Race in Faulkner's Novels
One of the most debated questions about Faulkner, particularly since the last third of the 20th century, has been his attitude towards blacks. In the best-case scenario, we can say that Faulkner, born in 1897, was a product of his time and place, the Mississippi of his birth and heritage. He did not believe in the equality of black people, and during the school desegregation battles, he sided with those who would prevent blacks from gaining access to "White Only" schools. He knew black people as servers and laborers, but not as equals. And yet, being a product of his times also meant that he shared intimate space with black people, including his childhood nanny, whom he called "Mammy" until her death in 1940.
Caroline Barr, "Mammy Callie," took care of Faulkner and his brothers in their youth and, in turn, also Faulkner's own daughter, Jill. While he clearly recognized Caroline Barr's humanity and her capacity for "devotion and love" (as he stated in dedicating Go Down, Moses to her), his affection for her remained primarily within the accepted paternalistic racial mode. As a maternal presence from his childhood into his maturity, Caroline Barr inspired Faulkner to create several fictional characters modeled on her: Mammie Cal'line Nelson in his first novel Soldiers' Pay; Dilsey Gibson in The Sound and the Fury; and Molly (also Mollie) Beauchamp in Go Down, Moses. Both Dilsey and Molly are among his most memorable, principled and moral characters. They seem to stem from Faulkner's sense of Caroline Barr as a second mother and as a teacher; he wrote in her funeral sermon that Barr was "a font not only of authority and information, but of affection, respect and security." The representations of Caroline Barr in Faulkner's fiction suggest the difference between his literal or everyday rationalized ideology of race as a white Mississippian living in the Deep South and his determined deployment of race as a category of understanding human behavior, values and beliefs within his fiction. Almost in spite of his socialization and acculturation, Faulkner struggles both to represent and to explain the existence and persistence of racism within not merely Southern society, but American society in the 20th century. His more conscious awareness of blacks as an inevitable, complex and intricate aspect of American life separates him from a number of United States authors in the 20th century who ignored and erased blacks from any visibility whatsoever in their depiction of American society.
A fascinating aspect of Faulkner's career is that he remarks in his essay on the composition of Sartoris that he learned to tell stories of people from the black stable boys and men (and in other places he includes Caroline Barr in his list of storytellers he learned from). He states that his writing was not coming together until he remembered the black voices he has listened to as a youth, and with that memory he could concentrate on writing his novel with the sounds of those voices and stories in the background.
Our Light in August professor shares his perspective.