Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able , without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.
“Faulkner and Desegregation,” James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name
Whether you are from the South—as I am, approaching my 54th year in the area where I was born—or not, here is how you can come to understand the South: Read William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” James Baldwin’s “Faulkner and Desegregation,” and M.E. Bradford’s “Faulkner, James Baldwin, and the South.”
In the shocking ending to “A Rose for Emily,” the town (that community and place so sacred to Faulkner, as Bradford emphasizes) and the reader discover that Emily has spent much of her life sleeping with the corpse of her mysteriously vanished lover. Not to be overly simplistic, but in that scene, Emily is the South and her act is the cancerous core of what best captures that region’s ideological commitment—cling to the corpse of tradition no matter what.
It is the steadfast clinging that matters, not the thing itself.
Baldwin’s response to Faulkner’s call for Southern blacks to be patient about integration at mid-twentieth century deftly dismantles the inherent contradictions, the incessant paternalism, and the disturbing lack of awareness embodied by Faulkner himself. While Faulkner seems oblivious to the message in his own work, Baldwin, a black man from Harlem, the North, echoes the warning of “A Rose for Emily”:
[S]o far from trying to correct it, Southerners, who seem to be characterized by a species of defiance most perverse when it is most despairing, have clung to it [emphasis added], at incalculable cost to themselves, as the only conceivable and as an absolutely sacrosanct way of life. They have never seriously conceded that their social structure was mad. They have insisted, on the contrary, that everyone who criticized it was mad.
Further, Baldwin’s understanding of the South remains as perceptive now as when he originally confronted Faulkner:
It is apparently very difficult to be at once a Southerner and an American….It is only the American Southerner who seems to be fighting, in his own entrails, a peculiar, ghastly, and perpetual war with all the rest of the country….
The difficulty, perhaps, is that the Southerner clings to two entirely antithetical doctrines, two legends, two histories….
The Southern tradition, which is, after all, all that Faulkner is talking about, is not a tradition at all: when Faulkner evokes it, he is simply evoking a legend which contains an accusation. And that accusation, stated far more simply than it should be, is that the North, in winning the war, left the South only one means of asserting its identity and that means was the Negro.
And finally to grasp fully the South, Bradford’s apologist reading of Faulkner (punctuated with “We in the South”) as well as a distinct misreading of Baldwin offers the full shape that characterizes the South: Faulkner as embodiment, Emily as metaphor, Baldwin as moral witness, and Bradford as contorted intellectual justification.
However, in the South, this is never merely academic or something past.
Clemson’s Tillman Hall and the Tragedy of Southern Tradition
It is currently being recreated in the Tillman Hall debate at Clemson University—not as a unique case, but a representative one, Clemson University in its founding, its physical plant, and the myriad names with which it is associated
Tillman Hall at Clemson University bears the name of a former South Carolina governor, Benjamin Tillman, who “established an agricultural school that would become Clemson College, as well as Winthrop College.”
Those not from the South likely find these recurring tensions unfathomable, notably the never-ending battles about the Confederate flag that remains on the capitol grounds after decades flying atop the Statehouse.
The Faulkner-Baldwin-Bradford dynamic detailed above is now being played out by students calling for renaming Tillman Hall, faculty voting to support renaming, administration appearing to call for patience, and then a counter-protest supporting the tradition of the hall’s name.
Apologists for tradition in the South, like Bradford for Faulkner, expose the contradictory mindset confronted by Baldwin. Those who rush to add “yes, but…” in defense of Tillman, for example, are likely to interject the “yes, but…” strategy to refute Martin Luther King Jr.
“Yes, but” Tillman was governor and if not for him, no Clemson!
“Yes, but” King was a socialist and adulterer.
As a life-long Southerner, I have witnessed these patterns regularly throughout my life. It is the logic of the South.
I am a child of the South, the Bible Belt where “spare the rod, spoil the child” dominates “turn the other cheek.”
Again, as Baldwin recognized, the South clings like Emily not to tradition but to the fabricated legend. And it is there that the hypocrisy of “yes, but…” is fully exposed.
Apologists for Tillman cling to Tillman’s ill-gotten status during his life, a status reflecting the most dehumanizing qualities of the South during Reconstruction and the early twentieth century.
Critics of Tillman, however, recognize that his racism outweighs any so-called accomplishments.
Will Moredock notes as one example:
Tillman went to the U.S. Senate in 1895, where he remained until his death in 1918. He used the Senate floor and the Chatauqua circuit to become the nation’s loudest and most famous proponent of white supremacy, or in his own words, “preaching to those people the gospel of white supremacy according to Tillman.”
“It’s true, South Carolinians would do well to remember Tillman’s legacy,” argues Paul Bowers, addressing directly the naming of Tillman Hall:
But we shouldn’t honor it, which is exactly what we’re doing by keeping his name on a building at a public university….
It’s another thing entirely for it to be named after Tillman, a progenitor and perpetuator of American apartheid who led lynch mobs during Reconstruction and boasted about it until his dying day.
To honor Tillman as well as many others like him is to make Emily’s mistake—clinging to a corpse that should be buried beneath a marker, not to honor but to remind us of all that we must not embrace again.
Apologists for tradition are emboldened by those calling for patience, like Faulkner, who prompted Baldwin to punctuate his essay with urgency:
But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist— and he is not the only Southerner who knows it. There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.
Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, Stephen Kantrowitz
Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, Equal Justice Initiative
Lynching as Racial Terrorism, NYT Editorial Board