It is commonly agreed upon that conflict drives literature. Literature relies on conflict to remain interesting and engaging to readers, and very few kinds of literary conflict cause as much of a reaction in readers as romantic conflict. Romantic conflict can range from same-sex couples in a homophobic world to couples whose families keep them apart. In the Southern novels God’s Little Acre, Absalom, Absalom!, and Strange Fruit, the romantic conflict stems from interracial relationships. While these relationships are not the primary conflicts of their respective novels, they do play large roles in the plots. The interracial couples depicted in these novels are forced to hide or deny their relationships, or their families and friends are ashamed of them. None of the interracial relationships are socially accepted. This lack of acceptance stems from the social attitudes and laws in effect during the period in which these novels were written and took place.
Anti-miscegenation laws and social attitudes of the times are accurately represented in literature by the taboo interracial relationships present in the novels listed above. While there are countless other Southern novels that deal with interracial relationships, these novels were wildly popular at publication and both God’s Little Acre and Strange Fruit were banned for their explicit content and themes (Caldwell; Smith). While the interracial relationships in these novels may have seemed scandalous to readers in the early to mid-twentieth century, the relationships and the consequences that stemmed from them accurately depicted popular attitudes regarding interracial relationships at the time.
Miscegenation is a popular term used often in discussions of interracial relationships. Miscegenation is defined as the intermarriage of persons of different races (Browning 26). For many years, western culture frowned upon interracial relationships. This disapproval was particularly strong in the United States, where forty-one out of fifty states passed laws forbidding miscegenation (Miscegenation). Only nine states refrained from outlawing interracial marriage. Anti-miscegenous sentiment was particularly strong in the South. For the purposes of this essay, the South consists of the eleven slaveholding states in the United States south that seceded the Union during the Civil War. These states are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia (“Confederate”). These eleven states were notorious for their strict laws and harsh attitudes toward African-Americans. All eleven states passed Anti-Miscegenation Laws, and none repealed them willingly (Browning).
Legislation against miscegenation in the South began in 1691, when the state of Virginia passed its first law banning interracial marriage. The other Southern states followed suit, and by 1838 all eleven had anti-miscegenation laws (“American”). Before the Civil War, free blacks could marry each other, but they could not legally marry slaves or whites (Wallenstein 66). Wallenstein said Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas constituted the Lower South (61). After the Civil War and Emancipation, the Republican regimes put in place in the South by the Federal government during Congressional Reconstruction repealed anti-miscegenation laws in all states of the Lower South but Georgia (57). The Republican Era came to an end in 1880, and the Democrats who replaced them quickly reinstated anti-miscegenation laws by 1894 (57; 59). At the end of the nineteenth century, legislators brought forth universal laws against interracial marriage in the South (65). From there, a national surge of nativism, racism, and sexism in the 1920s inspired a new wave of stricter laws designed to protect whiteness against the effects of immigration and race-mixing. Among these laws was the particularly inflammatory Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Virginia General Assembly formed the Bureau of Vital Statistics after they passed the RIA to register all births, deaths, and marriages and to ensure all birth certificates stated the race of the child’s parents (Dorr). States also legislated against cohabitation to prevent any possible amalgamation, or mixing of races. As this cohabitation law from Florida states, the penalties for interracial relationships were steep:
Any negro man and white woman, or any white man and negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve (12) months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred ($500.00) dollars (“Jim”).
In the South, these laws lasted until 1967, when Loving v. Virginia went before the Supreme Court (Oyez). In 1951, twenty-nine states still prohibited miscegenation (Browning 26). A new wave of anti-miscegenation legislation in the late forties and fifties increased rules and restrictions. Laws in the South made the children of illegal interracial marriages illegitimate and increased the fines and imprisonment times of people who broke the law (27-30).
Many anti-miscegenation laws in the United States were repealed before 1967, when Loving v. Virginia went to the Supreme Court. After the hearing, the Supreme Court deemed anti-miscegenation legislation unconstitutional (Oyez). Despite the ruling, many of the laws remained in place, though they went unenforced. In Louisiana, the last Jim Crow laws were not repealed until 1972. Laws barring interracial marriage were among those repealed (“Louisiana”). However, legislation was not the only obstacle interracial couples faced. Anti-miscegenation laws were only legal representations of the opinions of the class in power—the wealthy whites. Laws posed a serious challenge to interracial couples, but social attitudes formed the unbreakable foundations of those laws, and opinions are not easily broken.
As informative as anti-miscegenation laws are, the social stigmas that inspired them reveal much more about popular opinion toward interracial marriage. In his argument before the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia, R.D. McIlwaine III, the Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia, argued that anti-miscegenation laws, such as Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, were to preserve racial purity of all races. He referred to the “separate but equal” decision from Plessy v. Ferguson many times in his argument and claimed that Virginia sought to maintain the integrity of every race, not just the white race. McIlwaine also said that “interracial marriages are detrimental to the individual, to the family, and to society.” McIlwaine equated miscegenation to polygamy and incest and said that Virginia has the right to outlaw interracial marriages for the same reason it can prescribe minimum ages at which people can marry and prevent marriage between mentally incompetent people. According to McIlwaine, “intermarried families are subjected to much greater pressures and problems”; “interracial marriages are definitely undesirable that they hold no promise for a bright and happy future for mankind.” McIlwaine also said that the children of interracial relationships are more than progeny: they are the victims and martyrs of intermarried parents (Oyez). As the legal representative of Virginia, McIlwaine represented the popular opinion of his constituency, and as such, represented the views of the white majority of Virginia. In his decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy” (Supreme). James R. Browning, a U.S. Circuit Judge, agreed. He said there was no “categorical” explanation for anti-miscegenation laws, and claimed the laws were indicators of animosities nurtured by groups in power in the various states (Browning 32). He also said that anti-miscegenation laws existed only to “reinforce and crystallize public sentiment” (34-35).
McIlwaine got the majority of his information from “the valid scientific information that exists on the detrimental effects of interracial marriage” (Oyez). He was not the first; for years, science had been used to oppress minorities. This was known as scientific racism, or the use of purportedly scientific methods to justify racial differences and hierarchies (Dorr). Dr. Walter A. Plecker led the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics and published many of the public health pamphlets that accompanied Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 (Dorr, Plecker). According to the Encyclopedia Virginia, wealthy white Virginians used the RIA to make racial bigotry seem like progressive, scientific social policy in an attempt to legitimize the brutal goals of the KKK (Dorr). Plecker, as a leader of the movement, wrote that the children of mixed marriages were “likely to revert to the distinctly negro type even when all apparent evidence of mixture has disappeared” (Plecker 1). He also said that, to avoid complete amalgamation, intermarriage of whites with mixed stock must become impossible, and “public sentiment must be so aroused that intermixture out of wedlock will cease. The public must be led to look with scorn and contempt upon the man who will degrade himself and do harm to society by such abhorrent deeds” (2). Legislation was not enough; Plecker and his followers sought to make miscegenation seem like the worst crime a person could commit.
For many whites, miscegenation was the worst thing someone could do. White men considered marriage or relationships between white women and black men to be the worst offense possible (Wallenstein 67). African-Americans considered anti-miscegenation laws to be the least harmful act of discrimination against them, but white policy makers still thought they had to mark people as black and keep them separated from whites (67-8). Whites were terrified of hidden black ancestry, which accounts for the move toward stricter racial classifications in the South (68).
Interracial marriage has had no constant definition, simply because the classification of race has changed over time and across territories (Wallenstein 58). After 1889, states began changing how they determined racial identity. As Wallenstein explains, “Whiteness was a far more exclusive property by 1930 than it had been a half-century before” (58). The qualifications that made one “white” grew narrower and narrower as time progressed. In some states, such as South Carolina, people with less than one-eighth of Negro blood were permitted to marry a white (Browning 29). Many states adopted one-drop policies to prevent Negroes from hiding their true heredity:
Statures may act as a deterrent to prevent ‘colored’ persons from attempting to intermarry with whites even though their physical characteristics would allow them to pass the color line; the statures remind them of the possible painful consequences to self and family if their heredity is discovered (35).
This color line was strictly enforced, even though it was estimated in 1951 that as many as 25,000 Negroes crossed the line each year (37). Virginia took the most stringent measures in enforcing the color line. In Virginia, persons with any ascertainable trace of Negro blood were forbidden to marry whites (30). Virginia took the one-drop approach, the idea that any black ancestry, even as little as one drop of black blood, made a person black or colored (Wallenstein 58). This approach was also used in Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana (Browning 27-8). In his pamphlet “The New Virginia Law to Preserve Racial Integrity,” Dr. Plecker outlined the precautions that would be taken under the Racial Integrity Act to ensure the purity of all white blood. Physicians, nurses, and other medical officials were available at registrations offices so white families could prove the integrity of their bloodlines, and so those with colored heredity could ascertain the extent to which they were black (2). Plecker explained the various terms that could be applied to people of partly colored descent (2-3). As criteria for racial classification became stricter, more and more people were refused marriage licenses (Dorr).
Many of the laws, attitudes, and rules discussed above are represented in the novels God’s Little Acre, Absalom, Absalom!, and Strange Fruit. These novels contain fictional characters and situations, but they also represent very real attitudes toward miscegenation and interracial relationships.
In Erskine Caldwell’s novel God’s Little Acre, published in 1933, miscegenation is manifested in the relationship between Darling Jill Walden, the daughter of the story’s protagonist, and Dave the Albino. While Dave is not black—he is described as “one of these all-white men who look like they are made out of chalk”—he is definitely not considered a white man (Caldwell 5). God’s Little Acre takes place in Georgia in the early 1930s, and legislation at the time said that anyone not white was prohibited from marrying a white person. Anyone who broke this law would be treated as a felon (Browning 27). The Waldens were wholly unconcerned with the legality of their actions, but even they took some concern with Darling Jill’s actions.
Darling Jill is acknowledged as being overly promiscuous (Caldwell 15-17). Her list of conquests includes her own brother-in-law Will Thompson, her future fiancé Pluto, and Dave the Albino, not to mention the other men “she’s been teasing and fooling around with.” Her father, Ty Ty, is proud of his daughter, though, and says she deserves everything she has (16). Pluto expresses concern, but no one else is alarmed by Darling Jill’s behavior until she takes up with Dave the Albino (93). Darling Jill’s older brother Buck tries to discuss the problem with Ty Ty and asks his father to stop the affair (Caldwell 135). Buck has never been worried by Darling Jill’s promiscuity before, but when he thinks she may run off with an albino, a man lesser than her, he feels the need to express his unease.
Though Dave is white in color, he is not considered “white.” The Waldens make him sleep in a stall in the barn and keep him under guard (135; 85). His only value to them is his ability to divine gold (85). Ty Ty does not even consider Dave to be a human being:
“Ty Ty had looked upon him as something different from a man. But it dawned upon him when he saw Darling Jill’s smile that the boy was actually a person. He was still an albino, though, and he was said to possess unearthly powers to divine gold” (86-87).
For the Waldens, Dave is nothing without his imagined unearthly abilities. Dave is inferior to the Waldens simply because he is an albino, not white, and because he is not white, he is inferior and less (Lancaster 88). He is treated poorly by the Waldens, excluding Darling Jill. Ty Ty may not have a problem with Dave “having” Darling Jill, but the thought of them running off together gives him pause (Caldwell 135). Darling Jill may be permitted to have sex with a man inferior to herself, but she cannot consider running away with him and starting a life together. The penalties against interracial marriage in Georgia at the time were harsh, and they represented popular opinion at the time (Browning 27).
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! was published three years after God’s Little Acre, and in that time there was little to no change in legislation or in public opinions on miscegenation. Faulkner’s novel differs from Caldwell’s in that Absalom, Absalom! is spread out across the span of over a century (Faulkner 379-80). The novel also takes place in a variety of places, from Haiti to New Orleans to Jefferson, Mississippi. As such, the laws against miscegenation change throughout the course of the novel, though interracial marriages are never socially acceptable. Legislation may change, but social attitudes remain the same. Faulkner’s novel also stands apart from other Southern novels in that its ambiguity makes it difficult to interpret parts of the story. Faulkner’s narrators tend to be untrustworthy, and as such his novels can have a number of different interpretations. All analyses below are those of the researcher, and she acknowledges that there are a number of different ways in which this novel can be read. Absalom, Absalom! does not follow a clear chronological order. The style of narration and writing result in a disordered pattern of revelation, but for the sake of clarity, this essay will move chronologically through the interracial relationships portrayed in the novel. Following that order, the first relationship is between Thomas Sutpen and the woman who would come to be known as Eulalia Bon.
Thomas Sutpen married his first wife in Haiti in 1827 (Faulkner 379). When they married, he believed her to be white with a Spanish mother, but when Sutpen’s first son, Charles Bon, was born, Sutpen realized his wife was, in fact, part black (252; 264). He left her soon after, with the excuse that “this new fact [her black ancestry] rendered it impossible that this woman and child be incorporated in my design” (264). Sutpen’s grand design is referred to throughout the novel. He seeks to make himself equal to the kind of man who had slaves to send away trash, with money, land, a fine house, a respectable wife, and a son to pass it all down to (238). He sought such a life in the West Indies—Haiti, to be exact—and believed he had found it with his first marriage. However, his first wife “was not and could never be, through no fault of her own, adjunctive or incremental to the design which I had in mind” (240). Eulalia’s concealed blackness was “the very one factor” that could derail Sutpen’s plan and cause him to break the engagement (274; 264).
Sutpen objected to Eulalia and her father’s deception on moral grounds. His marriage to a black woman cast him in a poor light and would do nothing to advance his position in society, which is what he sought from a wife. People believed there were physical consequences from interracial marriage (Browning 33). White people were also terrified of hidden black ancestry, and as a woman who was passed off as white, Eulalia embodied that fear (Wallenstein 68). Sutpen held no love for Eulalia (Faulkner 248). For Sutpen, Eulalia’s only appeal was her social status and wealth, but because she was black and a member of a lower caste, her social status was nullified. Sutpen knew that if her ancestry was discovered, as it undoubtedly would be, he would be scorned as a man who would degrade himself to marrying a black woman (Plecker 2). For that reason, Sutpen ensured Eulalia and her son had a substantial amount of money and left them (Faulkner 240).
Beyond Sutpen’s moral objections to the marriage, there were also legal factors to consider. In Haiti in the 1800s, white men could not legally marry Haitian women (Leyburn 83). The Black Code in place at the time also forbid marriage between a white person and a person of color (Dayan 225). According to this law, Eulalia’s father’s marriage was illegal, as was the marriage between Sutpen and Eulalia. Not only was Sutpen’s marriage socially unacceptable; it was also illegal. It was impossible that any part of the union—his wife, his son, or his inherited property—contribute anything to Sutpen’s grand design, so he left it all behind and returned to the United States (Faulkner 379). Even if he had stayed, the legitimacy of Charles Bon as his son could have been questioned (Browning 28).
After his disastrous first marriage, Sutpen made a second attempt to reach his grand design in Mississippi (Faulkner 379). He bought land and began to build a fine house with the help of his wild negroes and a French architect (36). Two of those negroes were women. Sutpen had a daughter, Clytemnestra, by one of those women (61). They were never married, so Clytie would have been illegitimate anyway, but she would have been illegitimate even if Sutpen had married her mother. The tryst between Sutpen and the slave woman that resulted in Clytie’s birth took place four years before Sutpen’s marriage to Ellen Coldfield in 1838 (379). Legally, Sutpen was well within his rights to sleep with his slaves. In Mississippi at the time, marriages between enslaved blacks were not recognized by law or respected by slave owners. Slaves could not marry and the free black population was negligible, so legislators did not feel the need to enact an anti-miscegenation law (Wallenstein 59). There were no laws to prevent Sutpen from sleeping with the slave woman. She was his property, and he could do with her what he wished: “He chose them with the same care and shrewdness with which he chose the other livestock” (Faulkner 61). There were no legal barriers to the affair, but Sutpen would have been looked down upon for his relationship with a black woman. Social attitudes toward miscegenation at the time were strong, and if the people of Jefferson had known about the affair, they would have disliked Sutpen even more.
Chronologically, the next interracial relationship in Absalom, Absalom! is between Charles Bon, the progeny of Sutpen’s first marriage, and a woman only referred to in the novel as “the octoroon” (Faulkner 302). An octoroon is “the offspring of a quadroon and a white person”, or a person with one-eight black ancestry (Plecker 2-3). Eulalia Bon’s precise ancestry is unknown, though it is suspected that she is half-black, so Charles would be one-fourth black, though he was unaware of it until later in life (Faulkner 321). For much of his life, Charles believed he was white and crossed the color line as such, so his marriage to the octoroon was illegal (“American”). Later in his life, presumably after he met his father, Charles realized he had some black blood (Faulkner 321). At the time of the marriage, though, Charles believed he had done something shocking (308). His marrying a black woman was enough to bring Henry Sutpen to question Charles’ character, though admittedly Henry was more concerned with the marriage ceremony than the race of the bride (110). When it was revealed that Charles Bon was, in fact, one-fourth black, his marriage to the octoroon became legal, though by that point Bon was beyond caring. The child, Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon, was illegitimate when Bon thought of himself as white, but once the truth was revealed Charles Bon II became legitimate (Faulkner 380; Browning 28).
Charles Bon’s engagement to Judith Sutpen serves as one of the primary conflicts in the novel. Their engagement was never formalized—Charles never gave Judith a ring—but that did not stop Ellen Sutpen, Judith’s mother, from announcing the engagement to the townspeople of Jefferson. At the beginning of the engagement, Bon was just a “handsome and wealthy New Orleansian” (Faulkner 78). Judith and her mother had no reason to suspect Bon. As discussed above, Bon had crossed the color line. He himself remained unaware of his black ancestry for most of his life (321). Thomas Sutpen revealed to Henry that Bon was Henry and Judith’s half-sibling and the two left Sutpen’s Hundred, but even then, Henry did nothing to end the engagement or prevent the marriage (293; 341). Henry could tolerate incest (342; 347). Later in the story, though, Thomas Sutpen tells Henry that Charles’ mother was part Negro (355). Henry returns to Charles and, though they have already decided to return to Sutpen’s Hundred so Charles and Judith can be married, demands that Charles abandons his plans (357). Charles says to his half-brother, “So it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant bear” (356). This realization serves as a major moral point in the novel.
In his argument in the Loving v. Virginia case, McIlwaine equates miscegenation to incest and polygamy (Oyez). Laws against both incest and polygamy continue to exist in the United States today, but anti-miscegenation laws have been outlawed and repealed in every state. Following this rationale, incest and polygamy are worse crimes than miscegenation. Henry Sutpen, however, defies this logic. He is willing to accept incest, but when he realizes Charles is black he demands that Charles rethink his actions (Faulkner 357). Much of this could stem from Henry’s own incestuous feelings for his sister, but the fact remains that Henry considers miscegenation a worse crime than incest. He asks that Charles change his mind, if not for Henry, then for Judith. Henry knows that an interracial marriage will ruin Judith (357). In Henry’s mind, incest is socially and historically accepted, but miscegenation cannot be tolerated (342; 358). Henry serves as the embodiment of his society’s attitude toward miscegenation in that aspect.
The last taboo couple in Absalom, Absalom! is between Charles Etienne Saint-Velery Bon, the son of Charles Bon and the octoroon, and an unnamed, “coal black and ape-like woman” (Faulkner 383; 205). Charles Bon II was one-sixteenth black, though he did not know it until he was into his teenage years (194; 198). He easily passed as white and, if he had chosen to, could have hidden his blackness and been whatever he wanted (203; 204). Both blacks and whites refused to believe Charles Bon II when he said he was black (206). Legally, at that time, he could have been white. One-drop racial classification policies were not in place in 1881, so if he had denied his black ancestry Charles Bon II could have lived as a white man (Wallenstein 58). However, social attitudes toward hidden black ancestry were already imbedded in the country’s subconscious, as seen in Thomas and Henry Sutpen’s reactions to the hidden ancestry in Eulalia and Charles Bon. Charles Bon II could have lived as a white, but he would have to hide his blackness for the rest of his life and hope no one discovered his heritage. Rather than do that, he denied his white blood and flaunted his black wife (Faulkner 207; 206).
Charles Bon II and his wife could be legally married because they were both black, but because Charles didn’t appear black, white men thought he lied when he said he was. They thought he had married a black woman through some sexual perversion and pretended to be black to save his own skin, because if he had been a white man married to a black woman he would have been put into prison or received a worse punishment (Faulkner 206). Interestingly enough, Charles Bon II embodies one of McIlwaine’s arguments against miscegenation. He is the child of an interracial union caught between two worlds: He “consorted with neither white nor black” (Oyez; Faulkner 209). He behaved violently and may have had many of the psychological problems McIlwaine said came from having interracial parents (Oyez; Faulkner 206). Charles Bon II sought to, if not celebrate, flaunt his blackness, while most men in his position would have denied it.
The attitudes characters in Absalom, Absalom! held regarding interracial marriages and relationships reflect the laws and social stigmas held both at the time of publication and at the time in which the story takes place. Miscegenation is consistently and absolutely denied and scorned in the novel, as it would have been in reality.
Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit was published in 1944, eight years after Absalom, Absalom! (Smith; Faulkner). Anti-miscegenation laws underwent no dramatic changes in that time. The most stringent and harsh laws were passed in the 1920s, and though they were adjusted throughout the years, they remained roughly the same (Browning). Strange Fruit takes place in Maxwell, Georgia, in the 1920s (Smith 1). The only interracial marriage specifically mentioned in the novel is between Tracy Deen, a wealthy and high-class white man, and Nonnie Anderson, a college-educated black woman. Legality plays a relatively small role in Tracy and Nonnie’s relationship. Tracy never expresses any plans to marry Nonnie, so anti-miscegenation laws have no effect on their relationship. Instead, the societal attitudes toward interracial relationships held by the other residents of Maxwell serve as the anti-miscegenous factor in the novel. The laws at the time represented these attitudes (Browning 34-35).
Tracy and Nonnie’s relationship was more than a fling. They were together intermittently over the span of several years and each held strong feelings for the other (Smith 138;147). At the beginning of the story, Nonnie even tells Tracy she is pregnant with his child and happy about it (6). Nonnie is described as very white, with a face that “should have belonged to a white girl” (7; 2). She is still black, though, and even though Tracy acknowledges she is as white as his own sister, he reminds himself that she is black and so they can never have a committed relationship. Tracy knows he cannot marry Nonnie; he never even considers it seriously. Georgia held a one-drop racial classification policy at the time, and to break it was a felony (Browning 27). Every time he begins to think he can be with her, he reminds himself that she is black, and all his dreams and feelings are spoiled (Smith 94). At one point, he even fears he has lost his “white feelings” when he thinks about running away with Nonnie (60).
Tracy’s feelings toward Nonnie are clear. He has some attraction to her, but he knows that he can never act on it. Still, he continues to meet her, though he is forced to sneak out of his house and into an abandoned cabin to do so (Smith 92). Tracy does not attempt to hide this affair for his or Nonnie’s sakes; he does it so the town does not find out about his indiscretion. Despite this, the town is very aware of his behavior. His controlling mother urges him to speak with the preacher so he can find his way out of sin (86-7). During Tracy’s discussion with Preacher Dunwoodie, the preacher expresses many of the attitudes people hold regarding interracial relationships. He acknowledges that many men “sneak off to Colored Town”, but they always find their way back to a good white woman (87-8). Preacher Dunwoodie implies that sleeping with black women is nothing but a phase, and passing fancy that drags white men into sin. He—and by extension, the whole town—does not believe that a white man can hold true romantic feelings for a black woman: “You can’t love and respect a colored girl….If you do—then there must be something bad wrong with you” (97). Preacher Dunwoodie, Alma Deen, Tut Deen, Dottie Pusey, and many other Maxwell Citizens join forces to pull Tracy out of sin. As Plecker wrote, “The public must be led to look with scorn and contempt upon the man who will degrade himself and do harm by such abhorrent deeds [amalgamation with a black woman]” (2). When Tracy finally agrees to join the church and clean up his life, as they see it, he also cuts ties with Nonnie and tells her he will marry Dottie. For him, Nonnie is just a failure in his life, and he had to leave her in order to gain his family’s approval (Smith 224). This is just another instance in which Tracy allows others’ opinions on race and miscegenation direct his actions.
It could be argued that, if he had not been raised in a world where black and white were very separate, unmixable entities, Tracy would have married Nonnie. Their relationship had its difficulties, but many of those stemmed from Tracy’s anger that she was black, and that he was wrong for being with her. Unfortunately, Tracy was trained to hate blacks, and that training combined with societal pressures pushed him to reject Nonnie, which ultimately led to his death. These societal pressures kept whites from crediting interracial relationships as worthy of merit and respect and, as in Absalom, Absalom!, reflected real attitudes.
The works discussed above are fiction, but the racial themes and attitudes represented in them are very real. Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, and Lillian Smith drew from their own twentieth century experiences with race relations to create their characters’ attitudes, and the strong anti-miscegenous movements of the 1920s are portrayed well in their novels. Every interracial relationship in the novels is either broken or faces scorn and contempt. This, unfortunately, was also the fate of many real interracial couples. The laws and attitudes of the times in which the novels were written and in which they take place are accurately represented in the actions and attitudes of the characters. Whether the authors intended to criticize anti-miscegenous laws is unknown and not the purpose of this essay, but whether they meant to or not, Caldwell, Faulkner, and Smith shed a harsh light on interracial relationships and attitudes toward them in the twentieth century.
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The Center for Writing Excellence is pleased to announce our fourth Annual Summer Writing Institute!