Filed under: Books | Tags: faulkner, hybridity, light in august, mixed-race, mulatto, mules, race, sterility
As I alluded to in an earlier mules post, there is a historical association of “mulattos,” the word used in America to denote people born of one black and one white parent, with mules. As Werner Sollors details in his book, Neither Black nor White yet Both: Interracial themes in Literature, the association is one concerning hybridity and supposed infertility or barrenness.
Mules, being a cross-breed between two different species, the horse and ass, are typically infertile when mated together. And when one man, Edward Long, made the conclusion in 1774 that “the White and the Negroe are two distinct species” he also stated his belief that mulattos were like the mule, and would prove themselves infertile after generations of intermixing.
In 1841, Josiah Clark Nott, a doctor from the Medical College of Alabama found the arguments of Long and others to be perfect justification for the separation of the races and the “natural” enslavement of blacks. He link the threat of human extinction with further mixing of the races. Thus came his 1843 essay, “The Mulatto a Hybrid—probable extermination of the two races if the Whites and Blacks are allowed to intermarry.”
Enter again, the mule. Nott makes an explicit comparison with the animal saying that mullatos were “the offspring of two distinct species—as the mule from the horse and the ass.” This hybrid, he claims, will cause human extinction, but I will come back to this later.
Brief interruption: It is important to remember that the construction of race, followed by “race” as “species,” is the forced vocabulary of this sort of historical/literary parsing and discussion. I feel compelled to use the terms of the period, but personally believe that it was all a waste of breath, as we now know differences labeled “race” are merely cosmetic, physical differentiation/diversity within the human species. But it is our history, and these thoughts that seems today ludicrous to many do shed light on how we think about race, mixing, and diversity today. They also give needed pause about conviction. These men were convinced that race meant species. I am convinced that they were wrong. What will someone reading this history in fifty years be certain of?
But seriously, back to mules. I return to my hypothesis made earlier in May about Faulkner’s use of mules in his fiction. His mules, to use an awkward possessive construction there, struck me then as a commentary on blacks in the south (possibly poor whites as well), but now I venture to narrow that comparison to be specifically between his mules and his mixed raced characters. Both are a cursed race in Faulkner’s fiction and both must toil in labor for the benefit of white Southerners. The use of metaphor is striking in his 1929 novel, Flags in the Dust.
Some Cincinnatus of the cotton fields should contemplate the lowly destiny, some Homer should sing the saga of the mule and his place in the South. He it was, more than any one creature or thing, who, steadfast, to the land when all else faltered before the hopeless juggernaut of circumstance, impervious to conditions that broke men’s hearts because of his venomous and patient preoccupation with the immediate present, won the prone South from beneath the iron heel of Reconstruction and taught it ride again through humility and courage through adversity overcome; who accomplished the well-nigh impossible hopeless odd, by sheer and vindictive patience. Father and mother he does not resemble, sons and daughters he will never have; vindictive and patient (it is a known fact that he will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once); solitary but without pride, self-sufficient but without vanity; his voice is his own derision (Flags in the Dust 315).
Faulkner calls for the tragedy of the Southern mule to be written by some “Cincinnatus” or “Homer,” but I argue that it is Faulkner who eventually wrote it in the form of his 1932 novel,Light in August. The book’s protagonist, Joe Christmas, understands himself to be black even though he looks as white as the next white guy in Jefferson. (This is problematic too, I know, but stick with me) Christmas is never really sure of his racial makeup. He is an orphan of course, and Faulkner’s unreliable characters tell us that Christmas’ father was a dark man, possibly Mexican, but most likely black.
I cannot think immediately of any mules that appear in Light in August. But perhaps that would have been too obvious, for Joe Christmas’ life parallels in many ways that of a mule. As a child he carries the burdens of many adult characters. The dietician at the orphanage unintentionally has sex on the premises in front of him. He without realizing it carries her secret that he does not understand until she is compelled in paranoia to rush his adoption. His adoptive father McEachern, a cruel religious man, forces him to labor intensely on their farm under a heavy lash of fear in God. Christmas is whipped mercilessly by this man and endures the violence without showing any pain. He carries on out of stubbornness doing the things that bring the beatings as his hatred for his adoptive father grows.
If one views Christmas as a mulatto/mule figure, there becomes visible a clear shared image at use in Flags in the Dust, Light in August and Faulkner’s story “Old Man” from If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. In “Old Man,” Faulkner’s story about a convict on the river during the great 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, the story’s narrator compares mules with the swollen Mississippi stating, “this is the norm and the river was now doing what it liked to do, had waited patiently the ten years in order to do, as a mule will work for you ten years for the privilege of kicking you once (135).” Remember the image originates in parenthetical in the ode from Flags, “(it is a known fact that he will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.)”
After years of abuse, Joe Christmas finally kicks the man who rode him hard. When Mr. McEachern shows up at the party where Christmas dances with his older “girlfriend” Bobbie, the father begins violently naming her a “Jezebel” a “harlot” (204). In retaliation or maybe vengeance, Joe strikes him repeatedly with a chair. This leaves McEachern unconscious on the ground and Christmas flees. The reader is left ignorant of the man’s fate for he does not reappear later in the novel.
Later Christmas comes upon Jefferson and works at a mill doing what Faulkner describes repeatedly as the work of blacks. He shovels all-day, silent and steady. This is in contrast to another worker, Brown, who chats and barely works. But the two team up and Christmas takes on a side-job that fulfills one very specific definition of “a mule.” He begins making moonshine and smuggling it to buyers in town. This is in partnership with Brown and their business quickly grows lucrative.
Christmas is Joanna Burden’s lover and they secretly sleep together for years, when one day Joanna believes that she is pregnant. Joe rejects the idea of their having a child. The fears and reasons for this are unclear if expressed at all. But in an innovative Faulkner twist, there is no baby, for it is Joanna that is barren. She has grown too old to have child, though her passion is that of a young woman, or one who has lived alone for most of her adult life.
In this case, the possible mulatto character is not the one proven sterile. Instead it is the white northern woman who wants to help and fraternize with the Negro population of Jefferson. Her own ambiguous “brown,” “maybe Mexican” heritage is revealed in the text, and as early as childhood Joanna had an uber-awareness of blacks as a “curse,” the white child’s burden. Her name is no subtle indicator of the weight she feels:
“he said, ‘Remember this. Your grandfather and brother are lying there, murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on a whole race before your grandfather or your brother or me or you were even thought of. A race doomed and cursed to be forever and ever a part of the white race’s doom and curse for its sins. Remember that. His doom and his curse. Forever and ever. Mine. Your mother’s. Yours, even though you are a child. The curse of every white child that ever was born and that ever will be born. None can escape it.’ And I said, ‘Not even me?’ and he said, ‘Not even you. Least of all, you.’ I had seen and known negroes since I could remember. I just looked at them as I did the rain, or furniture, or food or sleep. But after that I seemed to see them for the first time not as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people, all other people. I thought of the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of a cross. And it seemed like the white babies were struggling, even before they drew breath, to escape from the shadow that was not only upon them but beneath them too, flung out like their arms were flung out, as if they were nailed to the cross. I saw all the little babies that would ever be in the world, the ones not yet even born—a long line of them with their arms spread, on the black crosses” (252-53).
While Christmas never gets Burden pregnant, her subsequent murder and his lynching speak to the aforementioned racist assertions that mulattos do not live long and cannot procreate amongst themselves. So in my suggesting that Burden is a mulatta, especially by the loose/catch-all definitions of that in Faulkner’s South, Nott’s phrasing comes back to mind. The violent death of these characters echoes his violent word choice of “extermination” in the title of his essay, which I remind you of: “The Mulatto a Hybrid—probable extermination of the two races if the Whites and Blacks are allowed to intermarry.”
Nott attempted to speak to a scientific source for his conclusions, but instead of using a more epheumistic or vague term such as “extinction” to refer to the end of a species, he uses “extermination.” Extermination suggests conflict- one party eliminating another. The term is inevitably used by the victorious party who is able to verify the non-existence of the other. One can thus read Nott’s essay to suggest that the “extermination of the two races” will be a result of violence, at the hands of the two races. He wishes his point to be a biological one, based in science and fact, but at its core it remains a racist hope, with violent undercurrents. The “citizen officers” who led the lynching of Joe Christmas raged against the biology implied in his sleeping with a white woman. Nott and others who convinced themselves that race=species would undoubtedly have supplied the rope.
Filed under: Dust | Tags: cold, dunster, faulkner, harvard, hearth, home, winter
When I first came to Harvard I was unprepared for the culture shock. I was unprepared for how nothing there would remind me of home. A year later, I was equally unprepared for how Dunster House would begin to feel like home. How could I expect a place so large and grand, with hundreds of people, many of whom I would never meet, to become my home? But it did. And like all homes I had to leave it for my own sake.
Maybe some of you saw, on the coldest cold days, a girl about my height running down DeWolfe street, her bag swinging violently back and forth threatening to pull her crashing to the icy sidewalk. That girl was me.
I told myself that I was running because it meant less time in the cold, in what Faulkner called the “iron New England Dark.” I told myself the exertion would warm me up and I would feel my toes again. But really I was just a girl running home from school.
Home to a warm meal prepared by friendly faces and endless supplies of hot chocolate. Home to my friends on the phone and my room. Instead of overalls I wore wool socks and instead of Dear America books I carried Civil War histories. But the pursuit of hearth was the same, and I find myself still running today.
My latest DAP post about a vintage store, Hippy Market, on the Right Bank. Click on the link below to check it out and then come visit me and we’ll go shopping!