The Foreigner in Yoknapatawpha: Rethinking Race in Faulkner's "Global South"

Article excerpt

IN PLESSY V. FERGUSON (1896), one of the most famous Supreme Court cases establishing the division of black and white face in America, Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenter from the majority decision to uphold a Louisiana statute requiring segregation on trains. For this, be has often been heralded as a brave advocate of racial equality who overcame his own past as a slaveholder. However, be has also been remembered correctly as an overt racist who defended the color-blind Constitution because he was certain that the "dominant" white race was in "no danger" from just "eight million blacks." (1) His peers felt differently, recognizing the right of legislatures to separate the races physically as long as "political equality" was maintained. As Eric Sundquist has observed, the ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson gave birth to the years of judicially sanctioned Jim Crow laws and "racist fears" that Harlan had foreboded, and during which William Faulkner's most famous novels were written. (2) Indeed, Joe Christmas, the personification of racial ambiguity in Light in August, can be read as a fictional descendant of Homer Plessy, the seven-eighths-white man capable of "passing."

Plessy is a landmark case, one continually studied and cited today. Yet very few scholars examine or even know the reasoning behind Haflan's dissent, reasoning that is almost always excised from abstracted or condensed versions of Harlan's opinion. Harlan's dissent posits the Chinese as a separate group--one not accepted into citizenship--and contrasts them with citizens of all colors. His other judicial opinions consistently ruled against admitting even American-born Chinese to citizenship. (3) Part of his objection to "the statute in question" in the Plessy case was that it allowed "a Chinaman [to] ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black face [may not]." (4) With the intrusion of new colored races into legal consciousness in Plessy, defining the opposition of colored and white, citizen and noncitizen, had become more complicated. (5) No doubt this logic is expurgated partly as a nod to political correctness, but its omission erases the complex role that the Chinese played in Southern face relations, as well as the novel perspective that they offer.

Like the key legal decisions that shaped the racial dynamics of his era, Faulkner's fiction depicts the ongoing turmoil of segregation between black and white, but at moments leverages the existence of other races in Mississippi to illuminate the shifting ground of in-betweenness and miscegenation. (6) His work is part of a diverse history of the South, in which his depiction of racial mixture is borne out by the historical trajectory of the understudied Chinese. An acknowledgment of the Chinese presence in Mississippi appears in the short story "Delta Autumn," first published in 1942. In his rage at the people who have "denuded and derivered" the Delta for two generations, producing rich white and black men lording over impoverished farm laborers, Ike McCaslin conflates race and class issues, thinking, "Chinese and African and Aryan and Jew, all breed and spawn together until no man has time to say which one is which nor cares," (7) Having just discovered that his family's rampant history of miscegenation is continuing into the next generation, Ike, in his racialized thinking, hysterically overstates the prevalence of miscegenation. Ike's description of the Delta economy stresses the black-white binary, one that he repeatedly learns is specious even within his own family. But his paranoid gaze extends outside his family history to acknowledge the presence of other minorities in the Delta.

This view of a miscegenated futurity in which racial difference will be invisible is rare in Faulkner's works, which chiefly revisit the past through a seemingly never-ending stream of mixed-race family stories. Indeed, only a character obsessed with the legacy he leaves to the future rather than the burden of the past, an Ike rather than a Quentin, can see outside the black-white binary. …