William Faulkner’s Light in August explores the racial condition of the United States South in 1930. The plot line follows three social pariahs of the society, while allowing the characters to be multidimensional. Specifically, the character of Joe Christmas, who appears to be white, but poses a threat to the town by apparently having black blood, is the perfect target for conflict in this 1930’s southern town. Christmas’ search for a place within this environment correlates with the sociological conditions of the time, as well as signifies Faulkner’s understanding of the racial problem in America.
This essay attempts to put Joe Christmas’ biracial journey for identity in historical context with the same American condition that drove Faulkner to create the character. It will show that by Faulkner creating a character that could very easily be compared to Shakespeare’s Othello and Jesus Christ, he is making a very knowledgeable cultural statement about race in America. This is a statement that has had a history in this country as far back as colonial times and it dictated the actions and outcome of Joe’s life, before Faulkner even wrote his story.
Joe Christmas grows up in an orphanage, and he appears to predominantly be white. The conflict occurs when another child calls him a nigger. This bothers him greatly, and he eventually goes to the Janitor, who is black, and this interaction occurs, How come you are a nigger? ” and the nigger sa[ys] ‘Who told you I am a nigger, you little white trash bastard? ’ and he says ‘I ain’t a nigger’ and the nigger says ‘You are worse than that. You don’t know what you are. And more than that, you won’t never know.
You’ll live and you’ll die and you won’t never know”’ (Faulkner, 383-384). This interaction stays with Christmas as he travels from town to town trying to find his place. When the plot reconnects with him in his grown life, Christmas is working in the deep south town of Jefferson at the planning mill, while secretly operating an illegal alcohol business. He has a relationship with Joanna Burden, who is older than him and the descendant of am abolitionist family. She carries her ancestors ideals with her, and this makes her an outcast in the town, similar to Christmas.
Their differences still create intense sexual tension; such that it eventually leads to a climatic conflict between the two where Joanna threatens Christmas with a gun and demands that he admit and accept his black heritage and join a black law firm. This inadvertently leads to Christmas killing her. He almost gets away, but the cops are tipped off by Christmas’ ex-partner in the moon-shine business. This tragic fall of Christmas’s significantly correlates to the black man’s burden. Faulkner presents Joe’s eruption almost as a mental reaction to society’s stresses on him.
This is very similar to Shakespeare’s Othello and the experience of O. J. Simpson. Both of these stories were controversial tragedies, very similar to Christmas’s experience. William Shakespeare’s Othello is one of his most controversial tragedies. In part because, it is a love story about deception and betrayal, but mostly because it involves a love affair between an interracial couple. Considering the era in which the play was written, it’s no surprise why Shakespeare is held in such high regard for being ahead of his time.
The story starts out with Othello attaining great glory and acclaim from the people of Venice. An African (Moore), he earns the love and admiration of the beautiful Venetian Desdemona, which warrants him access into a predominantly white Italian aristocracy. The story takes place during a time period in Europe when cross cultural relations weren’t even considered, let alone frowned upon. Othello is considered to be a Muslim by the Christian Venetians. Yet, he is called upon by the duke of Venice to defend them from the Turks, who are also Muslim.
After victory is inadvertently achieved, Othello is a hero, but he is still considered a black Muslim, in a white Christian society. A major theme that can’t be avoided in the play is that of racial separatism. Despite all of Othello’s accomplishments, he is still vilified for being black by the culture he has assimilated into, once it is discovered he murdered his wife. The message expressed in a story about a black man who is celebrated as a hero, changes his religion and even marries into the society, but still can’t achieve full acceptance is a very timeless and socially conscious message.
A very ironic connection that can be made between Othello and Joe Christmas is their correlation with Christianity. It is commonly felt that Faulkner names his character Joe Christmas for the reader to make a symbolic connection to Jesus Christ. Joe is depicted much as a martyr who is in a society that can’t accept him for what he is, even Joanna fails to fully accept him. By her trying to force Christmas to join the all black law firm, it’s the equivalent of her asking him to disregard the white part of himself.
She is so caught up with her own family history as abolitionists, it is as though she needs Christmas to be black for her own completeness. Othello can also be viewed as somewhat of a Christ like martyr who is trying to survive within a society that can never accept him. The main similarity Christmas, O. J. Simpson and Othello all have is that they murdered the white women who love them, and they are condemned for it. Despite their tragic downfalls, these men also have rebellious heroic qualities. Othello and Christmas are perfect examples of the type of individual Martha Minow would hope all Americans aspire to be.
In her essay on identity, titled Not Only for Myself Identity, Politics, and the Law, she says, There are two kinds of people in the world…those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who do not (Minow, 1997). Her essay reveals the ever segregating nature of our country, while she takes a clear stance in favor of the universal individual. Her essay takes an in depth look at the attitude that is truly necessary for one to make a lone effort towards furthering the genuine full racial integration of America. It puts characters like O. J.
Simpon and Christmas (murder aside), and Othello, in a positive light for their rebellious loner-like natures, and their fearless inclination towards cross cultural confrontations. Her essay condemns all those who settle into social tribes of convenient sameness. To encourage those who oppose conforming to the common American culture of segregation, she describes in detail the trials of a young Nathan Marx. The story also suggests how an identity is founded on both the views of others and the individual; Marx is treated as a Jew both by his non-Jewish fellow officers and by the Jewish trainees.
Both kinds of treatment influence his sense of himself as a Jew. Although he resists both, he defines himself in the course of that resistance (Minow, 1997). Both Othello and Simpson are absolutely identical with Minow’s Marx. In a world defined by white and black, sociologically, they all three tread a shade of grey. Minow’s essay does a good job of identifying this correlation. By being fearless toward cross cultural interaction, they create an identity separate from a solely ethnicity defined existence.
This is what they all have in common, and on this they can build a relationship. Those who isolate themselves from anyone different and congregate in their same race unions conform along with a growing distance from cross cultural understanding. Eventually the only trait they hold in common with those of different races is a distrust and sense of threat. It’s ironic that Susan Opotow cites the fear of threat as one of the key ingredients to hate and violence; because as we see here, segregate views are the core cause of this type of fear.
O. J. Simpson’s story holds undeniable correlations to both Othello’s and Christmas. He is the best running back of his era in a country that worships football players. The Super Bowl gets higher ratings than the Presidential Address and there is more prestige earned in winning the Hiesman than being awarded a Purple Heart, or a P. H. D. Ironically Simpson did receive the Hiesman trophy, in 1968, and he was dubbed with the unparalleled title of All American. This is ironic for two reasons.
One, it signifies the moment when he becomes a member of the upper echelon of American society (it should be noted the title he receives is that of All American not All African American); from this point on, until the controversy with his trial, he is no longer treated like, or commonly viewed as a black American. Granted, there are still prejudice onlookers like Officer Mark Firman, and others just waiting for him to screw up; but until he does, he is untouchable and free of the burdens common to most blacks, even the wealthy ones. Second, it’s identical with Othello’s rise to glory.
When Othello is promoted over Iago, he too is no longer viewed as a black man, by those that matter. His marriage to Desdemona just makes it official. All of Simpson’s great accomplishments just make his outcome more ironic, upon his downfall. The most prevalent theme of Simpson’s saga is that of the Black Man’s burden. It is a combination of conflicts encountered by black males in Western society. The same sense of otherness, which Christmas is forced to endure, and which is suddenly placed on O. J. with his exclusion from White America, is the foundation of this concept.