It is Black History Month. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, William Faulkner is unavoidable in taking the measure of American black life. The assertion needs bearing out. Reading Faulkner is to experience many things: difficulty, especially when he writes in dialect, regardless of whether the speaker is white or black; disorienting, when he shifts voice and points of view, as he does famously in The Sound and The Fury (1929). In his defense, Faulkner had intended the novel to use different ink colors to denote chronological shifts.
(Image is from LA Times Blog)
There is no polite way of getting around the fact that Faulkner is not politically correct about gender, race or any of his other themes: incest, insanity, and institutional racism. Do we not cringe when we read that Faulkner referred to his Go Down, Moses (1942), as his “nigger stories”?
Why Faulkner then, and why does he still matter? What is his relevance to documenting the ‘black experience’ in American literature in his own time and for the half century after his death?
My answer is Dilsey, the black caregiver in The Sound and The Fury.
Step back for a moment with me to another Faulkner book, Light in August (1932). As you read the small excerpt below, do keep in mind that the title is a Mississippi phrase for the time when mares give birth to foals.
‘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 dont know what you are. And more than that, you wont never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you wont ever 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 know what you is.’
Rereading the passage, I am reminded of Faulkner’s editor, who had sent him a note to remind him of what a period was and to use it on occasion. Negotiating Faulknerian prose is difficult since Faulkner’s language is a tangled, moving mass of dense non-standard English, devoid of apostrophes, commas, periods, odd ellipses and use of italics, and other perversities of syntax. The passage is significant for several reasons: a black man is speaking back to a white character, Joe Christmas. The book is concerned with Joe Christmas grappling with his identity. He is convinced that the one-drop rule of having black blood makes him black. Not mulatto, or otherwise mixed. Black. Not human. While knowledge or self-knowledge is a theme in Light in August, my point is that Faulkner conveys identity as a matter of blood. It does not matter to Joe Christmas what his outward appearance says to the world because what is interior is what he thinks and believes that betrays him. Faulkner is speaking of miscegenation and of self-hatred, the inevitable and interlocking linkage between black and white southerners.
Dilsey is black. No mistaking that fact. It is unchangeable; and yet, Dilsey, who does not speak much in The Sound and The Fury, is the one who is sane, the one who cares for the Compson brothers, who arguably exhibit varying degrees of insanity; she is the one not related to the Compson family, but who has, as a result of Reconstruction policies, stayed on caring for the family. The Compsons are decadent. They are a study in dysfunction: the rebellious Caddy; the man-child Benjy; the doomed neurotic Quentin; and Jason, the uncaring cynic. Then there is Dilsey. She is wholesome, powerful and simultaneously disempowered. They have the inherent privilege of blood and color, whereas she does not; they are flawed and she is virtuous.
Joe Christmas is the inverse of Telemachus’s line to Athena in the Odyssey: “It’s a wise child that knows its own father.” He does not know his father, other than that he suspects that his father bestowed upon him tainted blood and birthright. Insanity is both sound (voices) and fury (mania) for many of Faulkner’s white characters, including the Compson brothers: Benjy, Quentin, and Jason. Faulkner’s title comes from Macbeth: “it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
Faulkner’s last third of The Sound and The Fury, the Easter sermon, written in third person, shows that while black people, including Dilsey and her family, have decency and integrity, and self-knowledge, racism and the vestiges of slavery have stripped them of any potential sound, of any fury. Dilsey does not suffer existential angst about identity. Her skin reminds her of her identity and her place in society; it defines her physically but not spiritually. She is superior to the whites around her, which makes her caring of the family compassionate and elevated, more than a means of economic survival. Unlike Quentin Compson who thinks, Dilsey does. She is the guardian, the nurturing force, the “walking shadow” to the Compsons, to borrow another phrase from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.