Race as Identity in William Faulkner's "Light in August"

The Social Construction of Race

Bachelor Thesis, 2018

36 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contens

1 Introduction

2 Social Construction Of Race

3 Race in Faulkner's Fiction
3.1 Central Motifs
3.2 Faulkner's Black Characters

4 Historic Background: Jim Crow Era
4.1 Establishing Slavery
4.2 From the Abolishment of Slavery to Racial Segregation

5 In Search for a Self: Joe Christmas' Identity Crisis
5.1 Racial Ambiguity
5.2 Joe Christmas' Gender: Confusion and Irritation

6 Conclusion

7 Works Cited

1 Introduction

William Faulkner is one of the most popular and influential authors of the 20th century; not without reason has he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. Setting most of his novels' plots in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississipi, he portrays life in the American South and the still lingering aftermaths of the lost Civil War, some of which are: Southern history, climate, geography, natural life, customs, traditions, ideologies, living conditions and speech patterns (Volpe 28). In Light in August, race, like in many of Faulkner's works, is a basic theme. However, in Light in August, belonging to a certain race is not only part of a person's identity; it is the central framework. Not only is race decisive of how fellow men and women encounter and treat a person but also how this person sees and perceives him- or herself. Hence, identity feeds from race. If there is no clear affiliation to a specific race, identity crisis and a constant search for self can arise as is the case with Joe Christmas in Faulkner's novel. It impacts how Christmas is approached from a very young age by those who know of his black background. Moreover, people change their behavior towards Christmas once they discover that he is partly of African-American origin. The biggest burden for Christmas, though, is how he himself cannot figure out who he is and where his place in Southern society is. This paper seeks to explore the social construction of race and how race constitutes identity in Light in August by means of historic background.

To do so, it is important to first take a look at the concept of race and to understand that it is a relatively new invention created by humans. In particular, the works of W.E. DuBois and Anthony Appiah are of importance here. DuBois is both a contemporary witness and a victim. In Of Our Spiritual Strivings, he shows a chronological overview of the development of racial division, explains the reasons for racial categorization and gives an outlook what needs to happen in the future to finally end racial division. While Appiah disagrees with some of DuBois' arguments in his essay The Uncompleted Argument, they both come to the conclusion that race is nothing more than a construction created by man.

Of course, it is crucial to examine Faulkner's way of writing in general to understand how his novels deal with the issue of race and identity. This paper will not focus on his other novels as it is solely about Light in August. However, an overall look at one of the central themes in Faulkner's works is indispensable. Faulkner and Race (Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha) by Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie contains essays by various authors. They take a look at the development of Faulkner's black characters over the years, thereby investigating his role as one of the most important writers on race of the 21st century. However, they also do not fail to consider limitations which can be found in the works of this famous author. In terms of Faulkner's style of writing, the works of James Snead and Patricia McKee will be taken into account in particular.

Naturally, to analyze the plot or main character of a novel it is essential to understand the historical background. Dealing with the South in the 1930s, the plot of Light in August is set in the Jim Crow Era with its racist laws and strict social boundaries. However, in order to understand how this Jim Crow system could be established it is important to go much further back in time to the beginnings of the European colonies in America. Especially the works of Jerrold M. Packard and Nadra Kareem Nittle are essential in order to understand how slavery was institutionalized based on racism, and how the social system of Jim Crow originated and continued to function.

The last chapter of this paper will be an analysis of Joe Christmas and his identity crisis. It is important to not only evaluate Christmas' identity in terms of race but also consider gender, as these two issues appear to be interconnected. This interconnection leads Christmas to display highly perplexing gender behavior in various situations. In conclusion, the lack of a racial belonging for Christmas seems to be connected with his problematic sexual identity.

2 Social Construction Of Race

Race, alhough often used as a biological term, can be defined in a much broader context. To understand the full meaning of race in terms of a social construct, it is crucial to understand that the division of people into different races is not solely based on the color of their skin. The whole concept of race has been constructed over many hundred years by society. Despite it lacking scientific and moral legitimation the idea of racial differences and its structures are still present today.

In his essay The Conservation of Races from 1897, DuBois explains that especially in America black people are often "confronted with assumptions about 'natural abilities' which they feel to be wrong" (3). Furthermore, he explains the problem that arises concerning the future relations as a result of the "two most extreme types of races" having met (3). Even though DuBois acknowledges that people are divided into different races he explains that this racial division is an artificial one created by mankind. He highlights this idea by evaluating the term 'negroe' which is used to describe people with dark skin. DuBois explains that of all the different races and their labelings, 'negroe' "might be the most indefinite, combining Mulattoes, Zamboes of America and the Egyptians, Bantus and Bushmen of Africa" (4). In her book Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Patricia McKee confirms this approach by stating that blackness is "seldom identified as an assimilation of persons from various ethnic backgrounds" and that it is instead "usually understood as a racial and ethnic identity" (10). Although, this might also be true for other races and the terms used to describe them, it is clear that the use of the term 'negroe' for so many different ethnicities does not only show a vast amount of ignorance but also of artificiality.

According to DuBois, the differentiations between races are mainly based on "physical race lines" (4); however, the deeper differences - mainly the cohesiveness and continuity of these groups - cannot really be explained by the physical distinctions (4). DuBoise infers that those deeper differences are "spiritual, psychical, differences – undoubtedly based on the physical, but infinitely transcending them" (4). Hence, categorizing people into different races is mainly based on obvious, visible differences: the skin color, color and texture of hair etc. However, DuBois does not deny that there are individual traits of the different groups of people. These differences, though, cannot just be explained based on the physical differences but go much deeper. The different groups of people differ psychologically, that is, they have different mentalities and distinguish spiritually. Therefore, the evaluation of races based solely on the physical appearance of people falls short.

Where, then, does this superficial distinction of the different races come from? Here, it is crucial to take a short look at the history of mankind. DuBois outlines the development of human society (5). Thus, humans were initially living as nomads and had no fixed settlments. There were different families, and these families formed cities; they became members of one group, that is, the city they were living in. DuBois calls this a "slight and slow breaking down of physical barriers (5) This led to an "increase of spiritual and social differences" (5) as the different cities had their own ideals of life, e.g. trade. Through time, these cities turned into nations which led to yet another "breaking down of barriers that separated groups of men" (5). DuBois claims that the visible bigger differences like skin color were not ignored but that "myriads of minor differences disappeared" (5). It was at that time when the division of races as we know today came into existence: The "sociological and historical races began to approximate present division of races as indicated by physical researchers [...] At some time the spiritual and physical differences of race groups which constituted the nations became deep and decisive (5). Allowedly, this is a very general description of a phenomenon that continued to develop over thousands of years. Yet, it demonstrates that racial division, and therefore racism, is far from an old inherent institution. It is, instead, a very recent invention of modern times that came into existence in the course of the foundation of sovereign nations. Once more, these facts then establish evidence that racial division and, as a result, discrimination and racism are an artificial construct of modernity invented by white people. In his book American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, Jerrold M. Packard adds that the "creation of color-based caste was accomplished in lucid steps by groups more powerful than their prey, for reasons both social and economic" (16). In addition, "its survival has been nurtured over numberless generations, by, among others, Christian and Muslim clerics and slavers, by historians and the learned of science, and by ordinary people whose purses have grown through its perpetuation" (16).

This relatively new social construct of race and racial division has led to a dilemma for black people in America: How can they be both black and American? Is it impossible to be both? DuBois explains that dilemma as a "self questioning and hesitation" that "makes blacks stand back and hinders them" (7). For him, this dilemma derives from the question of the function of race in the future and blacks still not having found their role and how to fulfill it; the "negro race still hasn't given to civilization the full spiritual message it is capable of giving" (6). DuBois demands that the American blacks should not solely work towards being absorbed by the white Americans. In fact, they should "prove that negros are not only capable of producing individual men but are a nation stoved with wonderful possibilities of culture" (6). Thus, black Americans should be aware of their originality and their own power to contribute to the world and should not just imitate the Anglo-Saxon culture they are surrounded by according to DuBois. In other words, they have to break free from the constraints that have been put on them by society. They need to show the world that the role imposed to them by history and society is as wrong as it is arbitrary and artificial.

To be able to do that, it is important to understand the real meaning of racism and race prejudice. DuBois defines race prejudice as "friction between different groups of people; it is the difference in aim, in feeling, in ideals of two different races" (7). If, then, this difference touches socioeconomic and spiritual factors – e.g. territory, jurisdiction, language or religion – conflict and collision is inevitable (7). Hence, race prejudice comes into existence wherever there is friction between two races. The question arises, then, if two different groups of people can live together peacefully within the same borders. According to DuBois, it is possible that "different nations can strive together for their race ideals in the same country" but only if there is a basic agreement in law, language and religion and satisfactory adjustments of economic life (7). This demonstrates once more that race and race prejudice are not given by nature but arise from tensions within human society and are ultimately a social construct.

Once we come to this conclusion, it is possible to resolve the dilemma that black Americans are confronted with. To achieve a solution, it is necessary to understand to which extent American and 'negro' can exist within one person. The main requirement of being American is not just birth or citizenship; the essence of being American are "political ideals, language and religion" (7). Americans share the same values. These values were summarized and written down in the early beginnings of this nation. DuBois claims that "further than that Americanism doesn't go" (7). From there on, "we are negroes". By that, he means that there is also a specific black culture, lifestyle and mentality. To accomplish both the individual striving of the black race and the peaceful coexistence with the white Americans, DuBois calls for "race organizations" such as "Negroe colleges, negroe newspapers, negroe schools" (8). Consequently, the injustice caused by the social construction of race can be ended by founding social institutions; basically, DuBois suggests improving society with its own means. However, the advance of the black American is only possible by "not laughing at ourselves" (8). Thus, the American black people must be proud of their heritage and their destiny; they have to be self-conscious about who they are. They can only strive to go on if they honor where they come from. Plainly, they must stop being passive and start taking over an active role within American society. In his essay Of Our Spiritual Strivings, DuBois also mentions a false assumption that black Americans had made over the past centuries: They believed that their enslavement had been the worst of all evils and that the abolishment of slavery would "lead to the promised land" (2). However, they soon realized that it had not and according to DuBois it still has not today.

In his essay The Uncompleted Argument, Anthony Appiah claims that DuBois' solely sociohistorical explanation falls short. Moreover, Appiah criticizes that DuBois also considers the biological concept of race despite him denying biology being a factor of race. Appiah himself, on the other hand, explains in detail the biological and genetic concept of race. He states that the "human genetic variability between populations of Africa or Europe or Asia is not much greater that that within these populations" (21). Furthermore, the "differences between peoples in language, moral affections, aesthetic attitudes, or political ideology – those differences which most deeply affect us in our dealings with each other – are not biologically determined to any significant degree" (22). He continues by saying that "if biological difference between human beings is unimportant in these explanations – and it is – then racial difference, as a species of biological difference, will not matter either (22). This shows that aspects of race other than hair or skin color cannot be explained by biology. Trying to establish intellectual or cultural differences between races through biology and genetics is simply impossible.

This leads Appiah to disagreeing with DuBois: DuBois claims that race is not a scientific but a sociohistorical issue and that every race has an individual message for the world. Hence, he accepts differences between races (25). According to Appiah, DuBois' criterions of a common history of a group and the use of the same language are neither necessary nor sufficient to constitute a race: For example, the Romance speak different languages, and Afro-Americans and Americans generally speak the same language (28). What is left in the definition of race is the common descent and common impulses and strivings (28). While common descent is a biological one, the common strivings are the last sociohistoric concept left in DuBois' argumentation (28). However, these common strivings are regarded as "a posteriori properties of racial and national groups, not criteria of membership in them" (28). There is no evidence that those strivings are a criterion of identity (28). Consequently, we are left with the scientific conception (28).

Appiah explains that "common history is, in part, the history of people who have lived in the same place" (29) and that they are of the same race if "they share features in virtue of being descended largely from people of the same region. Those features may be physical – hence Afro-Americans are Negroes – or cultural – hence Anglo-Americans are English." (29). Packard confirms this by adding that even though it takes a long time, "differences that are environmental – things that happen to us because of where, or how, we live (...) evolve into genetic differences, the kind we're born with" (21). However, Appiah does not disagree with DuBois' claim that black people have a distinctive message to the world; he just makes clear that, unlike DuBois' own understanding, his definition of race is not at odds with the scientific one (21). The real difference in DuBois' conception is "that he assigns to race a moral and metaphysical significance different from that of his contemporaries" (21). Thus, while Appiah has a different perspective and disagrees with DuBois' argumentation, they both point out that naturally there are no races that people can be divided into in order to attribute to them differences in intellect or value.

To sum it up, it is important to understand that race itself is nothing bad or evil. It is correct to say that there are different races of people in this world. These differences, though, go much deeper than just the physical appearance. Dividing, degrading and discriminating people because of the way they look is not only a relatively recent invention. It is obviously also wrong because it ignores the real foundation of the different groups of people: Mentality, spirituality and ideals that are unique to every race. Or as Appiah puts it: "The truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask 'race' to do for us" (35).

In Light in August, Joe Christmas is discriminated not because he has a bad character. He is not even discriminated because he looks clearly different from the rest. He is only discriminated because he supposedly is partly black. People do not notice any difference but when they learn that he might have black ancestors, they claim to be able to see that in the way his hair looks or other physical traits. In fact, they do the opposite of what both DuBois and Appiah ascertained: They divide people up into invented races based on merely physical attributes.

3 Race in Faulkner's Fiction

3.1 Central Motifs

This thesis intends to explore the issue of race in Light in August. However, to analyze racial identity with the focus on an individual novel, it is essential to start with a much broader approach that includes the entireness of Faulkner's fiction. In his book Figures of Division: William Faulkner's Major Novels, James Snead points out that all of Faulkner's works contain polarities like racial division or racial segregation surrounded by mythologies which "collectively try to outlaw interracial contiguity, cohabitation, and consanguinity" (1). Thus, there are racial barriers and prohibitions that form the basis of the lives of Faulkner's characters, both black and white (1). According to Snead, the main lesson of all of Faulkner's novels is the "futility of applying strictly binary categories to human affairs" (1). While it is easier for humans to categorize in order to make sense of the world, Faulkner's novels show that these binary classifications can never work when it comes to human relations. For example, in Light in August, main character Joe Christmas does not know whether he has 'negro' blood or not. Therefore, he can not be categorized as black or white. Yet, during all of his life Joe Christmas is treated as a black man.

In Faulkner's fiction black characters differ from white characters in this specific aspect: They "reject division by accident, intelligence or stubbornness" (1). Hence, racial division as a central and understood pillar of society is shaken by the main characters even though they differ in terms of intelligence, social background and intention. According to Snead, this leads them to "discover social and psychological margins where merging may exist unassailed" (1).

Generally, Snead claims that in all of Faulkner's works, racism and the resulting domination over black people is created by language used by the different characters or rhetorical tactics (2). The classification is tightly connected with hierarchy and authority (3). Snead explains that in the 18th century "blacks appeared in the Chain of Being somewhere between man and ape" (3) and that these "hierarchies of oppression received ostensible assent of anatomy and nature" (3). In short, racial division was justified by referring to the sciences. Thus, Snead claims that Faulkner's novels "must be seen as exercises in explicating a certain reality from this tangle" (3). They intent to give us insight into a society that is based on racial hierarchy and where racial classification is perceived as common sense. Snead points out that in fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, where most of Faulkner's novels take place, it is all about thinking in absolute categories such as white and black, poor and rich, male and female (3). The central question that is raised in and through Faulkner's narratives is: "How can we ever know each other if our society works through a forced organization into distinct groupings?" (3).

Snead also points out that there is a social and stylistic merging in Faulkner's novels, particularly when it comes to miscegenation. The mixing of races in the South is something atrocious and forbidden but also a "pervasive release from societal division" (4). Even though Faulkner's novels take place during the Jim Crow Era and its racist laws, blacks and whites are often very close to each other, eating, living and sleeping together (4). Snead argues that Faulkner's works "dismember Figures of Division at their weakest joint" which is the notion of purity: White skin can never be a "certain signifier of absence of 'black' blood" (4). There is no correlation between the whitenss of skin and the 'purity' of blood. This is also the case in Light in August: Joe Christmas may be white at first sight but both the town and the reader learn that he also might have a black ancestor and hence 'black' blood running through his veins.

The most compelling protagonists in Faulkner's art, Snead explains, "do not seek division but rather its often non-conventional remedies" which can be "miscegenation, incest, Edenic refuge in the Big Woods or schizoid mental mergings" (4). The struggle to overcome social boundaries is always one against social conventions as well. In Faulkner's novels, these protagonists often face absolutisms: They make the best of experiences and then break down under the pressure of "the unsystematic real" (4). Faulkner's major works primarily deal with the white mind and how it struggles with the system of racial division that it has created (5). Light in August is no exception. Joe Christmas often shows socially unacceptable behavior: Considered a black man, he lives with a white woman and later runs off into the wild fleeing from the town mob. Moreover, the town population undergoes change as well. In a cyclical movement, they have a certainty in the beginning about "what race signifies and what signifies race" before they go through an experience that "disrupts this surety" only to go back again to a "forced reestablishment of certainty" (6).

In her book Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Patricia McKee explains that Faulkner's major works are about common identities of white Americans but usually focus on non-whites (1). She claims that as these characters search for identity, "they search for racial identity: The very structure of individual consciousness is one of race" (2.). McKee concludes that the "interdependence of personal and racial identity makes individual characters virtually inconceivable without their racial and cultural identities" (2). Hence, in all of Faulkner's major novels, people cannot be conceived by others without being assigned to race. Race is the center of a person's identity.

According to McKee, media produce identities (1). In Faulkner's works, media presents itself as mostly visual – "figures of things and persons or the ways people look at things and persons" (1). Thus, all means of cultural and racial identity are produced and reproduced in public performances and publications, and within individual consciousness as well (1). The American whites in Faulkner's novels, then, are characters of reproduction: They reproduce a visual cultural order. This order "corroborates the ways these characters see things but also necessitates visual representations of both things and persons" (2). Hence, visual identities are created that dominate white culture (2). In Light in August, rumour and hearsay repeatedly spreads that Joe Christmas is of black origin. There is no evidence that affirms or disproves those claims, yet they have a direct impact on the people's behavior towards Christmas. Once they learn that Christmas is supposedly partly black, people claim to recognize his race in his physical appearance.

McKee continues by criticizing the "abstractness of whiteness" (3). Whiteness escapes definitions and is a very vague concept; it is hard to grasp. McKee claims that this abstractness is the reason for the political dominance of whites in modern Western cultures (3). Whiteness is "everything and nothing" (3). The representations of this whiteness can be seen as negative but pervasive and transcendent (3). Moreover, visual culture is both "an order of meaning as well as a mechanism of abstraction" (3). Hence, this visuality of whiteness is produced by whites to create a racial distinction and to give themselves a feeling of superiority. It is created in the interest of white privilege (3). McKee claims that in Faulkner's early works, it is demonstrated how the whole concept of whiteness is dependent on visual culture in the early 20th century (3). Often, this visuality of whiteness works without being obvious or actually seen (3). It is a vague term and has no clear definition which makes it easy to extend its meaning and to decide what is part of whiteness and what is not.

Therefore, McKee argues, individuals are represented as producers and reproducers of racial identities and differences (20). According to her, in Light in August, white identity is also produced by individuals imaginations (20). One could go even further and claim that white identity in Light in August is not based on any physical encounter with black individuals but rather based on rumors and hearsay. As soon as people know that Joe Christmas is black, they act like they had noticed, e.g. the sheriff: "A nigger (...) I always thought there was something funny about that fellow" (72). This ties back to the topic of race and identity: Race completely defines Joe Christmas' identity although it is solely a social construct.


Excerpt out of 36 pages


Race as Identity in William Faulkner's "Light in August"
The Social Construction of Race
University of Mannheim  (Lehrstuhl für Amerikanische Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft)
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Race, Identity, Construct, Light in August, William Faulkner, Race Studies, Gender
Quote paper
Jonas Plesch (Author), 2018, Race as Identity in William Faulkner's "Light in August", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1298028


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Race as Identity in William Faulkner's "Light in August"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free