“The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another — or others — always has been and always will be a recipe for murder.” — James Baldwin
Religion is now one of the major fault lines of American politics. Here, though, I’d like to address something that impacts potentially on both religion and politics, a fault line of the mind that’s not addressed by either adequately, if at all.
William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and MIssissippi’s most celebrated son everywhere but in his home state (where he had pushed way too many buttons), was of two minds. One drunk, one sober.
had been murdered mercilessly in his Magnolia State — also known as the Hospitality State by some — in 1955, in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared public school desegregation unconstitutional.
Faulkner understood — as few did — the deep and global implications of the Emmett Till case. Asked to comment on it during a sojourn in Rome, he cited the “sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults in an afflicted Negro.” In the perilous atomic age, amid the rise of anticolonial struggles, Faulkner said, America’s Cold War competition with the Soviet Union meant that the nation could no longer afford racial atrocities and patent injustices. The Till case was the absolute nadir, he thought. “Because if we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.”
If we had reached the point? Jesus! We had just A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki gratuitously. And ever since the birth of the nation whites — including presidents — had committed abominations against Native Americans and kidnapped souls from Africa elsewhere. His words are inexplicable, it seems, in light of the fact that he had written much about them
, was aware of their history; I’m speaking of the Indians here, as scholarship has firmly established his attitude toward African-Americans.
Faulkner’s eloquent writing and moral resolve, however, apparently dissolved in champagne when a reporter interviewed him in Paris, a few months after his time in Italy. In the French capital he declared, “The Till boy got himself into a fix and he almost got what he deserved.” The interviewer asked if the murder would have been justified had Till been an adult. “It depends,” Faulkner replied, “if he had been an adult and had behaved even more offensively…. But you don’t murder a child.”
Oh, really? [Pause.] Again, I’m obliged to underscore the historic fact that Faulkner had chosen — on an ongoing basis, not just while inebriated — that white presidents in the U.S. (and — now — blacks too… since Obama’s abominations abroad) have mutilated and murdered untold innocent children for a very long time. And not just overseas.
Soon after the exchange in Paris, Faulkner pled drunkenness and blamed both the champagne and the interviewer, who had noted, “These are statements which no sober man would make nor, it seemed to me, any sane man believe.” W.E.B. Dubois, speaking on a radio program in California, challenged Faulkner to a debate at the courthouse in Sumner, MIssissippi, but the Nobel Prize-winner declined.
African-Americans and other minorities have inherited a truly tragic history. But Native Americans have been subjected to U.S. atrocities for the longest time of all the oppressed souls in this country. This is not to emphasize that one group deserves more attention or empathy from concerned citizens than another, however. Rather, I am trying to point to the fact that virtually all Americans are aligned with Faulkner’s fault line.
It is long past the time to align ourselves with a new moral landscape. But not just in words. In action that’s risky. Like at the barricades alongside Native Americans who are fighting for us all in North Dakota. If not there… somewhere.
Rachel Olivia O’Connor
is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
. Anyone interested in supporting the Native Americans respecting pipeline protest in North Dakota is urged to make contact ASAP.