My mother once received a letter from William Faulkner. Or so she said. The letter was supposedly from the Nobel-prizewinner himself—the writer who Flannery O’Connor, no mere scribbler herself called “the Dixie Limited.” Faulkner was the master of Southern Gothic among whose haunting characters are the bear of “The Bear” and my personal favorite Joe Christmas, the mulatto killer of Light in August. Mother said she threw Faulkner’s letter away. Her papers are now at Emory University, my siblings did it without consulting me, not that that’s a problem, and maybe one day an archivist will come across Faulkner’s note. Probably not.
The chances that Mother did receive a "communication" from the great man are better than even and even though accuracy was not always the hallmark of her storytelling. My mother was fortunate to live and work in another time when there were only a couple of degrees of separation between most people. For African-Americans, for example, you were either still slaving for a white man, or white woman, or you weren’t. My mother was a black female journalist in an age when that particular description was unheard of, not that it’s common even today. The world was a smaller place back then. Blacks involved in the arts, letters or politics knew each other because there weren’t many to know. And you knew white people because they were running things. In our own culture, there was a studied informality especially among the intelligentsia that included and includes many athletes and performers, due in part to Communist influence—but mostly because these were Negroes for whom, coming “up” from slavery, informality was a way of life, even among the glitterati. “Brother” or “Sister” served the same role as “Comrade.” Mother wasn’t a Red but she knew a few and everyone, whatever their politics, had pretty much the same goal and the same subject of their work. There was considerable cooperation achieving common aims. The civil rights movement has been an ensemble work from the beginning.
What mother experienced in the ‘50s alone, to say nothing of the ‘60s and ‘70s when she was writing for Hearst Newspapers in San Francisco was remarkable because she never talked much about it. She spoke in glowing terms of herself—but could be short on details about her dealings with anyone else. Writing an article about a fiery young black Baptist pastor—she never told me she stayed with the M.L. Kings at their home in Montgomery, an anecdote that has arisen since her death and may not be true. It sounds like an exaggeration and is something her papers will prove one way or another, one supposes. Once, and this is an event that is in the historical record, Mother was short of money and in New York City and she drove, in a Mercury Comet—with me in the back seat—to a club where Duke Ellington was playing and said she was going in to get “Duke” to cash a personal check. She came back out with money, what can you say? It was a small community, being black in America then.
So, the backstory on the Faulkner letter is this: My mother was editor of a small newspaper in L.A., back in the day, and she had a fondness for writing provocative editorials about race relations in a time and in a place—yes, even the Golden State of California—where “diversity” was not as popular a word as it is today.
And after publishing fiery prose she usually licked stamps and mailed copies out to social and political leaders who, not being subscribers to the Tribune, otherwise would not see her work. One of her editorial musing made its way to Oxford, Mississippi, home of the Dixie Limited. My mother recounted for me Faulkner’s response in a single sentence, either that was all she retained or all he had said, it’s still etched in my memory half a century later: and, once again, it’s my belief that the chances are better than 50-50 this is a factual anecdote, not because Mother was unfailingly accurate in her reportage but because of what she reported Faulkner said.
“I am all for the emancipation of the Negro,” she quoted the great man, “but if they come marching down my street I’ll be waiting on my porch with my shotgun.” If that wasn’t William Faulkner, it deserved to be.
The reason to remember the Dixie Limited today is not just great prose, even if he was dismissive of the Negro, and even if the characters in his books preyed upon black people just as flesh and blood whites did. The reason to remember William Faulkner today is because he understood the fundamental quality of the struggle over race in this country: it has largely been about violence, committing it, being victim of it or writing about it, as was the case with Faulkner and Mother. Civil rights has changed in recent years, for the better, we’ve made great progress—today we see the “mountaintop” that MLK talked about even if we have not yet arrived. For that reason now seems like as good a time as any to review what we as a people have gotten right and what we’ve gotten wrong “in the struggle.” “The Movement” for equality in America has been fought on several fronts and violence as a tactic and as a longterm strategy seems to have worked pretty well. On the most basic level it has involved doing to white people what they do to us, a strategy that was accepted from the start by most everyone in “black leadership,” the Talented Tenth as DuBois called it, or whoever they were. One day in my relative youth my then-sister-in-law the novelist Pearl Cleage, who came from militant stock, explained the Black Liberation tri-color flag to me. “Black is for the people, green is for the land,” she told me in complete earnest, “and red is for the blood that must be shed to get there.” For her part, my mother shed blood in print. One of my siblings even described the rat-a-tat-tat of Mother’s Smith-Corona as sounding like gunfire. As for rhetoric, or words—Faulkner had that right too. And there, we haven’t done too badly either. You knew racists were doomed when Motown got involved, when black music became widely popular, often with social themes worked in. And you could dance to it? Songs about black pride and solidarity marches never called to me personally, but they were effective. Music, painting, movies, TV, daily interactions with the white man, or white woman, the decentralization and wide reach of the civil rights movement is its genius. There has been a rebellion going on and everyone is involved but no one is in control. It eventually all is coming together, often led by performers, as blacks everywhere seem to know what to do without being told. And we keep notes. We have the clippings because of people like my mother.
Once many years ago during my undergraduate years at UCLA: Mother had talked about her great editorials for so long but did not have copies—she sent me to a Cal State campus that had the Tribune on microfilm. The prose was ordinary, to tell the truth, but this was a business more than an art, you have to know what Mother used to say about the Black Press—newspapers that included her own—led by a group of journalists she considered herself part of: “Everything you see in a black newspaper has been paid for,” she told me. ”Everything you don’t see has also been paid for.” This was business, the repression and the rebellion. My mother’s magazine work, though limited, was outstanding. There’s a piece she wrote about crossing the South by bus, back in the day, and being in West Texas and being forced to drink from a blacks-only water fountain, in the Greyhound bus terminal in Big Spring. That was in The Nation and was a good story. That same road trip from Dixie to L.A. forms part of my childhood memory and if you had asked me as a kid what Jim Crow was like—as it was explained to me by Mother at the time, on the road—it was like a tax that was added to your daily life and you paid and you paid and you paid and if you stopped paying they killed you, or sent you to prison. Does that sound extreme? Not in our social circle. There are probably Palestinian kids who feel the same way today. Actually, in the years before her death, Mother praised Yassar Arafat. “I am not Jesus Christ,” she used to say, describing her own personal foreign policy, “if someone strikes me I’m not going to turn the other cheek.” Mother’s primary long work, the writing she was best known for but never published is a novel called The Ten Most-Wanted White Men, the account of a young brother who decides to kill the ten most prominent white bigots in America. One of them, Mother told me while writing, was Alabama Gov. George “Segregation Forever” Wallace, she used real names, that was the beauty of the work. This was before Gov. Wallace repented and found God.
Competition was fierce to be among the ten biggest crackers in 1960s America, believe me, just as it would be a hard call today—and how Mother handled the plot of the book which she told me about over the years, showed she was most concerned with planning the assassinations themselves. This was a mistake, it’s my belief. My approach—everyone in our family is a critic—would have been to spend more ink on how the brother chose his targets. That would give the work existential credibility and an inside track to a college syllabus, at least that’s my view. Having never read the manuscript there’s no way for me to judge quality but it’s always been my opinion that MWWM would make a good movie. My preferred casting would be a young Denzel, intellectual but burning inside with hatred of The Man, after some transformative event. He has to die at the end of course, this would be a Hollywood production after all, but he gets all ten targets first because, again, this is Hollywood. My mother was not a film person and she did not think in those terms but she too probably would have gone with a young Denzel and her thinking might have been along the lines of a brother come back from Vietnam, a combination of something setting him off—and he’s seen what the Viet Cong can do, you feel me? And having killed for Uncle Sam, he has skills. A black Rambo? You may say that’s been done already but it was new when Mother thought of it. She was trying for an effect closer to Joe Christmas than Sylvester Stallone, though. Southern Gothic.
This was Mother’s revolution and, in some sense, mine. It's been bloody. The bottom line in these anecdotes from “The Movement,” and in our black lives, these last decades, roughly the span of my lifetime because Mother did not live to see the mountaintop—or maybe she just did, not close up but distant and in a fog. The single message that has been repeated time and time again for the last 400 years of our co-existence with white people: Resist any way you can. Luckily, “The Movement” has always been an amorphous thing and has been open-minded about what constitutes resistance. There’s been no fixed orthodoxy—no Little Black Book—although someone should write one now just to make it sound as if, for historical purposes, or for dramatic uses, black people were more organized than we really were. No master plan ever existed—a vacuum that left open the way for creative ways of taking the competition down. Violence aside, my favorite part of these decades of struggle, not that it’s over but we can finally see an end, has been the rhetoric—the words, longform like with Faulkner, Southern Gothic is a perfect title for the genre because it really was some freaky shit, having seen it up close, and shorter works like Mother’s, some of which appeared in the Black Press, paid for or not. As for the slogans, “Black Pride” never called to me because it was a given.
“Black Power” did speak to me though because achieving it was more problematic. Rhetoric—words—conveyed power to us as much as what comes out of a barrel of a gun. We talked smack. What started as “sass” or whispered insubordination to Master—talking shit, if you will—gave us power and ended up an art form. Black practices of insubordination reached mythic proportions as we told white people, including cops, where they could go and what they could do when they got there. That's when a lot of the shooting has started, actually. In my mother’s world, pre-Obama, even whites who weren’t living in the South and who weren’t directly abusing Negroes were legitimate targets. Almost all the targets were soft with an occasional hard one thrown in, like a cop. Many of these “interactions” with law enforcement were described in the conventional press as moments of anarchy in black neighborhoods. Please. Violence can be a thing of beauty, Faulkner knew that, so did Mother, it just depends on who’s on the receiving end. There have also been a lot of word bombs set off through the years, by both sides, to go along with an occasional real one—although bombs are not typically a weapon associated with black people, except in Africa, driving the British out of Kenya or wherever. Speaking of bombs my older brother, who is the straightest guy in the world, was questioned by the FBI back in the day or so my mother said. This is an interesting anecdote of The Movement, whatever form that movement took.
Michael was at Columbia, or had just left—this is the story that Mother told—when a brownstone blew up in Boston that allegedly served as a bomb factory for the Weathermen. If you’re of a certain age you probably remember the incident. Michael’s name was found in an address book among the ruins. Or so Mother claimed. You may say, well, if you want to know, why don’t you just ask your brother? For fear it’s not true. As Mother also used to say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Asking Michael what happened in Boston will run the risk of turning a good anecdote into a factual error. Whether true or not, it was a great time to be alive: If you were breathing and black you were in the hardcore resistance or you knew someone who was. Being questioned by the FBI was no fun at the time, and may still not be, but it becomes a badge of honor today. Today, we have “Black lives matter” as a slogan and it’s been successful but does it really compare to, “Off the pig”? That would be my point.