“Despite repeated and complicated attempts to codify the mulatto’s identity as black, individuals who were neither white nor black – but were, in fact, both – continued to threaten the ‘cultural equilibrium’ by unsettling the authority and stability of whiteness” (Zackodnik, 428).

1. a person having one white and one black parent. Freq. more generally: a person of mixed race resembling a mulatto (considered offensive).

2. a hybrid.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

If one were to glance through the novels of William Faulkner, he or she would discover that the term mulatto is neither explicitly used nor common on the page. However, if examined more closely, his work bleeds with the presence of this racial hybrid. Being that his novels are primarily set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County of Mississippi in the 1930s, race is one of the most prevalent themes in Faulkner’s canon. Through some of literature’s most memorable characters, Faulkner is able to define and categorize whiteness and blackness. For example, in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner introduces the reader to the white bourgeois Compson family and their black slaves. This novel is a stunning example of Faulkner defining the very certain roles that race creates in his work. However, what happens when these two very defined and separate worlds collide? Furthermore, what kind of character would this type of collision create? Like whiteness and blackness, the racial category of the mulatto is clearly defined in Faulkner’s work. In order to understand this definition, we must first explore the historical context surrounding the mulatto; then, we must see how Faulkner defines whiteness and blackness within his novels; and finally, we will examine the bi-racial character of Joe Christmas from Light in August and Faulkner’s representation of him.

As seen above in the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “mulatto” is specifically designated for a person who is of half white, half black ancestry; however, it also seems to encapsulate any person who comes from some sort of mixed background. While we, as a society, have made tremendous progress in the way we perceive and regard people of races other than white, it seems that there is still uncertainty in the way we approach any type of mixing of different races. In 2008, the United States elected its first black president. Yet, it tends to be forgotten that Barack Obama is, in fact, of mixed ancestry. Why then, do Americans say, with such confidence – a black man – when in fact, he is also white? Do we, in contemporary U.S culture, still consider any person with partial black ancestry to be solely black?
Frederick Douglass’s renowned writing of “The Color Line” illustrates, among several things, this viewpoint towards those of a mixed race background. “One drop of Teutonic blood is enough to account for all good and great qualities occasionally coupled with a colored skin; and on the other hand, one drop of negro blood, though in the veins of a man of Teutonic whiteness, is enough of which to predicate all offensive and ignoble qualities” (569). No matter how “white” a man or woman’s blood may be, the presence of any “blackness” in his or her ancestry is enough to cause him to still be labeled black by the dominant culture.

In his writing of “The American Mulatto,” in 1928, author E.B. Reuter examined the difficulties and the advantages that face the mulatto in U.S culture. He makes it clear to the reader, that the only black men to have gained any social or economic status in the American culture have been bi-racial men, like Frederick Douglass himself. In fact, much of Reuter’s writing centers on the fact that, during that time period, mulattos plowed further ahead and gained far more respect in the working world than those of unmixed ancestry. Overall, Reuter argues the many advantages that the growing population of mulattoes receives. He claims that besides the social and economical advantages, many mulattoes were not enslaved, but rather became free men and those who were enslaved were treated quite well (39-40). However, Reuter also acknowledges that being of both white and black ancestry did have its difficulties for the mulatto of the early 1900s. “…the mixed bloods, excluded from both the parent races, have formed a more or less distinct caste between two civilizations…The intolerant edict of the majority prevents their being white; their personal ideals and aspirations prevent their being black…They feel themselves superior to the one group and inferior to the other, they despise the one and idealize the other” (40-41). It appears that, even though mulattoes were more easily accepted into the dominant culture, they were still denied full access. On the other hand, because of this, albeit, miniscule superiority, they denied the black culture, as well. They are excluded by both groups and therefore, do not truly belong anywhere – they are unaccepted. This external lack of acceptance becomes an internal battle for the mulatto. “The conflict is without resolution so long as the mulatto is forbidden membership in the white group and remains psychologically unaccommodated to the Negro. Much of the variant and violent behavior that has given rise to the popular notion that mulattoes combine the vices of both races is understandable in terms of this conflict within the person” (Reuter, 41). It is this conflict that Faulkner demonstrates within the mulatto characters of his novels.

There is no question about it – race is one of the largest and most reoccurring themes in the work of William Faulkner. In her article, “William Faulkner: No Friend of Brown v. Board of Education,” author Carol Polsgrove states, “Faulkner imagined Mississippi in his novels with more passion than most places have bestowed upon them. His Mississippi had a supernal glow, like a paradise lit by the fires of hell. Slavery loomed large as the region’s original sin. Again and again, Faulkner raised the question of race” (93). In addition to the theme of race, family is also very prevalent theme within Faulkner’s novels. For instance, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, possibly Faulkner’s two greatest pieces of work, each center on a single family unit and their inner struggles. While these two families could not be more different, one important parallel is that both families are white. These two novels focus on the suffering of two white families. There is a way that Faulkner victimizes his white characters that is severely juxtaposed to his depiction of black characters.

Right from the beginning of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner begs the reader for a type of sympathy for the white characters who comprise the Compson family. Our first narrator is Benjy – a grown man trapped in the mind of a child who cannot effectively communicate with any of the members of his family. The reader cannot help but feel pain for this character. As the novel progresses, the reader also meets Quentin and Caddy – the former a Harvard student who eventually commits suicide and the latter, his sister, the sole daughter of the Compson family, who is ostracized after bearing a child out of wedlock. Of course, these characters are not without sin and do have their own personal misdeeds; however, it is clear that this novel is to be read as the tragedy of the southern, aristocratic, white Compson family.

While the Compsons could be viewed as victims of their circumstances, the black characters of the novel are not victimized in a similar fashion. If one looks closely as Dilsey, the matriarch of the slave characters, on one hand, she is an irresistibly strong female character, but when pinned against the Compsons, she is far more docile in nature. The Compsons may have their struggles, but they are still the power and authority. Author Charles Glicksberg describes this docility in his article, “William Faulkner and the Negro Problem,” as such, “The Sound and the Fury describes with naturalistic fidelity the relationship between the Negroes and the whites in an ill-starred Southern family. The Negro must cheerfully accept whatever punishment the white mete out of him, accept his lot with complaisant fortitude” (156). Glicksberg continues by giving the example of an exchange of physical abuse between Quentin and T.P and the reaction given by T.P. “Quentin hit T.P. again. Then he began to thump T.P. against the wall. T.P. was laughing. Every time Quentin thumped him against the wall he tried to say Whooey, but he couldn’t say it for laughing” (Faulkner, 21). The effect of an exchange of this nature showcases the very distinct roles of the white and black characters of the novel. Even a white family, who is crumbling to pieces, is the power and is in control of the black slaves who must stay and accept oppression.

William Faulkner is not one to give his readers very many archetypal characters. Even though his novels all take place in similar environments and explore similar themes, the characters that grace the pages are all individuals in their own way. But, even though these characters are individuals, one thing that remains certain is how distinct whiteness and blackness are within the novels. The characters fit into their own clear “race category.” However, what kind of category and world does Faulkner create with the presence of a character who combines both race groups? William Faulkner created many characters that would be considered bi-racial; however, the strongest and prominent one is, without a doubt, Joe Christmas.

Light in August is a novel about outsiders and isolation. The first character the reader is introduced to is pregnant Lena Grove who is journeying to Jefferson in hopes of tracking down the father of her unborn child. There is also the Reverend Hightower who after being shunned by his local community lives in quiet solitude. We also have Byron Bunch, who, while a member of the community, has never seemed to really fit in. Joanna Burden, an abolitionist, is labeled outsider for her seemingly northern beliefs towards the issue of race. And then there is Joe Christmas. What makes Joe Christmas so compelling of a character is that in him, Faulkner created an outsider within a novel of outsiders. Christmas is isolated even from the world of isolation that Light in August creates. When he first arrives in Jefferson, Faulker describes his appearance as such, “And the group of men at work in the planer shed looked up, and saw the stranger standing there, watching them…He did not look like a professional hobo in his professional rags, but there was definitely something rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home” (31). From this introduction, the reader understands that not only will Joe Christmas not belong in Jefferson, but he does not belong anywhere. He is more than just an outcast to Jefferson, but further, an outcast of society. However, the reason of his seclusion has yet to be discovered by the reader.

The reader learns of Joe Christmas’s status as a mulatto after the character Joe Brown accuses him of murdering Joanna Burden and then setting fire to her home. The exchange between him and the police is as follows, “ ‘I’m talking about Christmas,’ Brown says. ‘The man that killed that white woman after he had done lived with her in plain sight of this whole town…He’s got nigger blood in him. I knowed it when I first saw him…One time he even admitted it, told me he was part nigger. Maybe he was drunk when he done it: I don’t know” (98). Once this information from Brown, which is not even based on concrete evidence, but rather drunken conversation, is disclosed, Christmas’s role within the novel completely shifts from outcast to villain. He is not only a murderer, but a mulatto, too. In his article, “Joe Christmas: Faulkner’s Marginal Man,” author Robert M. Slabey states, “His is the problem of the American Mulatto whose position is ambiguous…As a result he experiences profound inner conflicts: he is unable to enter the White group and unwilling to belong to the Black group…” (267).

As Light in August moves forward Joe Christmas is no longer the supreme outsider, but rather the novel’s villain and these inner conflicts deepen. Faulkner’s literature is far more complex than just “good guy/bad guy”; however, if Light in August were to have a simplified character villain – that role would certainly go to Christmas. “There is Joe Christmas, the evil one incarnate, sardonic, sinister, always alone, bootlegging whiskey, living with a queer elderly white woman two miles from town…He is forever brooding on the knowledge that he has Negro bloods in his veins – the unpardonable sin in the South” (Glicksberg, 157). Once it is discovered that Christmas is the murderer of Joanna Burden and also bi-racial, his evilness is solidified. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the accusation of Christmas as a murderer occurs simultaneously with the revelation of his possible mixed ancestry. Joe Christmas’s inner “battle” is fully examined in Chuck Jackson’s article, “American Emergencies: Whiteness, the National Guard, and Light in August,” “Christmas's white blood...provides him with moral reasoning, but his black blood rises against it, pushing him to pistol-whip Reverend Hightower and, ultimately, sweeping him into an ecstatic state..." (193). For Christmas, the internal battle is between his “whiteness” and “blackness,” but to the reader it transforms into a battle between good and evil.

This battle between good and evil is seen throughout the novel as Faulkner reveals the history of Joe Christmas. Several chapters are devoted to Christmas’s adolescence and upbringing – a privilege not granted to other characters of the novel. It is discovered that Christmas was an orphan, ridiculed by others for being a mulatto, and finally adopted by the religiously fanatic McEacherns. Mr. McEachern attempts to force the Presbyterian catechism on Joe early on, but Joe refuses and this defiance ultimately results in abuse from his newly adopted father. Not long after these events, Joe begins stealing money from the McEacherns and sneaking out to have an affair with a local waitress from Memphis. Ultimately, Christmas murders McEachern with a chair at a local dance. “…it all rushed away, roaring, dying, leaving him in the center of the floor, the shattered chair clutched in his hand, looking down at his adopted father. McEachern lay on his back. He looked quite peaceful now. He appeared to sleep: bluntheaded, indomitable even in repose, even the blood on his forehead peaceful and quiet” (Faulkner, 205). What Faulkner gives the reader here is quite the image of good versus evil. On one hand, you have the murdered victim who looks peaceful even in death. While next to him, is the savage murderer, still holding the weapon. It is powerful image of good versus evil, but also an image of white versus black. It recalls the idea that Jackson discussed of Christmas’s white blood versus his black blood – where eventually the black blood conquers. Even when discussing the sexual relationship between Christmas and Joanna Burden, the language used, describes it as a very dominant act wherein Christmas seems to be stealing Joanna’s pure virtue. “…when he entered the house at night it was as he had entered it that first night; he felt like a thief, a robber, even while he mounted to the bedroom where she waited. Even after a year it was as though he entered by stealth to despoil her virginity each time anew” (234). Christmas, the mulatto, is portrayed as a thief, stealing the virture of Joanna – the white woman.

Because Joe Christmas has become the representative of the novel’s villain, it is impossible that Faulkner allow the character to live. Justice and goodness must prevail – Christmas, represented as evil, must be defeated. Author Glicksberg describes the ending perfectly. “Light in August draws to an apocalyptic close. Christmas has escaped from his captors, and his flight is curiously revealing of the split in his personality. First he runs to a Negro cabin, his ‘black blood’ guiding his footsteps; then in revulsion he turns to the house of Hightower where he thinks he will find sanctuary, only to recoil again. He meets death as the only way out” (159). The entire town of Jefferson – white and black – wants Christmas dead. His actions have labeled him villain and complete outcast. The mulatto character is excluded by both white and black and, in the end, does not find acceptance within society.

With the character of Joe Christmas, Faulkner gave his readers a representation of a mulatto character. Christmas is a man constantly in battle between good and evil, where evil always conquers. He is also a complete outcast of society. The mulatto character is in a completely separate category from the white and black characters of Faulkner’s work. The characters that fall into the white and black categories have very distinct roles, whereas the mulatto suffers from a lack of identity. Christmas is not only white, but also black – he has no set guidelines of how society will accept him. Without these guidelines, Christmas becomes shunned by both races. Faulkner’s mulatto is a fairly dramatized version of the mulatto of the early 1900s. He creates an environment that does not accept this character and because of this lack of belonging the character is in constant battle within himself, which in turn becomes a battle of good and evil.

–Greta Bowers

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. "The Color Line." The North American Review 132.295 (1881): 567-77. JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

Glicksberg, Charles I. "The American Mulatto." Phylon 10.2 (1949): 153-60. JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

Jackson, Chuck. "American Emergencies: Whiteness, the National Guard, and Light in August." The Faulkner Journal22.1-2 (2007) JSTOR. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

“Mulatto.” Def 1 & 2. Oxford English Dictionary. Web.

Polsgrove, Carol. "William Faulkner: No Friend of Brown v. Board of Education." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 32 (2001): 93-99. JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

Reuter, EB. "The American Mulatto." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 140 (1928): 36-43. JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

Slabey, Robert M. "Joe Christmas: Faulkner's Marginal Man." Phylon 21.3 (1960): 266-77.JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

Zackodnik, Teresa. "Fixing the Color Line: The Mulatto, Southern Courts, and Racial Identity." American Quarterly 53.3 (2001): 420-51. JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.