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  • 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.

  • "'How did you know about this?' The dietitian did not

  • look away. 'I didn't.

  • I had no idea at all.

  • Of course I knew it didn't mean anything when the other

  • children called him nigger.' 'Nigger?' the matron said.

  • 'The other children?' 'They had been calling

  • him nigger for years.

  • Sometimes I think the children have a way of knowing things