- How Faulkner Means Everything He SaysAn Essay on James Baldwin’s Politics of Intentionality
I too feel the old inherited prejudices … but when the white man is driven by the old inherited prejudices to do the things he does, I think the whole black race is laughing at him.—William Faulkner (quoted in Blotner 1984, 679)
I don’t think about you one way or the other, Faulkner. I just don’t know how to move on your word.—James Baldwin (2000, 288)
Anyone who approaches James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name having never heard of William Faulkner will close its seventh chapter, “Faulkner and [End Page 49] Desegregation,” unaware that the man Baldwin calls “the squire of Oxford” had ever written a novel, let alone that he had also been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (Baldwin 1998a, 209). Baldwin’s elision of any reference to Faulkner’s art speaks both to the essay’s occasional nature and to its critical function. Occasional because when “Faulkner and Desegregation” originally appeared in the March 1956 issue of Partisan Review, Faulkner was embroiled in a brief but heated controversy ignited not by any of his then 15 published novels but rather by some recent public remarks in which he cautioned civil rights leaders against pursuing their momentum toward forced integration in the South. “Go slow now,” Faulkner famously warned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The segregationist vitriol that encompassed Autherine Lucy’s admission to the University of Alabama made Faulkner fear that the emotional volatility of white Southerners would erupt violently against an uncomfortably rapid black liberation. Therefore, in a clearly prioritized effort to placate reactionary white hysterics rather than honor the urgent demands of the African American community, the unsolicited advice Faulkner gave to civil rights organizations recommended that they “stop now for a time” and wait indeterminately for whites to “[catch their] breath and assimilate [the] knowledge” of Jim Crow’s inevitable “obsolescence” before resuming their cause at a less adamant pace (1965, 87, 91).
Yet, even though a pronounced disappointment with Faulkner’s tepid position on American race relations occupies the forefront of Baldwin’s polemic, the conspicuous absence of any literary commentary in “Faulkner and Desegregation” addresses more than just the occasional circumstances of the essay’s publication. The omission ultimately dethrones the Faulkner totem, a gesture essential to Baldwin’s critical strategy. Baldwin focuses exclusively on the implications of Faulkner’s myopically white-centric perspective on racial inequality and, by doing so, he reduces the squire of Oxford’s apparent “dis-identification” with the exigency of black empowerment to its baldest form.1 As a result, the image of Faulkner one gets from Baldwin is neither the ur-modernist sage nor the exceptionally untimely liberal Southerner adorned with world-renowned literary accolades. Baldwin’s Faulkner, when denied the protection of individuating laurels and celebrity mystique, is instead rendered basely prototypical, a product and personification of the white tide of hereditary [End Page 50] prejudices against which black “salvation” ineluctably struggles.2 So when he concludes his essay by stating bluntly, “the time Faulkner asks for does not exist,… there is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation” (1998a, 214), Baldwin not only criticizes as retrograde Faulkner’s personal willingness to yield black emancipation to the discretion of white normalization; he also implies more generally that any pacifying postponement of racial salvation—like, for example, the messianic promises with which the final pages of Go Down, Moses (1990) famously close; or like the condescendingly insistent claims in The Sound and the Fury that rote “endurance” and “unimpatience” mark the African American’s most exemplary and inexorable virtues (Faulkner 1994, 215, 56)—ultimately adheres to a notion of justice that prejudicially subordinates black urgency to the whims of white comfort.3
Therefore, rather than just an individual person or a signed body of authored work, in Baldwin’s hands “Faulkner” generically stands for a privileged white authority, a “world,” which systemically perpetuates normalized racial inequality via white deferrals of black “salvation.” If desegregation marks the utmost ambition of the political progresses of...