been suggested or imposed on you?
- Do you believe that you have benefitted from racial privilege? If so, how?
- How would you rank the social acts that most horrify you, or the ones that bestow on you the most honor or gratification?
- How would your family members react if you decided to date or marry someone of a different race?
I have six students in the seminar, and all are Caucasian. Because of the above questions, our discussions have been open, I believe, and frank. How would such discussions differ if one or more of the students were African American? While there is no way to know how we might alter or filter our views were we to have African American students in the class, we have at least addressed this issue, noting the problems of white people alone, trying to determine the factors that contribute to our racial misunderstanding of each other.
In our last class, we discussed the problematic scene in Light in August in which Joe Christmas, as an orphaned child, follows an African American yard man across the orphanage grounds. Joe has already been called “nigger” by both children and adults, though they do so only because Joe is different, a new boy alien to them; a loner who often finds himself in places he shouldn’t be, and who seems to harbor secrets. They are trying to put him in his place by using the most dehumanizing word anyone in that era who is white could call anyone else who is white, or black. And so, in his racial confusion, Joe follows the only black man he knows:
“‘What you watching me for boy?’ And he said ‘How come you are a nigger?’ And the nigger said ‘Who told you I am a nigger, you little white trash bastard?’ And he says ‘I aint a nigger’ and the nigger says ‘You are worse than that. You don’t know what you are. And more than that, you won’t never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you won’t never know’ and he says ‘God aint no nigger’ and the nigger says ‘I reckon you ought to know what God is, because don’t nobody but God know what you is…’” (383-4).
The yard man is more prescient than he knows. For most of the novel, Joe wonders about his racial identity, believing and telling many that he might have some Negro blood in him. He will ultimately be lynched when the town discovers that he’s both been a lover to and killed a white woman. The lynching occurs because Joe’s colleague, “Joe Brown,” has told the sheriff that Christmas is “ a nigger.” From that moment, the TOWN decries that “that nigger Christmas” can’t be allowed to get away with his crime, even though the TOWN has never accepted the woman in question because she’s a northern transplant—a Yankee and an Abolitionist.
Still, it’s Christmas who most confuses them:
“He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad” (350).
But what if he’s neither?
Ultimately, we learn that no one really knows whether the man who impregnated Joe’s mother was Black, or a Mexican, or fully White. Joe himself dies without ever knowing, but to the town and everyone else who knows him, he has forever been deemed Black.
For my students, one of the other central questions this novel raises is the role of religion in determining or interpreting racial identity. Joe is adopted by a strict Calvinist family, the father attempting to beat the fear of God into Joe. Not only doesn’t he succeed, but we know that the orphanage that places Joe in this family does so with the belief that Joe is a racially Black child. They “lie” to Joe’s new father in order to keep Joe from being sent to the Black orphanage. They claim to be trying to save the little boy.
So they lie, and the Calvinist father never knows the lie. At this point, we ask about Christianity’s role in southern racial relations. How did/have so many Southern Protestants made peace with segregation, racial superiority and hierarchy? The novel also includes a defrocked Presbyterian minister who helps us consider this and many other religious and moral questions about the inadequacy and the impotency of religion’s response in considering those outside of the racial norm. And in some cases, religion’s clear persecution of and urging crucifixion on people like Joe Christmas who outrage the religious folk by refusing to accommodate them and stay within the boundaries of boldly-marked racial identities. That Christmas might also be a Christ-figure causes us to consider Christ’s skin color and wonder about the racial category he would have been consigned to in the American South
Christmas has tried to pass as white and even as black. So, too, do two of the central characters in Senna’s Caucasia: the white mother, Sandy Lee, daughter of well-respected WASPish Cambridge socialites, and her paler daughter, Birdie. Sandy and Birdie go on the run, hiding in “caucasia” due to Sandy’s indiscretions with radical, post-1960’s revolutionaries. Because Birdie’s skin color is a bit off-white, Sandy tells everyone in white America that Birdie’s father is Jewish. Meanwhile, Sandy’s African American husband, Deck, and their older darker daughter, Cole, fade into the novel’s background, perhaps passing as the saner, if not more law-abiding pair. The burden is on Birdie, however, to come to terms with all that she is, all that society deems she should be, and what she in fact wants to be.
As a student put it in class today, regarding Birdie and her sister Cole: “How do we blend in to society when we already stand out?”
Caucasia is a novel of inversion, of viewing the negative of a photograph instead of the positive, the “norm.” And in this metaphor, we can understand negative and positive as exactly the value judgments historically deemed on those of mixed racial identity by our society.
The Vanishing Half affords comparisons to Caucasia and allows students to pair the two more closely to analyze the ways sisters, in this case twin sisters, confront or flee their racial identity. How does America force us to define ourselves because of, or despite, whom America would rather we be?
So far, my students have been up to the task of engaging in this theme. I can’t know all they’re thinking and maybe will never know. But I see their faces; I see how deeply they are thinking, and I look forward to their research and the studies they’ll present. I hope the course will change us and help us think even more deeply about who we are and how we can continue to engage with the racial identities imposed on all of us.
Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.
Faulkner, William. Light In August. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
About the Author
Terry Barr is a Professor of English at Presbyterian College, specializing in Modern Literature, Creative Writing, and Southern Studies. His three essay collections, published by Red Hawk Press, are available from Amazon, and he writes regularly at medium.com about music and food culture. He lives in Greenville, Sc, with his family.