Meditating on Race in America
Looking back from our perspective at the beginning of a new century, one thing seems increasingly clear. The novels of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner join together to form the most remarkable meditations on race written by American novelists in the century just ended. Both write as they must—he from a segregated Southern world of the 1920s and 1930s, she from the vantage point of civil rights turmoil in the 1950s and Black Power in the 1960s. Both are of their time, and both transcend their time. Readers and scholars, myself included, have explored commonalities in their work, even though Morrison herself has insisted (whenever the question arises): "I am not like Faulkner. I am not like in that sense." So let's compare them, while avoiding two major pitfalls. We should not judge her work as though it were trying, and failing, to measure up to his. (You probably won't be tempted to do this.) And we should not judge his work as though hers corrected his brutal treatment of race. (You may well be tempted to do this.)
Certainly Faulkner's work can offend. Racist language fills Faulkner's novels, but not because he is a racist. Rather, he is quoting, accurately, his white culture's most vicious terms for thinking and talking about (and to) blacks. Light in August (1932) tells the story of a man who does not know if he is white or black, yet who is eventually castrated and murdered as a "nigger rapist." Attentive reading of the novel reveals that we cannot know if he is black; and that his killing of Joanna Burden occurs at an ultimate moment of self-defense (she is firing a pistol at him at pointblank range). Because we are permitted to know this, we see all the more powerfully that none of the whites in Faulkner's Jefferson even ask about it, so intent are they on exterminating Joe Christmas as an "uppity nigger" who strays from his place. Joe Christmas is doomed; Faulkner's art lets us see that the horror of such doom is its abiding lack of justification. A racist novel would pass off its racism to the reader without even knowing it is racist. By contrast, Light in August is not racist, but rather focuses on a murderously racist social dynamic that no one in that culture is prepared to understand, let alone prevent.
How can Light in August be one of Faulkner's greatest novels about race, if there are no major black characters in it? The answer is that white racism operates essentially among whites, as white pathology. As Go Tell it on the Mountain author James Baldwin put it, "the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men." No writer has dramatized that "insanity" better than Faulkner. Morrison would surely grant this, but she would take such racial turmoil elsewhere. The black lives she wants to explore are not shadowy victims of white prejudice. They are instead full-blooded black people, disfigured by racism but not merely disfigured. Starting with Sula (1973), Morrison begins the task of imagining black lives nourished by black cultural values (even as they are damaged by white ones). Song of Solomon (1977) pits Macon Dead (a propertied man, with middle-class aspirations, full of disgust for his own race) against Pilate Dead (Macon's repudiated blood sister, yet a compelling figure radiating tribal values) and asks a question Faulkner's work never poses: Where are the missing black parents whose courage and character might guide us today? Song of Solomon (appearing at the same time as Alex Haley's Roots) is a song in search of Solomon, a lament for absent ancestors, and an attempt to imagine them nevertheless. Beloved (1987) is Morrison's masterpiece. Reaching back to the legalized outrageousness of American slavery, Beloved takes up a real event—the slave woman Margaret Garner's murdering (in 1855) her own child rather than allow that child to return into slavery. The novel explores the resources with which blacks survived a system they could not escape and would not accept. Deprived of their manhood, Paul D, Sixo and Stamp Paid manage nevertheless to remain men, just as Sethe sustains her motherhood despite vicious white attacks upon it. Rather than imagining the missing black father, Morrison conceives in this novel the entire race's long-lost child—named Beloved. This character is simultaneously a crazed black girl wandering the roads, Sethe's daughter come back from the dead (in search of love, but also of revenge), and finally a figure for the untold number of blacks who died during the several centuries of slave traffic between Africa and America. The figure of Beloved is Morrison's most amazing creation. Even though she incarnates a history that must be remembered, her return to the world of the living cannot be borne. If Sethe is to resume her life and turn her own tormented past into purpose, she must escape Beloved's stranglehold. "This is not a story to pass on," Morrison writes repeatedly in the novel's final chapter. Blacks must somehow dare to come to grips with their past, yet without drowning in its recall.
Morrison's last three novels—Jazz, Paradise and Love—continue to explore the dramas of American blacks in the 20th century. Her characters are unmistakably damaged by centuries of racism, just as Faulkner knew they were. But in Morrison's work they often possess active and inward resources that Faulkner could not imagine. "They endured," he writes of Dilsey's stubborn integrity (in The Sound and the Fury)—an integrity that is only a minor element on the larger white canvas of disoriented Compsons. Morrison's blacks do so much more than "endure," but they seldom do less. Thus she joins Faulkner in registering the often unwanted and always unavoidable reciprocity of the two races in American history—their strange intertwining. Yet she registers as well, as he cannot, the ways in which American blacks have absorbed the worst that a white world could do to them, and—thanks to their own cultural ingenuity—made of it a living repository of wary wit and hard-earned wisdom.