Faulkner 101: Toni Morrison and William Faulkner
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.
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.