Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles WAI CHEE DIMOCK: Just getting started. And just want to remind you, refresh your memory about what we were talking about before the break. So we were talking about first, the concept of strangers and kindness of strangers that Lena would be a recipient of. And then we were talking about neighbors and what could come to us from neighbors and not always good things. And Hightower is a recipient of the not always good things coming from our neighbors. But Hightower, as we also know, is very emphatic that in spite of what happens to him, in spite of the beatings and so on, that he's actually surrounded by two people. So it really takes a tremendous act of willpower to be able to say that. And so this is the quote from Hightower. "They are good people. All that any man can hope for is to be permitted to live quietly around his fellows." So it is a proposition, a statement that really is sort of thrown in our face and in the face of all the things that have happened to him. So today what I'd like to do is to use race as a test case for Hightower's proposition. We all know that Joe Christmas is someone whose racial identity is ambiguous, I would say, from beginning to end. We don't really know for sure what his parentage -- we have good guesses, but we don't know for sure. And we certainly don't know the genetic makeup of someone like Joe Christmas. So in that context, I think it's especially relevant to talk about some of the contemporary discussion of race. And this is not even so new. It came out in 2003. It was a special issue of Scientific American, whether race exists, and it makes a strong argument that race is misleading in the sense that when you look at the physical characteristics, the facial features of people, and we assume that race has a very solid existence, that is real. But actually the facial characteristics or the physical attributes do not always correspond to our genetic makeup. So how people look actually is not a great way to tell us who they are biologically. And so the scientific argument in the special issue or that essay is about the importance of thinking outside of the box of noticeable or observable visible characteristics, to thinking about what would come into play in a medical situation. This is Scientific American after all. So this was back in 2003. And even earlier than that, on the front cover of Time Magazine, is the new face of America. And it's really about America becoming a mixed-race nation. And if that is the case, I look at everyone, yeah, quite often I can't really tell what background, ethnic background people are from. And that is the case. This is a computer-generated image. And we don't really know. She's made up of the traits of many races, and so it's hard to tell. But she's a very typical American face. And around the same time, a book came out by F. James Davis called Who is Black? Actually this was quite an important book when it came out in 1992, to such an extent that in its 10th anniversary, PBS actually did a special program titled Who is Black? and featured that book. And his argument is very, very pertinent to Faulkner's novel. We don't actually know who is black in this novel. So it is a question that is not answered. And it's perhaps not meant to be answerable, even at the end of the novel. And this is an image that actually Tai used for her section. And it was a great section. I'm very happy to be there. So I just borrowed it from her. And this is an Ebony Magazine quiz, 1952. But even back in 1952, people were realizing that if you look at people, you don't really know what race they are. And so I think that most people would actually get a few wrong answers for that quiz. So I think that all this is just to set the stage for the very complicated and maybe not meant to be resolved landscape that Faulkner has set up for us in Light in August. And so what I'd like to talk about today is the word nigger. And of course, that's the word that would have to be used. Because just as in the '50s, the word negro was the standard term. In the '20s and '30s, "nigger" would have been the standard term. So it was not originally a racial slur. The use of the word "nigger," even though it wasn't necessarily a racial slur, it nonetheless was a charged epithet. It always has carried excessive semantic burden. And because it carries excessive semantic burden, it also opens itself up to multiple uses. So today we'll look at the way that word is being used by different people in different contexts and for different purposes. So we'll go down the list. We'll be talking about all this, and also spoken by other people. And also when the word is spoken by the person himself. So I just noticed this microphone has a way of diminishing itself. So these are the people that we'll be looking at who use the word nigger. First is Joe Brown, and then the dietitian a couple of times, and then Hightower, and then Bobbie the waitress, and then Joanna Burden. And then Joe Christmas himself, he uses the word nigger for himself. But first, let's look at the way Joe Brown uses that word. At this point, Joe Brown is being questioned by the sheriff. So we know that Joanna's body has been discovered. Her house has burned down. And the sheriff is questioning Joe Brown. And there's $1,000 that is up for anyone who can help solve the case. So Joe Brown has sort of high hopes that he'll be the one to get the $1,000. But as the sheriff questions him, more and more comes out, it seems less and less likely that the $1,000 will be in his own pocket. So he's getting desperate. And that is when that word comes up. "Because they said 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 come to a pinch"-- this is Brian telling Hightower-- "like he had knowed that if it come to a pinch, this would save him, even if it was almost worse for a white man to admit what he would have to admit than to be accused of the murder itself. 'That's right,' he says. 'Go on. Accuse me. Accuse the white man that's trying to help you with what he knows. Accuse the white man and let the nigger go free. Accuse the white and let nigger run.'" So this is the classic race card that we recognize so well. And unfortunately, it still has some currency. So he's playing the race card, because he's really desperate. What is really interesting is how subtle this portrait, even of someone like Joe Brown who has so little saving grace to him. This is really someone who is supremely unlikable. But even for someone who is supremely unlikable, Faulkner, nonetheless, portrays him as someone who's not incapable of feeling ashamed. So it is shameful, even for someone like Joe Brown to use the race card, that when there's nothing else he can do, he would do that. So he's not such a racist or such a whatever that he's blind to what he's doing. And so I would say that even though this is Joe Brown doing one of the despicable things that he's capable of doing, in the very act of doing that, he recognizes completely that he is being despicable. So this is one kind of self-contained usage of shameful, and shameful even to the person who is doing it. And the next couple of usages all revolving around the dietitian. And we know that Joe Christmas is behind the curtains and watching this whole scene unfolding between the dietitian and her beau and eating toothpicks and having no idea what's going on outside of the dietitian thinking that he knows everything. So she drags him out. And this is what Joe sees when she drags him out. "A face no longer smooth pink-and-white surrounded now by wild and disheveled hair whose smooth band once made him think of candy. 'You little rat!' the thin, furious voice hissed, 'You little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!'" So she's never called him that before. So it's at this moment of extreme vulnerability on the part of the dietitian that that word would come rushing up. So it has some relation to the Joe Brown usage in the sense that this is a word that comes out when your back is against the wall, basically. This is the thing that you fling at people. But the dietitian actually is more resourceful than Joe Brown. She actually is able to use that word in some other contexts. So this is the next installment of the word nigger coming out of the mouth of the dietitian. And she has something else to offer Joe Christmas. Her hand is outstretched, and upon it lay a silver dollar. "Her voice went on urgent, tense, fast. 'A whole dollar. See? How much you could buy. Some to eat every day for a week. And next month maybe I'll give another one.' He seemed to see ranked tubes of toothpaste like corded wood, endless and terrifying; his whole being coiled in a rich and passionate revulsion. 'I don't want no more,' he said. 'I don't ever want no more,' he said. He didn't need to look up to know what her face looked like now. 'Tell!' she said. 'Tell, then! You little nigger bastard! You nigger bastard!'" So this is the evolution of the dietitian, that she's not so vulnerable now. That she's actually on the verge of going on the offensive, but not quite. Because she just wants to make peace really. She has wanted to cut a deal with Joe Christmas, basically. And so what she doesn't understand is that he doesn't understand the concept of bribery. Joe Christmas is really interesting in that way. He doesn't always understand kindness. And he even doesn't understand the next thing down I think, which is bribery. So for him, the silver dollar just means endless tubes of toothpaste. That can't be more repugnant to him. But he knows enough to know that rejecting that silver dollar would actually be an automatic guarantee of the appearance of that word from the dietitian. So a pattern is beginning to develop. First, complete vulnerability on the part of the dietitian. Then not complete vulnerability, but her scheme is being foiled unwittingly by Joe Christmas. And that word comes out again. So it's sort of a handy, part involuntary, but part reflexive and part handy, almost instrumental, usage of that term. And we'll move on now to a completely instrumentalized usage. So with the dietitian it begins with a non-instrumentalized involuntary usage. By the third time she uses that word, it is completely instrumentalized and completely calculated. And that's when the dietitian goes to the matron of the orphanage and uses that word, "nigger," one more time.