“Man has forever to struggle with the need to define himself, to create an identity…(Lichtenstein 55).Struggle for Identity and Authenticity in Light in August by William FaulknerIntroductionIdentities are created.
The question is, by whom? The individual with whom the identity is associated? The family who names and raises the individual? Is it the friends with whom one communicates and on whom one depends, or the laws that one is subject to and supposed to obey? The issue of whether or not identity is objective (i.e., fixed, innate, essential), and thus out of the individual’s control, or creative (i.e., fluctuating, malleable, socially-dependent, and susceptible to outside influences), or of whether or not one’s identity is controlled and determined by the individual, the community, or by both, is explored in William Faulkner’s novel Light in August (1932). One of its central characters, Joe Christmas, is a paragon of how forces operate on and change an individual’s identity.
And in the world that Faulkner has constructed in Light in August, no one force has a greater effect on one’s identity than racism.In Donald M. Kartiganer’s essay, “The Meaning of Forms in Light in August,” he indicates that William Faulkner’s characters “depend for their identities in the context both of society and the novel, on the existence of certain patterns: the illusions of order that allow them to live their lives” (Bloom 22). In The Dilemma of Human Identity, by Heinz Lichtenstein, we are offered many definitions of identity postulated from works of well-known psychologists.
The clearest one for the purpose of this study was one that incorporates the concept of inner self-image as well as a relationship to others.The narrative of Light in August covers the years from 1894 to 1932 in the fictitious town of Jefferson, Mississippi, thus placing Christmas in a very particular sociological and cultural environment (Hungerford). The reason that the setting of Faulkner’s novel is deserving of attention is due to Christmas’s ambiguous racial identity. Faulkner’s work, like that of Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson and others, not only draws attention to the social stigma of miscegenation, but what basically amounts to a differentiation between the white and black race.
Christmas may or may not be the offspring of an interracial couple.At various points in his life, Christmas is accused of, and sometimes admits to, being black, even though the narrative also undermines the credibility of such an assertion. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity that leads Faulkner to declare Christmas one of the most “perfectly tragic” characters in all of his works: “He didn’t know what he was, and so he was nothing. He deliberately evicted himself from the human race because he didn’t know which race he was. That was his tragedy that to me was the tragic, central idea of the story” (Gwynn 119, 72).The main argument of this paper accords with Andre Bleikasten, who argues in “Fathers in Faulkner and Light in August,” that, “Identity, in the world of Light in August, is above all a social imperative: people are required to fit into established classes and categories and confirm..
.the arbitrary divisions and hierarchies upon whose maintenance the …
survival of the existing social arrangements depends” (Bloom 151). The theme of authenticity is explored deeply throughout this study. The paper argues that in this novel, those who did not conform were destroyed.
Joe ChristmasJoe Christmas’ competing ancestral spirits are anchored in racial divisions in his personality. In addition to the personal conflicts created by these spirits, Faulkner also uses Joe Christmas to identify the greater racial conflicts in the South and in this specific community. Just as Joanna’s personal ancestral spirit was one which she could not easily resolve, Joe Christmas’ personal/racial ancestral conflict was ultimately deadly.
Faulkner creates defining incidents in Joe Christmas’ life that reveal the racial chaos that raged in his psyche.Joe Christmas suffered from an identity crisis which caused his isolation from the community. He also lacked the ability to become a functioning member of society. Even Joe’s name depicted ambiguity as evidenced by the statement of a worker who, when trying to ascertain Joe’s identity, stated, “Did you ever hear of a white man named Christmas” (33)? With Christmas, Faulkner used the search for racial identity as a metaphor for the universal search by man for his identity. Joe’s life was one of rejection, separation and isolation. He was both searching for and trying to escape from himself.
Joe stated that “I have never broken out of the ring of what I have already done and cannot ever undo” (339). Events from his past adversely affected Joe’s present ability to effectively function, causing him to embark on a continuous circular journey of flight, interspersed with violence, and finally, total destruction. His continuous flight and activity never brought him any closer to answering the always present question in his mind, “Who am I?” His tragedy, as Faulkner expressed it, was “not to know what he is and to know that he will never know” (384).Although Joe was partially to blame for his troubled life, the community also played a pivotal role. Each individual has not only a private but a public life, and one always impacts on the other.
It is clear that he was not connected to the community, because he lived outside of it. Most townspeople had no idea where he lived or what he did after work, although a few bought whiskey from him, in the dark, after hours. Joe is described as “large, not tall, he contrived somehow to look more lonely than a lone telephone pole in the middle of the desert. In the wide, empty, shadow brooded street he looked like a phantom, a spirit, strayed out of its own world, and lost” (114) . Even his physical appearance presented him as a non entity–someone without a true identity.Joe’s lack of identity not only manifested itself in his negative relationships with women, but also in how he communicated with men. For example, he told men he had Negro blood in order to initiate violence with them.
“Sometimes he would remember how he had once tricked or teased white men into calling him a Negro in order to fight them, to beat them or be beaten…” (225). This action can be interpreted as another form of self-punishment because he had been pre-conditioned to believe that there is some inherent inferiority in being Negro. At one point, he found it necessary to affirm to himself, “God loves me, too” (105) . This statement indicates to me that at some point or at some level of consciousness, he must have felt such negative thoughts about himself that he found it necessary to remind himself that God did love him the same as He loved others.
Joe Christmas’ childhood memories served as pieces of his past that reappeared to him as reminders of his identity problems. In the novel, Faulkner comments on this fact when he states, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders” (119). Joe’s memory of several early events in his life negatively affected his ability to create a positive identity for himself.
First, Joe’s grandfather, Doc Hines, a religious fanatic, discovered that his daughter, Joe’s mother, was pregnant by a man who allegedly possessed Negro blood.As punishment, Doc allowed his daughter to die in childbirth and placed Joe in an orphanage. Doc Hines, a janitor at the orphanage, encouraged the other children to call Joe “Nigger bastard” (133). When Doc Hines discovered that his daughter was pregnant, he reacted both from a stern, fanatical religious stance about fornication as well as from an ingrained, negative old South view of “race mixing” or miscegenation.
When challenged about who influenced the children to call a five-year old “Nigger,” Doc maintained it was God’s retribution for “woman sinning and bitchery on the part of his daughter” (128) .Doc took his inability to change what was and prayed for divine retribution on the child. He denied telling the children and said, “I never told them.
They knowed. They was told, but it wasn’t by me…I waited for the Lord to move and show his will. And He done it” (128) . Faulkner goes on in this and other passages to affirm that one of the central issues in this novel is that of race and the attitudes toward black men in this time of American history. Even though in his heart he blamed sin and “little womanfilth” on his daughter, he also affirms, “I’ve known it all the time that he’s part nigger” (129).
Another place in the novel where the affirming of being part Negro occurs is when the matron is talking with the dietitian and is told the children in the orphanage had “been calling him Nigger for years. Sometimes I think that children have a way of knowing things that grown people of your and my age don’t see” (133). The conflict of Joe Christmas and his conflicted racial identity was established during his childhood and continued through his adult life.The matron at the orphanage was one of the few insightful, sensitive persons, but she realized that once discovered, Joe Christmas would have to be moved or adopted. Her final relevant statements were, “I don’t see how we failed to see it as long as we did.
You can look at his face now, his eyes and hair.” The few solutions left to them were set in motion as she stated, “Of course it’s bad for the child to have to go to the nigger home after growing up with white people” (135). This novel is unequivocal in its underlying issue of racial identity and the difficulty the focal character, Joe Christmas, had as he wrestled with the ancestral white and Negro parts of his heritage as he attempted to establish a stable identity in the South.From an early age, Joe realized that Doc Hines watched and hated him, although he did not realize that Doc was his maternal grandfather. Joe stated, “He hates me and fears me..
.” (138). This early knowledge helped to color Joe’s perception of himself and his identity.
Joe, eventually ostracized by the other children, became aware that he was different, and in a way that was not considered by others as positive. Internalizing these negative feelings about himself, he felt guilt and a need for punishment. Flight and violence, therefore, became a way of life for him.
About the same time that he became aware of his difference from the other children, Joe witnessed the dietician, Miss Atkins, in a clandestine situation with a doctor. Hiding in her closet and eating toothpaste, he became sick and vomited. When the dietician discovered him, he expected to be punished and waited several days anticipating punishment, which did not come. Instead, she attempted to bribe him. This event caused Joe to distrust women. He felt that they were unpredictable and destroyed the orderly pattern of his life.
This distrust of women played a significant role in his eventual destruction.His need for order was violated by each of the women he subsequently met in life. For example, Mrs. McEachern violated the order in attempting to be nice to him and woo him with food, which he violently threw against the wall (155).
He could depend on Mr. McEachern’s acting in a particular way like whipping him for transgressions against rules. He understood this cause and effect.
But he did not understand Mrs. McEachern’s kindness. Joe stated that “Perhaps she was thinking then how he and the man could always count upon one another, depend upon one another; that it was the woman alone who was unpredictable” (159) . Further, he stated, “It was the woman: that soft kindness which he believed himself doomed to be forever victim of and which he hated worse than he did the hard and ruthless justice of men” (169).Racial MisrecognitionChristmas’s identity does not exist independent of or isolated from the perceptions of others. What he may think he is and what society considers him to be are not necessarily mutually inclusive. The world of Light in August, recognizes the thoughtful ways in which individual relations with one another can have significant implications for one’s identity. How one is seen, or interpreted, by others can have a very beneficial impact on one’s identity and eventual role in participating in a larger, social setting.
However, because the result of this relationship between the observed and the observer depends, at least in part, on observation and understanding, there is the very real possibility that Christmas will be confronted not only with a constructive but also a counterproductive and awesome recognition.This depends, of course, on who is observing, recognizing, and interpreting him. This danger of misrecognition is at the forefront of Christmas’s own inability to live authentically, and of Jefferson’s own culpability in essentially refusing to allow him to do so. His identity is not dependent entirely on his own actions and thought, but also on the recognition of an identity by his community.
Again, given the social ontology of Faulkner’s South, the recognition that Christmas is given is largely a destructive one, consisting of a racially charged discourse that is inherently antithetical to the healthy development of authenticity.Faulkner reveals the difficulty Christmas faces in finding a just, equitable, and non-threatening recognition early in the text. This is the case even when the characters involved are not intentionally malicious. One such example is the introduction of Christmas through the eyes of one of the novel’s secondary characters, Byron Bunch, who gives an impression of Christmas based entirely on an appearance that immediately marks him as different. Bunchlooked up, and saw the stranger standing there..
.there was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home. And that he carried this knowledge with him always as though it were a banner, with a quality ruthless, lonely, and almost proud.
(Faulkner 31) The fact that Faulkner presents Christmas not via an omniscient or objective narrator but through the perspective of another character reveals not only the subjectivity of identity (i.e., the dependence of identity on the perceptions and judgments of others, as opposed to a fixed, innate identity independent of the external world) but also the first of many instances in the novel where Christmas becomes the object of other people’s projections. In the case of Bunch, these projections are somewhat astute, surprisingly so, given the character’s rather sheltered life and innocence.Christmas is surrounded by the identity-shaping discourses of those who make up his community, in his personal, social, and professional life.
Naming will prove to be crucial to the identities that are projected onto him, in respect of both how he internalizes the various names that he is given by his community and the ways in which the community reacts to the connotations and socially-constructed meanings of the very names that they help to perpetuate. When the workers discover that this stranger’s name is Christmas, a new denotation is assigned to him, that of “foreigner” (33). Given the necessity of communal ties in respect to one’s authenticity, being perceived as foreign becomes a critical obstacle to be surmounted. Not only does being marked foreign set one apart from society, it puts in the minds of everyone involved a barrier against the one being labeled and the society responsible for the labeling.
While most individuals have the benefit of knowing their parents, or at least something about their parents, and with this certain (possible) information about their own selves, Christmas does not. Family history is shown in the novel to be of social importance, in that individuals use such history to make characterizations of one another. One example of this is Joanna Burden; her family’s abolitionist past helps to form her peers’ perception of her and significantly alters and limits her choices in life. Christmas does not have this problem. He is not bound or limited by the community’s knowledge of his family. Instead of feeling free from the conditioning or confines of family history and tradition, and able to more freely create an identity of his own choosing, Christmas finds himself all the more trapped by his circumstances.
For example, as Jay Watson comments, “insofar as the town is unable to identify anyone else ‘a-tall’ who has ever gone by ‘Christmas,’ the name seems to present an identity independent of lineage” (79). Watson points to the additional problem of a lack of lineage in a South that conflates the individual with the past generations of that individual’s family. Because Jefferson is unable to place Christmas in any familial context, he is further alienated and made strange. Christmas’s abandonment leaves a vacuum in his identity that, rather than fill and give shape to himself, he allows others who know only what they assume or are told of him to fill instead.The unique name also provokes in Bunch another crucial observation:And that was the first time Byron remembered that he had ever thought how a man’s name…can be somehow an augur of what he will do.
..It seemed to him that none of them had looked especially at the stranger until they heard his name. But as soon as they heard it, it was as though there was something in the sound of it that was trying to tell them what to expect; that he carried with him his own inescapable warning. (33) Naming in Light in August is not “just the sound for who” one is (33), it is fundamental to the very formation of one’s identity; not the sound for “who,” but the “who” itself.
Yet no one of the names given thus far has the integral impact on Christmas that the moniker revealed yet again by Bunch is to have on the rest of his life. “Christmas is part nigger,” he tells Hightower, only to have the Reverend correct him, “part negro” (89). The context of this supposed revelation, however, reveals more about the society in which Christmas lives than it does about him, exemplified by the way in which Jefferson comes to “know” that he is black.The people of Jefferson learn of Christmas’s blackness after there is a fire at Burden’s home. A countryman “‘hit the door a lick with his shoulder and went in and then he found the one that had found the fire first. It was Brown,'” a man who works and lives with Christmas, and he appears drunk (90). Brown has already been described as, and shown to be, a man of questionable character. He is a bootlegger, greedy, and lazy, and “dared the law because he never even had the sense to know he was doing it” (87).
He is also the man responsible for taking advantage of, if not raping, a young and naive Lena Grove, only to abandon her once she becomes pregnant.Thus, it is clear that Brown cannot be taken at his word and that he is more than likely, given his erratic behavior at the scene, a suspect in the arson and the murder of Burden, whose body is found upstairs. Christmas, as a “nigger,” enters into the public discourse of Jefferson at the police station, where Brown has come to claim a monetary reward relating to the crime. The police, however, not only distrust Brown when he blames both the murder and arson on Christmas, they begin to suspect him as well; “and so Brown went on then, talking louder and louder and faster and faster, like he was trying to hide Joe Brown behind what he was telling on Christmas” (96).
What Brown was telling the sheriff and his deputies was the one and only “fact” that could, given the racial divide in Jefferson, guarantee Brown’s reward and Christmas’s guilt: “it was like he had been saving what he told them next for just such a time as this. Like he had knowed that if it come to a pinch, this would save him…
‘Accuse the white man and let the nigger go free. Accuse the white and let the nigger run'” (97).The accusation that Christmas is black is all that is required to dramatically alter the nature of what is essentially a questioning of the one and only suspect; it alone supersedes Brown’s own possible guilt in the crime and utter lack of credibility, and so “‘it’s like he knew he had them then'” (98). Why is it, however, that Brown is able to shift the dynamic of his predicament so radically and easily, and what are the implications of this with respect to Christmas and his identity? The racial identity being projected by Brown onto Christmas is so negatively objectifying in Jefferson that the Sheriff immediately responds, “‘You better be careful what you are saying, if it is a white man you are talking about…I don’t care if he is a murderer or not'” (98).It is preferable, and socially more acceptable, for a white man to be a murderer than for a human being to be black.
When Christmas is labeled or exposed as black to the authorities and, consequently, to the general public, it sets in motion what is, given the temporal and geographic setting of the novel, an inevitable chain of events that will lead to his own death. These causal reactions, which appear to trap Christmas and limit his degrees of freedom in respect to deciding not only what he wants to do but what and who he wants to be, have led many critics to think of his condition as a vicious cycle from which there is no feasible escape.Christmas is reared in an environment where race is determining, and for a number of reasons; of most relevance is the notion that one’s racial identity carries with it predetermined character traits.
Duttmann notes that “the act of recognizing…can only refer…
to someone other if a certain equality, a certain sameness and a certain homogeneity prevail between that which recognizes and that which is to be recognized” (47), and a predeterminism founded on racial inferiority complicates the very act of recognition itself. For a black man, these racial qualities are entirely negative and/or threatening, characterizing him as animalistic, lazy, unintelligent, violent, and sexually voracious. “Nigger” carries with it these implicit meanings, all of which would be understood by anyone in Jefferson, racist or not. There is in this community an incredibly harsh stigma involving interracial couples, at least when the couple involved is a black man and white woman, in which case it is, ipso facto, always a matter of rape.The Problem of AuthenticityThe problematization of Christmas’s authenticity is largely tied to these constructions of racial identity. If “authenticity is itself an idea of freedom and it involves my finding the design of my life myself, against the demands of external conformity” (Taylor 67-8), it appears that any attempt on Christmas’s part to live authentically is immediately complicated by those who see him as black and project onto him all that “blackness” entails in the South. In a very practical sense, blacks in Jefferson are not equal to whites or afforded the same freedoms as white citizens. Their possible courses of action, and their very agency, are more limited.
More damaging to the establishment of an authentic self is the way in which individuals are also compelled to conform or comply with racial distinctions and prejudices. Here, again, language is crucial in communicating the social framework in which identities form and are recognized. “The whites,” according to Lee Jenkins, “do not react to the black as a person; they react to him rather as a concept, to the psychohistorical value of what black has come to imply in their minds.
” The implication is one of “negativity, limitation, and defilement” (61). The initial presentation of Christmas in Light in August appears to validate this characterization.After the reader becomes aware that Christmas might have killed a white woman, the narrative makes a slight temporal shift to the night of the murder and arson. This chapter depicts a restless Christmas thinking, “something is going to happen to me. I am going to do something” (Faulkner 104). As he stands over Brown while the latter is sleeping, Christmas contemplates reaching for his razor, “but he did not do it. Perhaps thinking had already gone far enough and dark enough to tell him. This is not the right one” (104).
In the first chapter to focus primarily on Christmas, Faulkner depicts a brooding, violent man who at the very least considers murdering Brown and then someone else, “the right one”; the implication being, in light of Brown’s interrogation, that the “one” is Joanna Burden.Faulkner continues throughout the chapter to impress upon the reader the veracity of Brown’s claim. What little is known about Christmas, generally consisting of second-hand accounts, all of which are based primarily on how he appears to others, is compounded by this more “first-hand” description, one that portrays Christmas as a likely murderer. He thinks to himself, ‘”she ought not to started praying over me.
She would have been all right if she hadn’t started praying over me'” (106). Not only is a possible confession given, but also a motive.The motivation and significance of the motive, why Burden’s praying over Christmas should provoke such a violent and destructive reaction, remain vague at this point in the novel.
Yet, however “rootless” and apparently divorced Christmas is from the world around him, the events hinted at in the narrative thus far can be traced back, and are very bound, to Christmas’s personal history as he matures from infant to adult. This is completely argued, again, in the second temporal change in the narrative. Chapter Five ends with Christmas wondering, ‘”what the hell is the matter with me?” (118), and the next four sections of the novel help to provide an answer.Chapter Six opens, appropriately enough, with the line “memory believes before knowing remembers” (119). In doing so, it puts beside belief to knowledge. This binary involves the unquestioned acceptance of a social norm or expectation, as opposed to critical reflection with regard to how this norm and expectation are actually implemented in the social area. This opposition is representative of Christmas’s struggle to realize and form a self of his own making and choosing, of his struggle with what he assumes about himself and others and what he actually knows to be true; however, his difficulty in this struggle is not necessarily because of any racial inferiority that renders him incapable of doing so, but rather a result of the consistent instilling of the dominant pattern of Jefferson and the South.
The social constructs or myths surrounding the links among race, identity, and behavior are artificial in nature but nonetheless taken as real, objective and inevitable. While this conditioning of individuals is not absolute, it takes a certain degree of awareness of one’s self and one’s positioning in the social system, of how and why one is being recognized in a particular way, to be able to form an identity largely independent of these social pressures. Now, Faulkner could have chosen any point of Christmas’s life to begin to explain how Christmas has arrived in Jefferson and to what degree he is disconnected from his “inner nature” and “voice.” What Faulkner depicts is the beginning of Christmas’s inauthenticity.Christmas’s InauthenticityHarold Hungerford argues that “half of Light in August is flashbacks because, for Faulkner, the past determines the present” (183). This flashback begins what amounts to a chronological exposition of Christmas’s childhood and early adult life, explicitly emphasizing the importance of these years in the formation of the adult Christmas.
An impressionable five-year-old Christmas is shown, like a “shadow” (Faulkner 119,120), sneaking into one of the rooms at the orphanage to steal some toothpaste from the dietitian. When she comes into the room with a male coworker, Christmas witnesses a sexual act that, in his childish ignorance, he fails to comprehend. At the time, “the dietitian was nothing to him yet, save a mechanical adjunct to eating..
.coming now and then into his vision without impacting” (120) his life in any meaningful way.When the two employees discover that Christmas is hiding in the room and consequently has witnessed their tryst, a situation which otherwise would have remained unimportant to the boy is complicated and made problematic because of what the dietitian projects onto him: “she was…stupid enough to believe that a child.
..not only could deduce the truth from what he had heard but that he would want to tell it as an adult would” (123). As a result, Christmas is punished for the threat that he potentially poses to her. She “drags him violently out of (122) his hiding place and gives him another, and by far the most damaging, identity: ‘”You little nigger bastard!'” (125). Given Christmas’s age and the authoritative position of the dietitian, the insult becomes that much more important and real for him.The racial depreciatory begins to instruct Christmas in the ramifications that such an identity carries with it, and, even though he may not be aware of them yet, he certainly will be as he gains more experience in the world and encounters those who have already accepted and incorporated such constructs in their lives. This is important because Joe’s racial identity is not a fact.
That much is suggested by the dietitian when she immediately seeks others to support her claim that the child is black. In addition, the narrative even refers to Christmas as white; for example: “They saw that his face was not black” (322); he has a “pale body” (465); he is met with disbelief when claiming to be black (197, 225); and he has a “white chest” (225). Consequently, the dietitian’s actions call into question the validity of her insult and the degree to which Christmas should accept it as an accurate account of who or what he is. This, in turn, leads to the necessity of discerning the nature of the insults used here and why.”Nigger” and “bastard” are not necessarily separate accusations or insults. Both are terms that can be applied (metaphorically) to anyone, white or black, to emphasize one’s inferiority. Because blacks are considered to possess and exhibit certain qualities and behaviors that are both indicative of their race and inferior to the qualities and behaviors of whites, “nigger” can be used to mark individuals as deficient, threatening and so forth. It is possible, if not likely, that the dietitian’s decision to use these particular obscenities is due to the fact that Christmas was abandoned because he was born to an unwed mother, an unthinkable social disobedience in the South.
In describing Christmas’s mother, Mary Dondlinger writes that “a white girl is pregnant out of wedlock; therefore, the offspring, regardless of the race of the parents, has the blackness of sin, ‘bitchery and abomination,’ and illegitimacy in its blood” (101). As such, the term “bastard” is used superfluously here by the dietitian. However, it has already been mentioned that there is, in Christmas’s community, a stigma involving interracial couples. Such a coupling, however, in and of itself, is not nearly as threatening to the social mores as any offspring that results.In the South, a child born to members of different races, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the conception, is de facto a “nigger.
” The smallest amount of mixed blood, which does not even have to be from a black man or woman, negates an individual’s whitehood and classifies him or her as a minority and a second-class citizen. Yet Christmas is primarily “othered” by the accusation of blackness itself, and not any known biological history. In the South there exists a rigid class system, one dependent, above all, on race, and one that largely excludes the possibility of social mobility (Duttmann).
But the dietitian’s slur does more than simply classify and objectify Christmas; it positions him in a discourse that immediately begins to shape his identity and the identities available to him.In an ideal society, equal dignity and difference would be able to co-exist. In Light in August, however, the two ideas are at odds with each other and inherently problematic. Equal dignity presupposes that there is in the human race something innate that justifies not only respect but equality (Taylor). The politics of difference, though, advocates the recognition of what makes an individual separate and unlike members of the majority or dominant segment of society.
With regard to equal dignity, it is apparent that this particular ideal is not fully manifested in Jefferson. Blacks, especially black men, are seen as subhuman, subaltern, and dangerous. These divisions have been, over time, made in the minds of those living in Jefferson into objective fact, an accepted and unquestioned way of categorizing and dividing the two races.
It is because blacks are seen as naturally inferior in a number of ways (e.g. in intelligence and morals) that the sheriff reacts in the way that he does to Brown’s racial accusation against someone who has been seen as white. The racism and preconceived prejudices against blacks are ingrained in Christmas’s society. The “separate identities and expectations” distorts Taylor’s politics of difference, which is meant to emphasize not only the necessity but the benefit of recognizing and celebrating the differences among individuals or different groups of individuals.
Creating a system of negative, demeaning constructs which marks one group as innately inferior makes any hope of equal dignity appear unfeasible.For Jefferson, blacks have no positive potential, only the potential to rape, steal, kill, or otherwise threaten and harm the community. There is, in effect, a politics of difference operating in Jefferson and on Christmas, but the constitutive nature of it, because it is based on racially-ascribed essentialism, undermines and negates equal dignity and the supposed value of difference. This only further places Christmas in an untenable space with respect to any dialogical exchange on which his authentic self is partly dependent. Taylor’s concept of difference is not meant to refer simply to one’s race or ethnicity but rather to each and everyone’s own individuality, and thus to one’s unique value.This aspect of authenticity represents one of the major obstacles in Christmas’s life, forcing him into a context that, if fully accepted both by him and by those around him, will obstruct any potential or drive for authentic selfhood. His difference is not being valued or incorporated into a pluralistic, fully functioning society.
Christmas is supposed to be a valued, respected, and important member of Jefferson, not irrespective of his difference but (at least in part) because of it. His difference should be appreciated, but instead it is used to belittle him and acts both as a pretext and a tool for others’ manipulation of him. Christmas’s race is a means not for his own self-creation and better integration but for furthering and justifying the agendas of others, for limiting his opportunities, and for alienating him from the community on which he depends.This disregard for Christmas’s difference is exemplified again by the dietitian.
An additional motivation for her to continue inscribing onto Christmas a black identity is the need to protect herself. It has already been noted that her actions, specifically her attempt to seek others who also are willing to believe that Christmas is black, undermine the credibility of her claim, which continues to be subverted when she attempts to convince the matron of the orphanage: ‘”I don’t believe it!’ the matron cried. ‘I don’t believe it!'” (Faulkner 132). In addition to highlighting the subjective recognition of racial identities, this exchange again displays just how damning a black identity will prove to be, a fact that the dietitian wishes to capitalize on by telling the matron.During the initial stages of Christmas’s childhood, his universal human potential is being diverted from authenticity and directed towards a confining, limiting identity that is both safe and comfortable to the white population of Jefferson and their own self-understanding. Also, it is an identity that is being shaped in a world that is, for Christmas, equally limited. His difference as an individual human being, while in some respects ignored, is used against him, twisted into a justification for forcing him into an inferior status. It also acts as the impetus driving Christmas to look at the world from a cruel, harsh, and unforgiving perspective.
Perhaps most importantly, Christmas’s inner voice and his ability to discern for himself what is original for him are being encroached upon and undermined by those whom he has been raised by and comes into contact with as a young child, and the demeaning, prejudiced language used by his community to recognize and communicate with him. There is, for all individuals, at least temporarily, a demarcation between one’s own desires, wants, impulses, and so forth (and the motivations behind them), and the demands and expectations of one’s community. While this is not meant to exclude the inevitable overlap, an overlap that is, in fact, crucial to the formation of an authentic self, one must be able to distinguish between the two. In order to do so, however, an individual must both possess and act upon a certain degree of self-consciousness (Jenkins).
ConclusionThroughout the novel, race and what it implies prove to be a baneful and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, possessing the power to essentially invalidate, demean, and ostracize. One’s racial identity is crucial, since being associated with the “wrong” race can negate any other positive identities an individual may have. For instance, a white man whose race and gender position him high in the social hierarchy of the South can nevertheless be deprived of some of the social benefits that derive from this “inherent” status for having a relationship with a black woman. It should be apparent, then, that identity is not the sole possession or creation of the individual. Instead, identity depends, at least in part, on how one is perceived by others.
This symbiotic relationship between the individual and what the community projects onto the individual raises the following question: Given that Christmas depends on his relationship to the community for at least part of his identity, is the whole of his identity more a result of individual synthesis and choice or a product of specific external causes and influences that operate on him? Is Christmas more of an individual or an objectified reflection and embodiment of the values, mores, prejudices, laws and will of the community?This pair of extremes, however, is as unproductive as the forced dichotomy of the races. An individual who acts entirely as an individual agent independent of, and without regard to, friends, family, and the community in general would not be a fully functional, contributing member of society. In contrast, the person who lacks any and all individuality would ultimately cease to be individual capable of significant reflection, judgment, creativity, and understanding. Such a person would have little to contribute to society other than total obedience and devotion to those forces which shape and dictate public opinion. Life would be shallow, empty, and without personal meaning.
These two extremes are not mutually exclusive, however, and at times Christmas appears to exhibit the qualities of both extremes of identity formation.Even though each and every individual has an identity, not everyone has an authentic identity. Christmas can be, and is, labeled many things: black; white; son; orphan; bastard; sinner; killer; lover; stranger; foreigner; farmer; bootlegger. But one thing that he is not is authentic. Christmas fails to find, embrace, and consequently live as an authentic individual. It is possible that Christmas is not exceptional in this regard, and in fact Charles Taylor does not explicitly state that authenticity is the normal state of selfhood, that it is easy to attain, or that its achievement is inevitable. Its rarity as a realization, however, is not a reason why Christmas ultimately fails in this regard; it is not an excuse or justification. Christmas has managed to live over thirty years without fulfilling the specific criteria of authenticity, a failure that appears to begin soon after he is born.
Christmas’s inauthenticity, while certainly a result of individual flaws, is also a result of the specific world that Faulkner has constructed for him. It is the concomitance of these two factors, Christmas’s lack of self-consciousness and the South’s racist ideology, that obstruct the formation of an authentic identity.Forcibly removed from an educating and relatively racially-neutral environment in which he would have grown to learn, understand, and possibly adopt a useful and beneficial ideological framework, Christmas immediately finds himself deficient. At the orphanage, Christmas is initiated into a racial discourse which marks him as innately inferior and subaltern. Had he never been taken to the orphanage or encountered the racist dietitian, it is possible that he would have lived with a family that helped equip him with a greater degree of self-knowledge, giving him a greater, more accurate context in which to place himself that does not hinge on his being a morally deficient and threatening black male.Christmas ceases to participate in his community and is unwilling and/or unable to engage dialogically or critically with those around him, especially those who are in the unique position of being able to help him become more authentic. He chooses instead to cease his painful, stagnant existence so that nothing more can be engendered or performed.
He has no chance to achieve and sustain an authentic self because he no longer has the will to struggle for this end. Byron and Lena Grove, each suffering in their own ways from the past and present, continue living. They are survivors.The novel even ends with an account of Lena and Byron together, leaving the ideological and physical confines of Jefferson, escaping with their lives still intact. Christmas, however, will be buried there, partly killed by the racism of the South.
Moreover, in refusing to resist the South’s racism, Christmas has allowed himself to become an example of the danger posed by the black race. He becomes one of “the dead folks that do…the damage” (75) to the future generations of Jefferson. Christmas is unique not only in his racial ambiguity, but in his failures.BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed.
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