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NATHAN TIPTON University of Tennessee Health Science Center Rope and Faggot: The Homoerotics of Lynching in William Faulkner’s Light in August FOR LITERARY AND CULTURAL CRITICS ALIKE, THE YOKING TOGETHER OF homoeroticism and lynching has proven to be a dicey proposition. After all, counterpoising the anathema-laden topographies of predominately racially-inflected murderous mob violence with barely sublimated same-sex desire, thereby creating a gruesome atmosphere generally highlighted by ritualized castration and almost orgasmic community response, doesn’t exactly make for pleasant reading or conversation. Yet linkages between lynching and homoeroticism, whether suggested or directly stated, continue to surface in literary works, artistic representations, theatrical and cinematic productions, and even in contemporary newspaper headlines.1 In this essay, I want to lay bare this fraught terrain by offering a queer take on Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August which has at its core the overtly sexual aspects—the “rope and faggot”—of lynching. This essay’s title is intentionally dualistic. It is first a direct reference to Walter White’s seminal and influential 1929 exposé of lynching, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch. However, as an inveterate lover of puns, I am also struck with the gallows humor of the punning sensibility of White’s title. While lynchers routinely employed horrific methods such as hot branding irons and cattle prods (items that, not coincidentally, hint specifically at the phallic envy informing both the motivations and minds of lynchers) by which to terrify, torture, and maim their victims before ultimately killing them, White includes only 1 For an overview of the “cultural logic of lynching” as expressed in fictional works by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Stephen Crane, James Weldon Johnson, and Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as seen in nineteenth-century lynching photographs, see Goldsby. For explorations of the disturbing and often sexually provocative antilynching art that appeared in pre-World War II America, see Apel. The theatrical stage and the cinematic screen have proven to be fertile ground for explorations or depictions of lynching, although most films eschew foregrounding its sexualized aspect. For theatrical and cinematic productions, see for example Perkins and Stephens. 370 Nathan Tipton the basic lynching impedimenta, the rope and the faggot, for the attention-getting name of his work. The rope is, of course, self-evident, since ropes are the preferred method of “stringing-up” lynching victims. Faggot, on the other hand, is a word laden with multiple meanings. For White, “faggot” is emblematic of the fire that culminated in a successful lynching, yet the disparaging slang use of the word to describe homosexual men first surfaced a mere fifteen years before the publication of White’s book.2 Whether or not White was aware of this insulting linguistic permutation remains to be proven, but in terms of Light in August the conflation of the two variant definitions is especially apt. White, particularly in his chapter “Sex and Lynching,” explodes the myth surrounding the “bogy of sex crimes” allegedly committed by Negroes against Southern white women and subsequently deployed as a defense of lynching. As a result of this persistent myth, White extrapolates that the South creates for itself a sex-obsession that all too quickly progresses into “abnormal sex instincts” inextricably tied to the lynching spectacle. One of the centerpieces of White’s argument, that the over-emphasis on sex in the lynching states has made the South the terrified victim of its own sexual fears, is a telling observation made by psychiatrist A. A. Brill, who definitively connects the propensity to mob violence with these abnormal sex instincts: The torture which is an accompaniment of modern lynching shows that it is an act of perversion only found in those suffering from extreme forms of sexual perversion. Of course, not all lynchings are conducted in this fashion, but it is not uncommon to read accounts telling that the victim was tortured with hot irons, that his eyes were burned out, and that other monstrous cruelties were inflicted upon him. Such bestiality can be recognized only as a form of perversion. (White 61) Brill’s repeated use of the word “perversion,” along with his association of lynching torture with sexual dysfunction, cannot be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 369-391
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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