Among the many things I learned when I studied Souther Literature under William Cobb was the word “miscegenation.” I was ashamed then that I didn’t know the meaning of the word, and I am still ashamed today that I didn’t know then the meaning of that word.
Race-mixing. Sexual relations between members of different races, which in Southern Literary terms means the Black and the White race. Maybe the word only applies to Black and White people in the South, but I don’t know that.
There I was: a 20-year old guy studying the writing of William Faulkner, particularly his land-grabbing, brilliant novel, Absalom, Absalom!, and facing the fictional-based-on-some-reality act of a white man who marries a wealthy Caribbean woman, has a child with her, and then ditches her when he discovers that, racially speaking, she isn’t “pure.” Not that the man has something against un-homogenized but seemingly white women, or completely Black women, but he definitely doesn’t want to marry one who could and does pass for white.
That would not be “adjunctive to the forwarding” of his Grand Design: To found a 19th Century plantation dynasty in Old Mississippi equal to that of the rich Virginia planters who turned him, “this demon” or so he is called, from their door when he was but a poor mountain boy.
This man, this Faulknerian character, is Thomas Sutpen, and if you understand the novel’s title, you catch that fathers and sons don’t always see eye to eye, and manmade and inherited dynasties fall so easily when people refuse to play fairly, or when they decide that honor is more than an abstract notion.
But back to my Southern Lit class under William Cobb at the University of Montevallo, a school situated at the geographic center of the state of Alabama. This was 1978, and I knew that even then, there wasn’t much miscegenation going around my eyes. But I also knew the hard feelings held by many: that only a trashy white woman would ever consider or consent to having relations with a Black man, and even if it happened, most likely consent was forced. Raped. Yes, this is what I heard.
I learned later more about the miscegenation laws that prevented marriages between the races — laws in some Southern states that weren’t legally rescinded until the 1990's.
Back in high school, I heard rumors that some outwardly racist white guys nevertheless carried on with Black girls. These were only rumors, even though the ones in the rumors were named. I won’t name them here, because it’s gossip, second-hand stories, and I never had any idea whether or not they were true. They weren’t my burden, I thought, but I did hear them.
Stories may be trite, scandalous, and they may be profound. In Absalom, Absalom!, our would-be protagonist is a college boy like I was when I first read about him: a Mississippi boy and now Harvard student named “Quentin Compson.” Quentin is the receptacle for the “demon Sutpen’s” story, and it is related to him by Sutpen’s sister-in-law, Rosa Coldfield. When she first calls to him, Quentin asks his father why Miss Rosa has chosen him out of all the boys she might have chosen for her story, to listen, and perhaps one day, as he is doing in the other timeline of the novel, to re-tell the story. His father says:
“…she chose you because your grandfather was the nearest thing to a friend which Sutpen ever had in this county, and she probably believes that Sutpen may have told your grandfather something about himself and her…and that your grandfather might have told me and I might have told you…She may believe that if it hadn’t been for your grandfather’s friendship, Sutpen could never have got a foothold here, and that if he hadn’t got that foothold, he could not have married Ellen (Rosa’s sister). So maybe she considers you partly responsible through heredity for what happened to her and her family through him.”
What his father says might not be true or valid, but nevertheless, Quentin feels the burden of history, and this history of the Sutpen dynasty, its wonder and its tragedy (and its miscegenation), will not only fall onto Quentin’s shoulders; it will help bury him.
When we hear or read a story, we have some choices. We can forget; we can say that “this doesn’t apply to me or to my world.” Or, we can remember and even own that story, that history.
So, miscegenation on my mind, I read something today which I already know — because I am no longer a college student. I actually am teaching Absalom, Absalom! right now to undergraduates. But I am still a student of history and might always be a student of Faulkner. This passage is not from Faulkner, though:
“South Carolina governor Cole Blease (1910), citing his belief in the animalistic inability of blacks to control themselves, routinely pardoned the killers of black men, especially in the case of African Americans committing violence against other African Americans. ‘This is the case of one negro killing another — the old familiar song — “Hot supper; liquor; dead negro,”’ the governor wrote in one explanation of a pardon. As for sexual assaults of black women, Governor Blease asserted it was the nature of every African American woman to want sex at every opportunity. ‘Adultery seems to be their most favorite pastime,’ he said. ‘I have…very serious doubts as to whether the crime of rape can be committed upon a negro’” ( Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name 305).
Later as a US Senator, Blease read the poem “Niggers in the White House” to protest President Hoover’s inviting Black people to said White House.
It is absurd, of course, to believe that a Black person cannot be raped. No civil human being thinks such today. Or who am I kidding? Civil human beings thought so in 1910, and what about their descendants? What stories did Blease’s descendants hear about him, about Black people? About rape?
What do these descendants carry with them? What do they believe?
I don’t believe Miss Rosa Coldfield chose Quentin to tell her story because she believed he would give it an enlightened spin. I think she did want a sympathetic ear and believed she would get a sympathetic re-telling, and thus a legacy of justice for her and her family. A separation, if you will, from the demon Sutpen.
But our stories are never really, certainly not wholly, separate. We are family. Southerners. Americans. Human beings. Of course, we haven’t always treated, and still don’t, each other as such. Yet here we are — all walking and talking and quite often, doing injustices to each other out of some misguided notion of racial superiority/inferiority.
Fortunately, our stories are surviving us, even if it has taken these stories decades to be uncovered and re-told. They are out there, and right now, anyway, in these United States, our stories are neither illegal, immoral, nor hidden. They are our legacy, our past.
And they are still our burden.