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W. E. B. Du Bois, William Faulkner, and the Dialectic of Black and White: In Search of Exodus for a Postcolonial American South

From: Callaloo
Volume 33, Number 2, Spring 2010
pp. 521-536 | 10.1353/cal.0.0666

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W. E. B. Du Bois, William Faulkner, and the Dialectic of Black and White:
In Search of Exodus for a Postcolonial American South

We are all Jews lost in the wilderness, Brother, and we are blackmen according to the word. And the word, which is the truth, say unto I, in this world, in this life, every man is a Jew searching for his Zion. Every man is a blackman lost in a white world of grief.

—Orlando Patterson

Introduction: Exodus and the Postcolonial

In his landmark collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois takes a sobering look at the post-Reconstruction South, one in which black bodies are still trapped in a life of toil and forever indebted to the land. Such a land emerges in contrast to a promised freedom and bears an uncanny resemblance to a former Egypt; black Americans, in Du Bois's account, have yet to truly achieve exodus. And yet this is not the vision shared by a white South still waving the Confederate flag and reeling from the insult of defeat, its own "civilization" seemingly usurped and transformed by a triumphant North. For whites of the "Old South," they themselves are the victims—blacks the beneficiaries—of the brutal passage of modernization that was the Civil War. This is the South of William Faulkner's Light in August (1932), which imagines the small town community of Jefferson locked in a gesture of defeat that mourns its antebellum existence. In Faulkner's scenario it is the white South that believes itself to be God's chosen, a people who have been tragically deprived of their very own promised land.

In order to think these dual and contradictory claims, this essay juxtaposes Du Bois's "Black Belt" with the Faulknerian white South spawned of the old Confederacy. I argue that this comparison highlights the South as a site of clashing narratives of oppression, narratives that might be usefully viewed through the prism of postcoloniality. While this clash turns on the seemingly irreconcilable issue of racial difference, thought together, these narratives suggest that the relationship between master and slave is a dynamic one, and that the post-bellum southern racial order is not simply a re-signification of the one that was there before.

This essay explores the knotty issue of southern postcoloniality through the motifs of exodus and election that have been important not only to African American culture and [End Page 521] the distinctly Southern environment, but also to understandings of American nationalism as a whole. The Exodus myth has been central to America's national, religious, and racial self-understanding. Exodus, the second book of the Judeo-Christian bible, tells the story of the Hebrews' escape from Egyptian slavery. Led by Moses and guided by the benevolent hand of God, these slaves are crowned a "chosen people," destined for a promised land where they will act as an example to the rest of the world, a "light unto the nations." Exodus is thus a narrative about freedom, one that speaks to the relationship between master and slave, between land, race, and nation, while centralizing an account of divine election, the idea that a "people" might be singled out to receive special favor in the eyes of God. From the time of the first Puritan settlements that led to the founding of the United States, American patriots have mined the resources of this story to tell of their own nation's birth in flight from imperial oppression. That this narrative of divine chosenness potentially sanctions racial superiority has been most fully realized in the South, where Southern white racists have drawn a Manichean line between whites and blacks as winners and losers in a cosmic battle for salvation.

And yet as Du Bois's narrative illustrates, and as numerous commentators have pointed out, African Americans have in turn appropriated this same story to imagine their liberation from the tyranny of United States slavery and its enduring legacy of racism.1 In many ways black America's rendition of the Exodus story is a deconstruction, as opposed to a repetition, of the myth that stands...