- The Character of Race: Adoption and Individuation in William Faulkner’s Light in August and Charles Chesnutt’s The Quarry
“Am I not still a Negro?”
Donald Glover in Charles Chesnutt’s The Quarry(1928)
“If I’m not, damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time.”
Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August(1932)
The Adopted Child of Uncertain or Unknown race is a seldom-noticed but recurring figure that interests prominent writers such as Charles Chesnutt and William Faulkner.1 As highlighted in the epigraphs, both writers dramatize the anxieties of racial individuation—what it means to emerge as a separate and undivided entity—through their adopted orphans. Donald Glover asks “Am I not still a Negro?” when he finds out that he was adopted. Joe Christmas’s famous line about the possibility of being part-Negro—“If I’m not, damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time”—follows his admission that he does not know who his biological parents are. These passages use adoption to ironize the assumption that race can secure the permanence and sameness of selfhood. Here, racial identification is profoundly unsettling because it raises the problem of the continuity of self—the sameness of identity over time: “Am I not still a Negro?”; “If I’m not, damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time.” For these characters, mixed-race adoption posits that race is something that changes from one moment to the next. In Chesnutt’s novel, race may change depending on who adopts. [End Page 69] In Faulkner’s novel, Christmas’s racial identification is revealed as a fantasy about his “real” parents. The time-lag in both instances articulates the gap between the disclosure of who you are and what you are in relation to another.2 For Glover and Christmas, the inability to account for themselves to another opens up a more dynamic, interactive, and relational model for thinking about race.
The time lag that marks the anxieties of individuation underlying these passages has not been adequately addressed in readings of these texts. Both Charles Chesnutt’s The Quarry and William Faulkner’s Light in August have customarily been framed in terms of racial passing, the phenomenon of light-skinned mixed-race persons who hide their black heritage and pass as white in society. Several critics notice that Donald Glover and Joe Christmas pose a unique twist to passing: the characters pass as white and pass as black, and ultimately settle, however uneasily, into a black persona.3 Whether or not one decides that Glover and Christmas choose to pass or choose not to pass, pass as white or pass as black, the theme of passing powerfully poses the social construction of race, even as it frames the problem of racial identity in terms of an individual choice.4 Passing privileges racial identity as a problem of being true to oneself, because to pass presumes that one is masquerading as something that one is not. Despite exploring how race operates as a fiction, then, narratives of passing often operate within an ethics of individual choice guided by binary assumptions of true or false identity, loyalty or betrayal. Passing stories typically end by establishing who an individual “really” is, stabilizing situations of flux and dissembling. This is why passing plots so often stage a sentimental drama of betrayal and disloyalty to one’s race.
Privileging ethical implications of individual choice in passing plots misses a crucial dynamic of racial personhood because that focus assumes that race is a stable referent to which the individual can relate and that the individual is an already integrated entity. It assumes and reproduces both race and the individual as static givens. Adoption, on the other hand, disrupts these assumptions. Both Donald Glover and Joe Christmas express anxiety when confronted with their adoption because they cannot maintain unified selves insulated from external speculation and definition—that the what they are for another is never separate from who they are. The question “Am I not still a Negro?” in response to adoption reveals that one’s race is not one’s own at all...