Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Coming between the "Black Beast" and the White Virgin: The Pressures of Liminality in Thomas Dixon

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Coming between the "Black Beast" and the White Virgin: The Pressures of Liminality in Thomas Dixon

Article excerpt

The girl uttered a cry, long, tremulous, heart-rending, piteous. A single tiger-spring, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat and she was still.

--Thomas Dixon, The Clansman

I have three daughters, but, so help me God, I would rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear and gather up the bones and bury them, conscious that she died in the purity of her maidenhood, than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her maidenhood by a black fiend.

--Senator Benjamin Tillman

South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman defended lynching in this extraordinary speech, made in 1906 on the Senate floor. Tillman justified the maiming and hanging of the black male body by evoking another besieged body--that of the white woman. Just as the lynched body is replaced by the white woman's body, her body, too, undergoes displacements: Tillman rhetorically dismembers her, substituting scattered bones for her whole, enfleshed, penetrable body. The Senator didn't bother to make clear whether the "robbing" of her maidenhood is the work of rape or consensual sex, probably because he could not admit the latter possibility. Nonetheless, his glossing over this information is vital. Whether rape victim or sex partner, better that she die than become, like the "black fiend," a crawling animal. In response to his daughter's miscegenation, the white father in Tillman's fantasy suffers a parallel degradation: "The young girl thus blighted and brutalized drags herself to her father and tells him what has happened .... Our brains reel under this staggering blow and hot blood surges to the heart ... we revert to the original savage.(1)

In making this speech, Senator Tillman was, according to Eric Sundquist, "taking a page directly from Dixon.": Certainly the Senator eerily echoed a character who crops up repeatedly in Thomas Dixon: the filicidal white father, professing an urge to murder his daughter in order to save her from violation. Tillman evoked in his speech Dixon's first and central model of miscegenation: the "black beast" attacking the white virgin who cannot fend him off. The only adequate response for Dixon and Tillman to such merging of black and white bodies is to break the bodies involved. The black man's must be castrated and lynched, the white woman's killed, by the "black beast," by herself, or symbolically executed in the imagination of her father, who would rather find her dead than in bed. The imperative to separate the two bodies plays out in the way the black man's body gets separated from itself, his testicles severed, and the way Tillman imagines his daughter's bones scattered on the ground.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Thomas Dixon Jr. was a popular and influential writer, as evidenced by the echoing of his rhetoric in the speeches of the nation's political leaders. To Sundquist, Tillman's speech indicates two things: the degree of Dixon's popularity, and the reason for it. "Dixon's great popularity.., depended upon a leering, propagandistic portrait of the black rapist."(3) Today, Dixon is known mostly through his connection to the D. W. Griffith movie The Birth of a Nation (1915), based on two of Dixon's earliest novels, The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905).(4) Of course, The Birth of a Nation has its technical brilliance to justify its continued life despite its racist content. Unlike Griffith, Dixon does not have artistry to

secure him a place in history. Not only was he a racist, he was a bad writer. Given this deadly combination, it seems sensible to consign Dixon to a well-deserved obscurity. At best, Dixon seems a cultural footnote, a popular writer who articulated the racism and separatism that surged at the turn of the century. It was a wave that Dixon both helped generate and rode, and that ultimately left him beached, an antiquated racist unable to adjust to new literary tastes in the 1920s and 1930s, an anachronism. …

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