Violent Disruptions

American Imaginations of Racial Anxiety in William Faulkner and Richard Wright

by Linda Chavers (Author)
©2019 Monographs XXII, 112 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 63


Violent Disruptions examines two authors who have powerfully predicted the formation of racial identities and its surrounding discourse in the United States today: William Faulkner (1897–1962) and Richard Wright (1908–1960). Using the works of Faulkner and Wright, this text argues that race becomes visible only through image production and exchange. Further, it argues that following the dismantling of our legally upheld racial inequality and everyday racist language, it is precisely the visual register wherein we see most acutely the continued present-day operation of racial inequality. Violent Disruptions thus places William Faulkner and Richard Wright at the center of our current dramas in the 21st century in popular television, political theater and criminal justice.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Prologue
  • What Are You?
  • Definition of Terms
  • Literary Implications
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 1. The Fourteenth Truth
  • I Who Regard You
  • Contradiction and the Assumption of Whiteness
  • Interracial Reconnaissance
  • Wait, Wait!
  • Fantasy in Faulkner’s Interracial Fiction
  • Thomas Sutpen: The New White Man
  • Whiteness and Naming
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 2. White Blurs and Black Sex: Fatal Imaginings in Richard Wright’s Native Son
  • Native Son: The Past Isn’t Past
  • The Imagination as Evidence and Witness in the Courtroom: Bigger and Buckley’s Intimate Relationship
  • Threesomes: Interracial Sex and the Roles of the Physical, the Imaginative and the Viewers
  • The Trajectory of a Murderer
  • Harsh Realities and Arousing Fantasies
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 3. Play and Death in Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children
  • From Lynching to Drowning
  • Wright’s Origins Tale—What Is Behind “Big Boy”?
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 4. Violations and Disruptions in Faulkner’s Light in August
  • The Passing of Bodies and Notes: Genealogical-Literary Links between Charles Bon, Joe Christmas, Bigger Thomas, and Big Boy
  • Christmas’s Interracial Body and Its (Mis)Recognition: Interracial Disorientation
  • Inside/Outside and the Foreignness of Self-Knowledge in Faulkner’s South
  • The Forgetfulness of Knowledge and the Privileged Position of the Interracial
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 5. Conclusion or, “Wait!”
  • Notes
  • Works Cited

| ix →


What Are You?

My task is to make you hear, to make you feel, and, above all, to make you see. That is all, and it is everything.

—Joseph Conrad

The other night, I read an op-ed titled “Black with (Some) White Privilege.”1 Of course, once done with the article the very next thing I did was to go onto Twitter and post a link to the article with the caption: “Let me tell y’all what you’re not going to do.” What I did not want to hear was a particular, all too common response to articles such as this one. The piece, like a lot of popular discourse, discusses the “interesting” fact that many black figures in the public eye have one white parent and one black and are, therefore, technically biracial even if they identify as black. The author, Anna Holmes, rightly clarified that “[o]f course, to be a black American is to be, by definition, mixed,” but that is not the center of her piece, and that is my concern. I grow suspicious whenever there is talk about biracial identity in mainstream media. I suspect that it comfortably silences the much longer, complex inquiries and observations around sexual assault and oppression in the American history of enslavement, in legal segregation, and in our societal structures today. ← ix | x →

In 1983, one year after I was born, forty-nine-year-old Susie Guillory Phipps lost her five-year legal battle about race against the state of Louisiana. Though that would be the year Louisiana repealed its “one-drop” rule, in effect since 1970, the repeal did not have any sort of retroactive effect. Phipps, who was 3/32 “Negro,” based on her enslaved African great-great-great-great-grandmother, needed a positive ruling on her case to change the racial designation on her birth certificate from Colored to White. Phipps stated, “I am White. I am all White. I was raised as a White child. I went to White schools. I married White twice.”2 Phipps’s case had refueled the always-heated debate about who the state considered black.

By my teens in the late 1990s, I felt mostly on the popular side of things when I celebrated my ethnic and racial identity. Certainly, buzzwords like multicultural and diversity were used positively on my high school and college campus. Yet there was an undercurrent of tension. Sometimes I’d see it in the faces of my white peers’ parents or in my white teachers’. By the time I arrived at graduate school to pursue my fascination with this unnamed anxiety, I was both surprised and affirmed to read about people such as Phipps. Her case stood out to me for her unabashed justifications that she was a white woman. The “I was raised White” stood out the most—it begged a response. But also this: I attended white schools, and though I have never married, I have been in romantic relationships with white men. If race is a social construct, then what are the constructs that allow movement between white and black? And what does not? How do we learn the rules?

Which brings me to my next questions: What taught Phipps to be white? What taught her what it was to be and to not be black? not long after beginning my first job after college, I had an encounter that would affirm I was not wrong to make these connections and ask these questions—and the event would continue to inform my worldview. One night after work, a few of us grabbed some drinks, and one coworker started flirting with me. When it came time to leave, he walked me to my car, and he started making more aggressive advances. After the umpteenth rejection, he asked, in exasperation, “Look, is it because I’m white? Because I’ve never been with a black girl, but I’ve seen a lot of porn.”

I could think of nothing to say but goodbye. My mind went to a lot of things, including a page from William Faulkner’s 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom!, and I still find that strange and worth unpacking. To explain how this connection even occurred, one needs a somewhat generic summary of this incredibly ← x | xi → dense, maddening, and brilliant work. Absalom, Absalom! details the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a white man born into poverty in West Virginia who comes to fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, with one goal: to become a wealthy and powerful patriarch—and build an American dynasty. His story is told entirely in flashbacks narrated by Quentin Compson to his roommate, Shrevlin McCannon, at Harvard College. Quentin’s retelling is informed not by firsthand witnessing but by the narration of Miss Rosa Coldfield, town fixture, and of Quentin’s father, Mr. Compson, and of his grandfather, Grandfather Compson. What Quentin provides are retellings by others, which are then informed by his and his roommate’s interpretations. This frame-within-a-frame-within-a-frame literary structure creates a simultaneous obfuscation and clarity, with the two young men having the last word on the true Sutpen story. Rosa initially narrates the story, with long digressions and a biased memory, to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was a friend of Sutpen’s. Quentin’s father then fills in some of the details to Quentin. Finally, Quentin relates the story to his roommate, Shreve, and in each retelling, the reader receives more details as the parties flesh out the story by adding layers. Therefore, none of the events come to the reader in chronological order, and some include conflicting details, depending on the person retelling. The final effect leaves the reader more certain about the attitudes and biases of the characters than about the facts of Sutpen’s story.

That night with the guy who’d ‘seen a lot of porn’ I thought of one of the most racially and sexually charged ones retold and imagined by Quentin and Shreve. For most of the novel’s story, Charles Bon has been passing as white to the Sutpen family, befriending Thomas Sutpen’s son Henry and getting engaged to his daughter, Judith. Bon carries a secret that he is Thomas Sutpen’s son from a previous marriage to a black woman in Haiti (Sutpen claimed not to know she was black). Bon has come to Yoknapatawpha to confront his father and to get explicit acknowledgment. Only Thomas Sutpen has already figured out who Bon really is and has instructed Henry to kill him. What flashed in my imagination was similar to what Quentin and Shreve imagined took place the night of Bon’s death and Henry’s disappearance. In Henry confronts Bon and says, in despair, “You are my brother” to which Bon says, “No I’m not. I’m the nigger who’s going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me” (Faulkner, 285–6).


XXII, 112
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XXII, 112 pp.

Biographical notes

Linda Chavers (Author)

Linda Chavers obtained her doctorate in African American Literature from Harvard University and is a graduate of The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She is Assistant Dean of Harvard College and Lecturer in African American Literature at Harvard University.


Title: Violent Disruptions
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136 pages