Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Prison of Regionalism

My good friend over at A Brilliant Shade of Red alerted me to an online treasure for lovers of Southern literature: an audio archive of William Faulkner's talks to faculty and students at the University of Virginia in 1957. I had never actually heard his voice before. I know it sounds silly but I experienced a slight thrill as I heard Faulkner himself tell students how to spell "Yoknapatawpha" or answer questions about determinism in his fiction. But it was incredibly maddening and disappointing to hear him respond to questions about integration in the aftermath of Brown vs. The Board of Education. He essentially said that the court ruling should not be enforced:

I think that the Southerner, the—the provincial backwoods Southerner, will have to be let alone because he is—he is ignorant, he is proud, and he is—is limited to where he will let nobody tell him what he must do. It's a—a childish sort of recalcitrance, that anyone—when he is told that he must do something, he will do the opposite just to show them. He knows that he is—is wrong, that he has a condition which must be changed, and he has been trying to change it by his own methods. He's too slow about it. He should've known that this Supreme Court decision would be made. There was a—a lawyer in my town that told people fifteen years ago that sooner or later the Supreme Court would have to say that, but nobody believed him. They were—in their—their slow way, they were doing things to improve the Negro's condition. When the Supreme Court decision came out saying they must do it now, people that—that were working in their slow way toward it, took the other side. They say that the government shall not tell us what we will do, can do, must do, in our own country, with our own people, with our own culture and system.

Translation: "Yes, the South is wrong in this. Yes, segregation has to end, and we were trying to do it but we were too slow. The Supreme Court decision was inevitable. But the Supreme Court really screwed things up because it triggered Southern defensiveness so that now even the Southerners who were trying to end segregation are standing shoulder to shoulder with the rednecks against those interferin' Yankees. "

As for his contention that Southern whites were dismantling Jim Crow on their own, I know of nothing in the historical record that supports that other than the token admission of three black students to the University of Arkansas in 1948: two black men to the law school and one black woman to the medical school.

The notion that the South could and should handle the racial problem on its own is one of the themes of his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, which you could call the To Kill a Mockingbird of Faulkner's works. Lucas Beauchamp, a black man, is falsely accused of murdering a white man. He is acquitted, largely thanks to the efforts of two teenagers, one white and one black, who set out to prove Beauchamp's innocence. The mouthpiece for Faulkner's values in the novel is the uncle of the white teenager and Beauchamp's attorney, a lawyer named Gavin Stevens. Gavin talks to his nephew about what he calls Lucas' "shameful condition" (being regarded as inferior by whites and his subordinate legal status) and the sense of impending pressure from the rest of the country to accord full civil rights to Southern blacks (in 1948 an African-American had already sued the University of Oklahoma for admission; the novel was also published in the year of Harry Truman's executive order declaring an end to racial discrimination in the armed forces). Stevens says, in effect, "We [white Southerners] need to do this ourselves because we owe them [black people]." But then Stevens says, "if Lucas' equality is to be anything other than its own prisoner inside an impregnable barricade of the direct heirs of the victory of 1861-1865, which probably did more than even John Brown to stalemate Lucas' freedom..."

Faulkner seems to be blaming slow progress in according full equality to blacks on efforts to change the condition of African-Americans by force. The Civil War, court rulings, all that does is impede black progress. What will work is for the right sort of Southern gentleman to come 'round and Do the Right Thing.

Faulkner's attitudes about civil rights illustrate the insidiousness of the Southern white persecution complex: it was capable of infecting one of the greatest literary minds of the past century, who peopled his fiction with strong and complex black characters, and who realistically and devastatingly portrayed the strength and destructiveness of racism in Southern life. And yet, once it stopped being him who was criticizing the South, but "outsiders," it was a completely different matter.

His attitude also reflects one of the more absurd strains of American conservative thought: that enforcing something necessary and just by legislation or court ruling is an infringement on our freedoms (during the Civil Rights era, white Southerners often declared their fight against the Civil Rights Movement as a defense of their rights).

Time and again during the effort to pass health care reform, I heard various conservative objections such as, there are doctors who will cut you a break on your bills, or people who are really hurt can go to the emergency room.

Well, just as hoping that a Gavin Stevens or an Atticus Finch will step up and save you from the noose isn't a substitute for having actual legal rights, hoping a doctor will cut you a break isn't the same as confidence that being sick won't bankrupt you, and knowing you can go to the emergency room when you're hurt isn't the same as being able to get regular exams that can detect an illness before it gets serious. Sometimes we just need laws to make sure justice is done.

And I will never understand why some people don't get that.

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