Few treatises outside the
realm of educational theatre have recognized the power of theatre as a discipline; that is to say, in the sense of a power
not simply within the arts but a force with the potential to affect the nation at its very core. Fewer still have addressed
the potential of black theatre to so affect the nation. Harold Cruse, author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,
acknowledges in his polemic the centrality of the creative arts, and theatre in particular, to the identity and sustenance
of a community. Reflecting on the eventual demise of the Harlem Renaissance, and asking the reader what is the purpose of
a cultural renaissance such as that experienced in Harlem, Cruse answers:
If it is for the enhancement
of the Negro’s cultural autonomy, his artistic and creative development or his nationality, or his identity in white America,
then he must develop Negro creative writers of every type--but especially for
the theater . . . A cultural renaissance that engenders barriers to the emergence of the creative writer is a contradiction
in terms, an emasculated movement. For the creative edge of the movement has
been dulled, the ability of the movement to foment revolutionary ideas about culture and society has been smothered. The black
creative writer as interpreter of reality or as social critic must wed his ideas to institutional forms. Undermine the concept
of the institutional form (such as denying the institution of the Negro ethnic theater in America)
and the renaissance must fail, as the Harlem movement of the 1920s failed. (37)
Theatre and the creative arts are central, Cruse asserts, because “[c]ulture and art are spiritual, intellectual,
ethical, aesthetic, revolutionary, political, etc.--but they are also a business aspect of private enterprise or of the state”
For much of the 20th century,
no American community demonstrated the centrality of theatre and the creative arts more than Harlem.
Cruse maintained that:
it has not been understood
that with all the evils and deprivations of the Harlem ghetto, this community still represents the Negro’s strongest
bastion in America from which to launch
whatever group effort he is able to mobilize for political power, economic rehabilitation and cultural reidentification. (12)
Cruse asserts that Harlem became, in the words of James Weldon Johnson, “‘the intellectual and artistic
capital of the Negro world’ for a very good reason--because New York City was the intellectual
and cultural capital of the white world in America
Cruse bemoans the failure
by the black intelligentsia during the 1920s or later to connect the Harlem Renaissance era and its upbeat cultural awakening
by African-Americans with a parallel period of white creative intellectual discontent in the United
States which was, he writes, an extension of a crisis in Western Europe
of cultural and spiritual values (62).
Such an intellectual
premise fully established in the 1920s, cultivated from 1930 to the 1950s, would not have permitted the growth of the identity
vacuum that the Negro movement of the 1960s has encountered. Unable to arrive at any philosophical conclusions of their own
as a black intelligentsia, the leading literary lights of the 1920s substituted the Communist left-wing philosophy of the
1930s, and thus were intellectually sidetracked for the remainder of their productive years. (63)
The family line of Irene Colbert Edmonds, however, as well as her own work product, suggests that the obsessive focus
by the black intelligentsia on locales that were both Northern and urban were problematic. Cruse, among others, was oblivious
to African-American intellectuals operating down South, in the trenches.
Edmonds was uniquely qualified to operate as an African-American intellectual in the American
South. This point is best exemplified by her maternal great-grandfather, Henry Highland Garnet. He was born into slavery in
New Market, Kent County, Maryland, on December 23, 1815. Reportedly the grandson of a Mandingo chieftain, he and his family
escaped from slavery when Garnet was nine; they settled in New York City.
By the age of eleven Garnet was enrolled in New York City’s
African Free School Number 1. He was later to attend Noyes Academy
in Canaan, New Hampshire, and Oneida Theological Institute
in Whitesboro, New York,
where he graduated with honors in 1840. Garnet befriended Reverend Theodore S. Wright, pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian
Church and one of New York City’s leading abolitionists.
Wright would be central to Garnet’s lifetime of achievement; baptizing him, marrying him to Julia Williams in 1842,
and successfully encouraging him to join the ministry (Green 15).
At a National Negro Convention
held in Buffalo, New York,
from August 21 to 24, 1843, Garnet delivered a stirring speech before the delegates calling for African-Americans to unite
in open rebellion. The speech and his actions at the convention earned Garnet the opposition, remarkably, of none other than
the illustrious Frederick Douglass and the support of John Brown. So taken was Brown by Garnet’s remarks, he had them
published and circulated at his own expense (Green 15).
The signature event in
Garnet’s political life, however, is probably his memorial discourse delivered in the House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., on February 12, 1865.
Garnet was the first African-American to be so honored.
Through the instigation
of President Lincoln, Garnet had been requested to give this address by the chaplain of the House, Reverend William H. Channing,
together with a number of the Republican members of the House to commemorate the abolishment of slavery through the adoption
by Congress of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United
States. (I. Edmonds “Aristotelian”
Edmonds’ stated purpose for her paper was “to trace the Aristotelian influences
in [Garnet’s] memorial discourse . . . [confined] . . . to an interpretation in light of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.”
Noting Garnet’s documented training in the Greek and Latin languages and his tutelage under a noted education reformer
and scholar, the Reverend Beriah Green, Edmonds concludes that “[i]t is natural to infer, then, that he must have come
in contact with the works of Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil and Horace” (20).
About the discourse, Edmonds writes that it is both epideictic, since it exhorts his hearers:
“Let slavery die. It has had a long and fair trial. God himself has pleaded against it.” The text is also deliberative,
since it gives advice and counsel for the future premised upon a question the speaker himself posed in the body of his speech:
“It is often asked when and where will the demands of this and the coming age end? It is a fair question and I will
answer” (21). Webster’s dictionary defines an epideictic discourse as “one marked by passion and intended
for rhetorical display” (470). A deliberative discourse is characterized by discussion and consideration by a group
of persons to do or not to do something (Smiley 124).
Edmonds believed there were certain historic and factual considerations important for any
interpretation of Garnet’s address. They are:
1. The Civil War, at
the time Garnet’s speech was delivered, had not come to an end, and success for the Union
was no assured certainty.
2. The thirteenth
amendment, declared in a proclamation of adoption by Congress on December 18, 1865, had been proposed to the legislatures
of the several states in February 1, 1865, less than two weeks before Garnet’s commemorative discourse.
3. Though the audience
was primarily pro-Union, there were among them some who still doubted the wisdom and efficacy of abolishing slavery. These
had to be persuaded that abolition had been wise. (“Aristotelian” 21)
Given these contingencies, Edmonds was of the opinion
that Garnet must have planned his argument not only as a denunciation of slavery but also as guidance for a future course
of action to the lawmakers who comprised much of his audience. He must have felt
it incumbent upon him as an acknowledged leader of his race to do this (21).
Holding that Garnet’s
speech was one of blame, Edmonds cites Aristotle’s belief
that “[t]here is a specific interrelation between praise or blame and advice” as evidence, to her, that the speech
was necessarily epideictic and deliberative (22).
She highlighted the fact
that Garnet’s proem begins with a scriptural quotation from Matthew 23:4, “For they bind heavy burdens, and grievous
to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”
that this citation accomplishes three specific things.
First, it sets the
tone of the discourse commensurate with the dignity of the occasion and the audience;
second, it contains the core of the argument; and third, it gives the direction the discourse will take. This unexpected note
of censure immediately gains the attention of the audience. (22)
Further, Garnet’s opening lines of the American problem immediately following the aforementioned scripture invokes
three points: “ Jesus addressing his disciples,  the concept of law, and  the idea of tradition.” Edmonds writes that such an effort should generate goodwill among the
audience, for the lawmakers gathered among the assembly are supposed to value these three things: “the word of Christ,
the law, and the traditions of their fathers” (22).
Outlining the points of
Garnet’s entire argument, Edmonds believes they are
1. Identification of
those who perpetrate and perpetuate slavery.
2. The nature and
evils of slavery.
3. The continuance
of slavery as a moral choice.
4. Advice for the
future society and the government of our nation. (23)
Turning to Garnet’s
methodology for effectuating his proof, Edmonds cites to his
usage of the example; meaning,
something selected to show the nature or character of the rest. For her, this is exemplified by, “his picturization
of the scene on the ‘bleeding shores of Africa,’ which he ends with the satire, ‘If such are the deeds of
mercy wrought by angels, then tell me what works of iniquity there remains for devils to do?’” The enthymeme (for Aristotelian purposes, a rhetorical argument
in probabilities; e.g., “slavery preys upon man, and man only; a brute can not be made a slave,”) and topoi also are methods utilized by Garnet for effecting his
proof. The topoi (a traditional motif or theme utilized in a composition) selected by Garnet include opposites, definition, existing decisions,
inward thought and outward show, conflicting facts, and cause and effect (23).
The epideictic portion
of the address, Edmonds writes, closes with the following
With all the moral
attributes of God on our side, cheered as we are by the voices of universal human nature, -- in view of the best interests
of the present and future generations – animated with the noble desire to furnish the nations of the earth with a worthy
example, let the verdict of death which has been brought in against slavery, by the Thirty-Eighth Congress, be affirmed and
executed by the people. Let the Gigantic monster perish. Yes, perish now, and perish forever! (23).
Edmonds’ examination explains how thereafter the emphasis of Garnet’s discourse
changes and the argument assumes all the characteristics of deliberative rhetoric, exhorting and advising and focusing on
the future. Garnet closes his argument, Edmonds writes, by
urging the assembled lawmakers in the audience to “Emancipate, Enfranchise, Educate, and give the blessings of the gospel
to every American citizen” (23).
then advances her paper by moving from the enthymemes and examples, referred to by her as the artistic means of proof used in the argument, to Garnet’s use
of witnesses, deemed by Edmonds to be the non-artistic means of proof. Such witnesses utilized in the text are
listed by Edmonds as oaths, the laws of God and man, tortures (such as invoking the image of children chained to slave ships
and enduring the savage “middle passage” across the Atlantic), ancient witnesses (e.g., Moses, St. Augustine,
Plato, Socrates, Cyrus, etc.), and recent witnesses from Garnet’s era (23-24).
Edmonds surmises that Garnet used the epilogue to provide  a memory refresher,  a last
ethical impression,  a magnification of the facts, and  an appeal to the emotions of the audience. She writes that the
epilogue ends on this note:
Then shall the people
of other countries, who are standing tip-toe on the shores of every ocean, earnestly looking to see the end of this amazing
conflict, behold a republic that is sufficiently strong to outlive the ruin and desolation of civil war, having the magnanimity
to do justice to the poorest and weakest of her citizens. Thus shall we give to the world the form of a model republic, founded
on the principles of justice, humanity, and Christianity, in which the burdens of war and the blessings of peace are equally
borne and enjoyed by all. (24)
And so, Edmonds states, remarking on the intellectual
rigor, logic and progression of the piece, notes that the discourse has proem, argument and epilogue intertwined by the successive
concepts of enslavement, freedom, and justice.
Edmonds pays tribute to Garnet’s style by singing the praises of its vividness, dramatic
quality, balance, emotion, clarity, dignity, and his use of metaphor and epithets. She validates his usage of such tactics
with citations from the teachings of Aristotle and begins to close her examination by addressing the Aristotelian artistic
means of persuasion. These are threefold, Edmonds states:
“First, evincing through the speech the right character; this is Ethos. Second, engaging the listeners’ emotion.
Third, proving a truth, real or apparent, by argument” (25). Having already discussed Garnet’s argument at length,
Edmonds proceeds to review the other two artistic means of
Citing to Aristotle, Edmonds writes that when determining the Ethos of the speaker, trust
in the speaker is critical and should be created by the speech itself. Commenting that the sources of our trust are intelligence,
character and goodwill, Edmonds draws attention to how Garnet
handles the question throughout his text. Particularly noteworthy, she thought, was Garnet’s restraint and dignity when
relating the blame of slavery to his familial surroundings in Maryland.
Edmonds deemed it to be an excellent instance of how narration
depicts character (25).
As for intelligence:
The fact that Garnet
had been a slave made the demonstration of intelligence as a part of his ethos imperative. His references, by analogy or quotation,
to the poets, philosophers, statesmen, Church Fathers, world religions, government, common, statutory, and constitutional
law, matters foreign and American, ancient and modern history – Cyrus, the Magna Charta and in the present to Maximilian
. . . all point to his rich intellectual endowments and cultural background. (25-26).
It is fascinating to read
Edmonds’ account of Garnet’s speech and see how
she remarked upon the fact that (at the time of publication of her paper), it was then ninety-seven years after the speech
and, yet, African-Americans were still seeking all the primary requisites detailed by Garnet for their complete enfranchisement.
Garnet’s verbatim exhortation was “Emancipate, Enfranchise, Educate, and give the blessings of the gospel to every
American citizen” (23). Edmonds’ modern interpretation
of the appeal was:
Those things being
all the rights of American citizenship, no discrimination and class-legislation, judgment according to merit, equal participation
in all levels of government, justice in the courts, eradication of racial caricatures in art and literature, elimination of
prejudice in church and society, equal and integrated education and employment and the right to vote. (26).
Thus, Edmonds continued, Garnet’s foresight attests
to his wisdom and he stands revealed as a man of great stature (26).
Concluding her substantive
examination with the thought that, for Aristotle, the ultimate judgment of persuasion was with the judges, Edmonds cites the account of audience-member William J. Wilson. Arriving at the Hall of Representatives
around 11 a.m., Wilson writes that he found “every space
on the floor occupied and the galleries filled to overflowing.” A prayer was offered by Garnet and then he launched
into his text. “For the space of an hour what a breathless house! What suppressed emotions” (26)! Wilson paints a picture of an audience clearly in the palm of the speaker’s hand, so
much so that at one point, “[a]n uncontrollable emotion, for the moment, took entire possession of the audience”
(26). Wilson would go on to write, which Edmonds cited:
It is needless to say
more. Men who went to the house to hear a colored man, came away having heard a MAN in the highest and fullest sense. Many
who went there with feelings of curiosity, came away wrapped in astonishment. Not only a man but a great representative man
had spoken, and they were amazed. (26)
Edmonds would conclude by saying that this personal account of the reaction speaks for itself, and indeed it does.
The primary analytical record establishing Irene Edmonds as an African American intellectual, however,
arises from her graduate school work at one of the South’s preeminent institutions of higher education, Johns Hopkins University
in Baltimore, Maryland.
Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South was published in 1953 by the Johns Hopkins Press. The book grew out of a graduate seminar course at Johns
Hopkins in which Edmonds was enrolled. The book was edited
by Robert D. Jacobs and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. It was perhaps the first general study of modern Southern literature.
As a graduate student at
Johns Hopkins at the time, Edmonds had particularly impressed
the faculty with her work. Despite objections from some corners of academia, she was included as a contributor to the book
with a piece on the African-American characterizations of the biggest name in Southern literature, William Faulkner (Rubin,
Telephone Interview 30 June 1995).
Edmonds’ contribution to the book was titled “Faulkner and the Black Shadow”
and attracted much attention at the time of publication. It was perhaps the first perspective published from an African-American
in a general study discourse examining the representation of African-Americans in the works of an acknowledged leader in American
literature. Although the book was an uneven work, Edmonds’
contribution has stood the test of time and clearly is one of the best in the book (Rubin, Telephone Interview 30 June 1995).
Edmonds states that, “Faulkner brings such an intensity of feeling and emotion to his
art that if he is obsessed with the black shadow, as he most certainly is, some reason must be found in his artifacts”
But what is the black shadow?
Edmonds asserts that it is the burden and obsession of white
Southern conscience – the Negro (192). Edmonds directs
our attention to what she deems one of the pervasive themes of practically all of Faulkner’s work: “the belief
that the South, cursed and doomed by slavery, must find its own [atonement]” (193).
But contraposed to
this, over and above the resultant compendium of violence, horror, seduction, illegitimate children, rape, incest, and perversion
in Faulkner’s novels, is a second theme: the theme of Negro blood as a source of defilement. This he mirrors as an abomination
in the collective psyche of the South. There are even times when one senses overtones, conscious or unconscious, of the same
phobia in Faulkner himself. The shadow then assumes two forms, the curse of slavery and the horror of miscegenation. (193)
Edmonds declines to confine Faulkner to what she called the “school of doom”
among Southern writers and their maudlin and sentimental tears over a phony tradition. Edmonds states that honesty, derived
from her status as one who has observed the southern scene without rancor or sentimentality, impels her to make an objective
attempt to appraise the black shadow as it obsesses the writer, William Faulkner, and then to draw some conclusions. This,
she writes, will be done by observing the progression in his thinking as shown in the treatment of his more memorable Negro
character creations from Dilsey in The Sound and The Fury, 1929, through Nancy Mannigoe in a Requiem for a Nun,
1950. She acknowledges at the outset that [t]here are few novelists who know the South as well as Faulkner or who can recall
its past so vividly (193).
Beginning with the character
of Dilsey, who is the “maid-cook-nurse-housekeeper” for the Compson family in The Sound and The Fury, Edmonds states that one can feel Faulkner’s nostalgia for a period
lost and an institution disappearing (193). Faulkner’s Dilsey, Edmonds
writes, has all the elements of the old African-American mammy, a common Southern literature stereotype for black characterization.
She observes that Faulkner says of Dilsey, “[t]hey
endured, and [Edmonds opines] the reader is left to
ask, they?” Edmonds answers the question, stating that Dilsey was not
so much a living, breathing human being as she was an institution, a tradition; how else, then, could Faulkner refer to her
kind except as “they?” (193-194).
Questioning why Dilsey’s
story is told in the third person rather than the stream of consciousness or first person technique used elsewhere in the
work, Edmonds says that such a selection from a recognized
master must represent a preconceived and conscious artistic choice. Her conclusion:
First, Dilsey was
not a person to Faulkner, the narrator of Dilsey’s story. To him she was a force, a symbol of endurance, a nostalgic
reconstruction of remembered past . . . Secondly, he did not truly understand her as a personality nor did he feel he needed
to . . . And so he reports, not tells, her story-- in short simple sentences as a child might. He does this not only because
the basic simplicity of his characterization demands such treatment, but also because he saw through the glass darkly of her
Admitting that Faulkner
did add stature to the stereotype by allowing Dilsey to exhibit concerns with the fundamental questions of human dignity and
justice, Edmonds nevertheless holds that this simply allowed the mammy [to become] “something more than a holder-together
of a white family, or a fountain head of love and protection for it, though the subserviency and unquestioned acceptance of
status are still there” (194-195).
The next characterization
reviewed is that of Joe Christmas in Light of August, 1932. Synopsized by Edmonds
as a tragic mulatto forever at war with himself and the world, he presents a different picture from that of Dilsey. Edmonds states that, “All of Christmas’ behavior stemmed
from the belief that his Negro blood was a genetic curse. Though he looked white and thought white, he symbolized the supposedly
tragic consequences of miscegenation, the crime of crimes in the South (195).
In an attempt to simultaneously
purify and release himself from the torment of being a mongrel, Christmas moves North and tries to identify himself as an
African-American by immersing his being within black culture. Edmonds
notes that by doing this Christmas committed every act forbidden to white men by Southern mores, but it is significant that
this excruciating effort occurred only as a violent reaction to the suddenly acquired knowledge that white women are intrigued
by men with dark skin. In other words, what good was a black man like Joe Christmas to white women? Thus, Edmonds concludes, Joe Christmas could not escape whiteness in a color-coded world (196).
Edmonds asks the reader to question what were Faulkner’s original intentions in writing
Light in August? Edmonds is of the belief that as the
initial conception of the Joe Christmas character became more comprehensive in breadth, scope and idea, Faulkner was spiritually
incapable of properly processing it (196).
One feels, she writes,
“that he had a very definite connection in his mind between Joe Christmas and Christ . . . [yet] when confronted by
the enormity of his attempt to liken a man with Negro blood in his veins to Christ, could not find the moral courage to make
the analogy inescapably clear.” Edmonds’ frustration
with Faulkner’s failure in this regard is self-evident. Perhaps conscious of that frustration, she goes on to address
the tendency of southern writers to [think] “in terms of an actual war between the white and black blood in the veins
of a person of mixed blood as if there were a struggle between two disparate and infusible elements.” Stating that such a notion is but another facet of the miscegenation is a mortal sin attitude of the South, Edmonds
opines that “[i]n reality the conflict is between the individual in toto and his environment” (196).
The analysis of Joe Christmas
closes with Edmonds noting that this tragic mulatto has not only the standard angle of being acted on from without, a victim
of fate against which it seems to struggle . . . “[but] he is [also] the victim of his own doom because he consciously
chooses it [by] figuratively and literally [running] to meet his emasculation, his crucifixion” (197). Finally, Edmonds
also notes (almost as if to prepare the reader for Faulkner’s slow progression from the basic southern stereotype) Faulkner
clearly alluding to the delusion of the repressed South’s conception of the Negro male as maniacal of his sex urge--ever
the potential rapist (197).
1936, offers for review the character of Charles Bon, another tragic mulatto. Edmonds
says that although Bon’s drop of Negro blood disturbed him little, such was not the case for his son Velery. Additionally,
Bon, like Christmas and Velery, sought recognition as a human entity as justification for his existence. Raised by his mother
as the “potential avenger of her repudiation by his father,” her drop of black blood having only been discovered
post-marriage, Edmonds writes that “what [Bon] desired most was to be recognized by his father” ( 197-198). Willing
to sacrifice all that he loves in life in return for such fatherly recognition, Edmonds
quotes Bon from the novel:
. . . I will renounce love and all: that will be cheap, cheap, even though he say to me never look upon
my face again; take my love and my acknewledgment (sic) in secret, and go I will do that; I will not even demand to know of
him what it was my mother did that justified his action toward her and me. (198)
However, Colonel Sutpen, the father, continues to refuse such acknowledgment.
Charles Bon is thus presented
with the dilemma of having only one alternative left by which he can attain his treasured sonship--either to commit incest
with Judith or to accept death at the hands of his brother. “Either choice would establish a form of father-son acknowledgment.”
This, Edmonds writes, is the significance of Bon’s story
with respect to an examination of Faulkner’s black shadow. Henry, the brother, operating from an ingrained Southern
moral-social code that supersedes ones’ love for ones’ brother, kills Charles Bon to ensure that Bon will not
marry their sister. Edmonds’ point, citing the narration
from the novel, is that Henry does this “not because of any inherent objection to incest, but because of the insuperable
barrier of miscegenation.” Edmonds closes her Charles Bon analysis by noting that he was able to find his ultimate recognition
by way of death and his brother, Henry, was equally able to live up to his moral obligation to the traditional mores of the
Quickly reviewing the Sam
Fathers character in Go Down Moses, 1942, Edmonds writes
that he is half American Indian and half African-American. Additionally, she maintains, “the character possesses two
qualities in man which Faulkner seems to respect--primitive endurance and physical contact with nature” (198). Contrasting
the Dilsey character with the Sam Fathers character, Edmonds notes that the former has a real prototype in the form of Faulkner’s
childhood domestic, Caroline Barr, yet the latter is the creation of Faulkner’s atavistic primitivism . . . [which]
is neither a variation of the tragic mulatto nor a variety of Uncle Tom. He is a primeval force suggesting a way of life for
modern society (198-199).
Edmonds next directs her attention to the formidable character of Lucas Beauchamp from Intruder
in the Dust, 1948. This characterization, Edmonds writes,
“emerges as an implacable reminder of past guilt and present sins unexpiated” and announces Faulkner’s complete
break from the tragic mulatto stereotype (199-201).
Drawing attention to Faulkner’s
habit of recycling his characters, Edmonds juxtaposes Lucas
as he appeared in “The Fire and the Hearth” section of Go Down Moses with Lucas’ later manifestation
in Intruder in the Dust :
Through the stream-of-consciousness
approach, Faulkner plumbs the bitter agony which must be Lucas when he suspects that his wife Molly has become (by command)
not only the mammy for his white landlord’s child but also his mistress. And so Lucas cries out-- “How to God
can a black man ask a white man to please not lay down with his black wife?” When
Lucas does demand her return, we get a foreshadowing of the moral stature he exhibits later in Intruder in the Dust.
Puzzled, however, by humor which she found a trifle disconcerting, Edmonds was unable to determine whether the whimsical
joviality associated with Lucas in Go Down Moses was simply a characterization of pure fun or what she terms the “humor-tinged
indulgent condescension of traditional southern paternalism in Negro-white relationships--the you-know-they-are-just-like-children
attitude” (201). Nevertheless, Edmonds concludes that
Lucas’ earlier characterization was that of “a real person even though he is done in bas-relief instead of the
round” (202). Thus, Edmonds opines that “In the
Lucas of the novel Faulkner may have lost some of the intimacy and the immediacy of the short story, but the moral proportions
of his later Lucas, even though he has resorted to a portrait from the outside, do represent an enlargement of view”
Additionally, noting that
Faulkner has a tendency to go on rhetorical sprees in his writings, Edmonds
maintains that Intruder in the Dust is his first attempt to preach in a novel. Faulkner, she says, uses the character
of Gavin Stevens, uncle and mentor of Charles, to [deliver] the thesis “that the South should be allowed to work out
its salvation alone and without advice or compulsive laws from [non-Southerners]” (199-200).
Perhaps as an effort to
demonstrate how the black shadow bedeviled Faulkner (and, therefore, the South), Edmonds
highlights Faulkner’s uneven treatment of the Gavin Stevens character. At one instance Stevens is declaring his thesis
for the salvation of the South while simultaneously referring to African-Americans as Sambo. Yet, later, Stevens magnanimously
claimed to be defending Lucas while again contemporaneously referring to African-Americans as Sambo. Interestingly, in what
appears to be a political statement designed to communicate more than simple literary critique, Edmonds writes that “Faulkner has Gavin Stevens, adhering to type, make no attempt
to reconcile the word with the thought” (200-201).
The final Faulknerian character analyzed is that of Nancy Mannigoe from Requiem for a Nun, 1951.
“Of all Faulkner’s Negro characterizations Nancy Mannigoe is the most puzzling,” (202) Edmonds writes. She cites Mannigoe as an unimportant character in The Sound and The Fury
and as an “ex-dope fiend whore” in the short story That Evening Sun These Thirteen, 1931, whose characterization
presented an “admirably drawn [study] of fear, desperation, and final resignation” (202). Finding this Mannigoe
characterization unconvincing, Edmonds doubts such a character
an act, the murder of Temple’s baby son, which she knew
would demand the supreme penalty--her life. And she does all this for the sake of saving the soul of a woman more a sister
of iniquity than a sister from love. What could possibly impel her, a Southern Negro, to commit the premeditated murder of
a white person, and a white child at that (202)?
Edmonds resolutely states that she cannot answer her many questions regarding Mannigoe from the characterization because “I
believe that even in distortion there should be some form, some order, some relation of principle to expediency.” It
is this lack of motivation for Nancy’s act that makes
Requiem for a Nun fall to pieces” (203). Finding no rational basis for Mannigoe’s act, Edmonds concludes that such basis must rest in Faulkner’s mind.
How could this occur with
such an accomplished writer as Faulkner, she asks? Edmonds surmises that Faulkner simply tried
to give a modern variation of the Dilsey character, noting that [b]oth Dilsey and Nancy
acted as Greek chorus in a drama of the fall of a family. The difference, Edmonds implies,
is that Faulkner has Nancy move beyond sacrificing herself simply for a white Southern family;
instead, Edmonds states Mannigoe’s sacrifice is for
all suffering humanity. Continuing the theme of growth in Faulkner’s characterizations, Edmonds writes that one can even see it in Gavin Stevens who has lost the overtones of insincerity
in his moralizing, and that he makes no reference to Sambo. He has grown as a character, and one senses that at last he has
affirmed the truth of his protested beliefs (203-204).
Summarizing, Edmonds maintains that her study of Faulkner’s gallery of Negro
characters revealed a transformation of the mammy and tragic mulatto stereotypes into “neither plantation tradition
menials nor happy-go-lucky comics.” In fact, she writes, his later African-American characterizations, typified by the
Sam Fathers-Lucas Beauchamp-Nancy Mannigoe trio, “are no longer recognizable as stereotypes.” Edmonds attributes this evolution not to any Faulknerian “desire to purge southern
literature of types long objectionable to Negroes, but because he wanted to dramatize human qualities he respected and admired”
Continuing her summary,
Edmonds reasons that Faulkner does not fully understand African-Americans
as persons and, utilizing Faulkner’s own words, asks rhetorically, “what white man does?” In part because
of this handicap, she implies, Faulkner writes about African-Americans rather than through them. “Plausibility, as related
to the subtle complications of behavior in his Negro characters, seems to elude him,” she concludes. Nevertheless, Edmonds attributes to Faulkner an uncanny ability to reveal the “acute
awareness and sullen understanding [African-Americans have] of the bitter life they are doomed to live in a degenerate hate-ridden
Concluding that Faulkner
neither hates nor loves African-Americans, Edmonds believed
his thinking on the subject was simply “unsettled and inconclusive.” Further, she stated, “until he himself
can conquer the psychological dualism of his feeling toward the total Negro, no coherent statement about Negroes can be expected
in his novels” (205-206).
Edmonds ends her analysis of Faulkner with a flourish, stating:
If any conclusion can
be attributed to Faulkner it is that slavery was the doom of the South, and hence it is forced into an ambivalent need to
justify and atone for the crime perpetrated on its victims. It follows then that so long as the burden of guilt exists, so
long as the sin remains unexpiated, just so long will the black shadow hover over the land as an eternal reminder of that
doom. Yet, withal Faulkner’s picturization of the degeneracy of the South, if one were to ask him why he hates the South,
he would answer, as did Quentin Compson, I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it! (206).
Another Southerner, Robert
Penn Warren, is a preeminent American poet and writer. Famed for his novel, All the King’s Men, which earned
him a Pulitzer Prize, Warren left behind a body of work, in poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction, such as few American writers
have ever compiled (Rubin, “Gathering” 673). As with many American writers, Warren’s evolution (maturation,
Edmonds might say) as a writer indicates [his] shifting attitudes about race--“from his defense of separate but equal
in “The Briar Patch,” which was included in I’ll Take My Stand in 1930, to his engaged search for
a voice of promise and hope in Who Speaks for the Negro? in 1965 (Perkins 651).
Band of Angels,
published in 1955, provided Edmonds an opportunity to analyze
in depth and within the context of a single work, yet another Southern writer’s experience with the omnipresent tragic
mulatto. Edmonds begins her analysis with a query from the
OH, WHO AM I? This
question -- relentlessly repeating itself, echoing and re-echoing in the ever widening vacuum of space alternately crowing
upon and retreating from the one who asked it, wrenching itself from her not-self and returning to itself, agonizingly probing
each tiny recess of her being, --insisting on some answer, any answer, that might bring peace and make her free. This is the
tortured question for which Amantha Starr, white and free until her father’s death and thereafter slave and freed, had
to find the answer. And so, too, with this question, Robert Penn Warren in Band of Angels revives and recreates the
. . . tragic mulatto (“Tragic Mulatto” 1).
Maintaining that this theme is certainly not a new one in American literature, Edmonds
traces its origin to what came to be known as “the plantation tradition.” She attributes its inception during
the pre-Civil War era primarily to Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon, calling them “post-bellum defenders of the ante-bellum
As for mulattoes, Edmonds defines them (the character and the group) as “the obvious
‘fait accompli’ of southern life, the objective correlative of human weakness, attraction or violation of one
being by another.” Thus it was inevitable she said that “they were to join the gallery of plantation figures that
were to become literary stereotypes” (1).
After tracing the first
appearance of the tragic mulatto prototype to perhaps an anonymous author whose 1836 novel The Slave was revised and
renamed by Richard Hildreth in 1852 as The White Slave, Edmonds writes that “[f]rom then until today, from Harriet
Beecher Stowe through George Gable and Charles Chestnutt to William Faulkner, the mulatto has been a favorite character of
both white and Negro authors in American fiction.” However, Edmonds
cautions, Anglo-American and African-American authors differed in their interpretations of the tragic mulatto even though
some characteristics are common to both portrayals. For both sets of authors, “the offspring of mixed blood are the
progeny of fortuitous fate, and this admixture of blood brings internal conflict and turmoil. The similarity ends there”
Excluding the followers
of Page and Dixon, who mostly portrayed mulattoes both as females and as “incarnations
of the black evil,” Edmonds notes that most other Anglo-
Americans portrayed them sympathetically. This was accomplished, Edmonds
writes, by portraying “mulattoes as anguished victims of an inherited dichotomy, the white blood in constant struggle
with the one dark drop that was Negro” (2). Also mostly female,
[T]heir miserable plight,
bitterness, intellectual superiority, defiant strivings and delicate sensibilities were attributed, either consciously or
unconsciously, to their white blood. Their passions, the resigned acceptance of fate, and the latent primitivism smouldering
beneath the veneer of white skin were all the result of the “dark stain” “defiling” the blood stream
through which it coursed. (2-3)
Edmonds asserts that the Anglo-American version of the tragic mulatto was tragic not only because of this peculiar inner turmoil
“but also because her “whiteness,” recoiling in revulsion from any contact with a black skin, aspired for
a white mate. The racial caste system as well as some laws of the land, therefore, ultimately led to her  tragic death,
 life spent in miserable resignation, or  marriage inevitably resulting in catastrophe for her or her children, Edmonds concluded. Early examples of such characterizations include
Toinette in A Royal Gentleman, 1881, by Albion Tourgee and Rhoda Aldgate in An Imperative Duty, 1892, by William
Dean Howell. Later resurrections of the characterizations include Peola in Imitation of Life, 1933, by Fannie Hurst
and Precieuse in The No-Nation Girl, 1929, by Evans Wall (3).
African-Americans, on the
other hand, tended to have mulattoes exhibit not only inter-racial problems but intra-racial ones as well. These authors tended
to dwell on mulattoes as:
victims of their passionate
desire “to pass” either because of the desire to be white, or because of the advantages of being white, or for
both reasons. The different struggle was not so much a continuing battle of the white blood with the black blood in their
veins, as it was the fear engendered by the constant threat of discovery of that Negro strain. Tragedy for them grew out of
their “misguided” effort to be completely white. However, if, in answer to the mystical bond that supposedly existed
between them and their more obviously Negroid brothers, they returned to the Negro race, their tragedy and grief disappeared.
This, Edmonds writes, was because their position in
the black community, “an enviable position of prominence,” would be exactly opposite their bottom of the barrel
existence in the white community. Thus, the mulatto in African-American novels historically is tragic only when attempting
to pass and otherwise lives a “normal happy life” (4). Examples provided by Edmonds
of such characterizations include Clare Kendry in Passing, 1929, by Nella Larsen as well as Angela Murray in Plum
Bun, 1929, by Jessie Fauset.
Edmonds cites the characterizations of Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom!, 1936, by
William Faulkner, and Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust, 1948, also by William Faulkner, as examples where “the
mulatto stereotype assumes the dimensions of real character creations” (4).
All of which brings
us back to Robert Penn Warren and his mulatto creation. Is Amantha Starr such a stereotype? Was her anguished cry for self-definition
merely the cry of the Negro-white hybrid for some racial identification? If so, why did she not substitute a “what”
for the “who?” Could she be interchanged with any of the other typically “tragic mulattoes” by simply
brushing in a tint here, a shading of color there on the broad canvas of the southern scene? In what way was the tragic mulatto
used in Band of Angels? (4)
Reviewing the novel, Edmonds describes how Amantha experienced a motherless childhood on
Starwood, her father’s plantation. Ignorant of her mother’s origins, she is sheltered and protected by her father
throughout her early life. At nine years of age she is sent to Oberlin
College “where she stays until, at sixteen, his sudden death brings
her back to Starwood. There, at her father’s bankrupt grave,” she discovers she is no white aristocrat after all.
Rather, she is the child of a slave-plantation owner union and therefore property capable of being bought and sold--which
she is, down the river to a wealthy New Orleans planter named
Hamish Bond. Not surprisingly, rejection and betrayal are her overriding emotions (5).
Thus, Amantha begins her
quest for freedom. She frantically seeks to identify herself with the other characters in the novel, all of whom are also
seeking a kind of freedom. All “fail to give Amantha the freedom she so desperately craves, just as her father failed
to give her liberty through the instrument of manumission” (5).
Detailing certain “patent
characteristics” which Amantha shares with the Anglo- American tragic mulatto prototype, such as “the revulsion
to Negroes, the sense of defilement by miscegenation, the anticipated hopelessness of love’s fulfillment through marriage
[to a white mate], the tragedy of the near-white state,” Edmonds nevertheless holds that Warren goes beyond the stereotype
(5-6). “The plaintive wail, ‘Who am I?’ does not seek its answer in an ‘am-I-a-Negro-or-am-I-white-or-am-I-no-race’
resolution,” Edmonds writes. Amantha’s reaction
to her enslavement hints at an “urge for self-definitiveness in a world which one, any one, or all must push away and
yet secure a place in it (6-7).
maintains that Warren takes the question of being a slave
out of the realm of race and time “and applies it to the eternal desire of man to know himself and his purpose for being.”
But why, Edmonds asks? She allows that perhaps  Warren is white and found it easier to penetrate the psychology of someone
who never identified her being any other way, and  he knew a slave would be the most stubborn and unreasonably persistent
character to seek and find herself and her purpose for being as the key to freedom. “Therefore, the question precludes
the choice of character” (7).
Believing it worthwhile
to compare Warren’s treatment of the tragic mulatto with that of William Faulkner, Edmonds, as cited previously in this
work, finds Faulkner obsessed with African-Americans “as the objective correlative of the South’s guilty conscience,
the black shadow brooding on the doorstep of its soul” (7-8). The continuing correctness of this observation with respect
to the South in general is the 1995 “apology” issued by the Southern Baptist Convention to African-Americans for
the conventions’ historical tolerance of slavery and racism and the subsequent reaction to the attempt at reconciliation
(Otto A1). Thus, the torture for Faulkner’s mulatto characters “Is like the contained tortion of a Michelangelo
sculpture, turning in upon itself, choosing its own doom as does Joe Christmas (Lights in August), or stalking forth
like Lucas Beauchamp (Intruder in the Dust), a free and independent spirit, withholding in his hands the white South’s
chance for expiation (8).
has no such pervasive theme or obsession, Edmonds writes.
Although unstated, one assumes her observation regarding Warren
is limited to the context of Band of Angels only. This assumption is supported by Edmonds
conclusion that the appearance by the tragic mulatto again and again in the novels of Faulkner indicate that the mulatto “is
the exigency of a personal obsession” whereas with Warren
“she [Amantha] is the exigency of an objectively chosen theme, and consequently, may reappear only as a particular theme
also impressively lauds Warren for “[taking] the specie
of Negrophobia characteristic of the stereotype and [placing] it on another level” (8). She writes:
Surely this is no stereotype
speaking! The cast of the mold is completely destroyed. Warren
takes each trademark of the “tragic mulatto” out of its socio-racial context and transposes it to the common denominator
of human existence. Then, transcending law, time, convention, and status, he transmutes the stereotype into an individual
who, through events produced by her condition, her strivings, and her failures, searches for the answer to man’s timeless
query: What is freedom, and how does one obtain it? Thus, in an atmosphere of violent and dramatic intensity, staged with
the Civil War and Reconstruction as background played by a heroine who strives to give life not only a shape but a shapeliness,
Band of Angels provides an answer.
And “so we are
back where we started.”
”OH, WHO AM I?”
I am the stereotype
which has burst the cocoon. I am no longer a shell to stuff with tortured cliches or an unhappy harp on which to play long
worn-out tunes. I am no more the “tragic mulatto.” I am I, Amantha Starr, a creation in my own right, and Robert
Penn Warren has helped set me free!
That is what he did.
From the lavish praise
offered Robert Penn Warren, heaped upon him by Edmonds for apparently nothing more than creating
a character with some logical development associated with the created character, Edmonds moves
on to address the 1960s United States of America.
Asked by Johns Hopkins Magazine to delineate the moral crises Americans were to face “in the next twenty years
and their consequent challenges in terms of the fact of accomplished integration and desegregation,” Edmonds accepted the challenge and noted (believing herself to be fully qualified for such
a task) that “I had served full apprenticeship” (“Tomorrow” 2).
How had this apprenticeship
been served? As Edmonds takes us on this journey one begins
to understand why she found the characterization of Amantha Starr so refreshing. “I have always lived with RACE,”
she writes. (1) Appropriately noting that it is not only the deep South that has made her live with this concept known as
“RACE,” Edmonds evokes an image of evil incarnate;
“it stalked us,” she said. “I have slept with it, eaten with it, despaired over it, and pondered about it.
Sometimes I have even laughed at it; it assumed such ludicrous shapes. I have been saddened by what it has done to my people
and the other ones -- my white brothers.” Utilizing a storytelling technique favored by the South and Southern writers,
Edmonds grabs the attention of the reader and loosens the
binding only after her point is indelibly imprinted upon one’s consciousness. So well crafted that it bears repeating,
My earliest recollection
of the South concerns itself with a peacock. I must have been barely three years old. I seem to remember riding through a
beautiful place in a buggy with my mother and father (I am quite sure that someone’s especial largesse was responsible
for the buggy; Negro Presbyterian ministers had little of the world’s goods at that time.) The swishing of the horse’s
tail and his sleek brown hind quarters occupied most of my attention until suddenly I looked up, and there it was -- behind
a high, black, iron fence! Its fan was all spread out, and the shiny, lovely, beautiful colors sent delicious shivers through
my body. I was quite sure that the rainbow had fallen from the sky and found a new place to stay. My mother told me that this
was a bird called a peacock. I begged to stop so that I could reach through the black bars to touch the bright feathers, but
my mother said that we couldn’t stop there. To forestall my inevitable “why?”, she said something else --
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the peacock’s feet were as beautiful as the rest of his body!” This time
my mother answered my “why”. She said, “His feet are rather ugly to go with the beauty in the rest of him.”
By then I couldn’t
see the peacock any more. But this is what I remember about the place where I was born: the lovely beautiful peacock; the
high, black, iron fence; my mother’s wistful words -- and the ugly feet that did not go with beauty. I never knew until
a number of years later that the peacock I could not stop to see was in a public park. Negroes were not allowed there. And
so for me the peacock has always symbolized the South as I have known it -- a land of almost Circean beauty that has such
tragically ugly feet.
Tomorrow I must find
a new image, O happy day! (“Assault” 2-3)
Here, not only does Edmonds paint a vivid picture with her words but she also makes one
look favorably upon her impressive pedigree. One thinks of Garnet, her Presbyterian minister great-grandfather, standing before
Congress and delivering his powerful discourse. Or even her father, himself a Presbyterian minister, eloquently delivering
his message of the day. For Edmonds, seemingly exasperated with the concept of “Race”
in the United States (“it assumed
such ludicrous shapes”), has (apparently and literally) thrown her hands up in the air over the matter. In this ultimate
expression of submission and faith, she has turned the question and the solution over to the Lord. “As token integration
moves toward complete desegregation,” Edmonds writes,
“as overt compliance of the law moves toward personal compliance, then shall come the great moral crises in our American
society” (3). This is due, Edmonds believes, because  the United States is fundamentally a Christian society, 
Christianity has an activist character that makes it deeply involved in the world around it,  quoting Joseph Stitler, “[t]he
Christian is infinitely responsible both for his own soul, and for his neighbor’s,” and  all moral responsibility
begins and ends with the person.
The only way to move forward,
Edmonds maintains, is “to tear away the disingenuousness
that has permitted us to see only that which we have desired to see.” Invoking the imagery of Plato from his Allegory
of the Cave, Edmonds writes that both the North and the
South must exit the cave, “ascend the high hill and look at the sun. Only after this is done can the moral dimensions
of the future be drawn in” (4).
Asking the reader what
will the view from the hill reveal, Edmonds finds it important to reiterate that the difference in the treatment of African-Americans
by the North and the South “is one of degree and outward show and not in kind”(4). Finding that both the North
and the South steadfastly hold on to beliefs “steeped in myth and illusion [which] distorts the vision and paralyzes
the will,” Edmonds finds both lacking (5).
Edmonds moves on to recite the standard line offered by many different people over the years,
namely that all African-Americans want is to be treated as human beings. “[A]ll the racial ferment in our land today
has its roots in this one great human want--on its insistence by the Negro, on its resistance by the white man”(6).
Moving to a powerful juxtaposition,
Edmonds next tells a story of encountering one of her young
college students. Virtually all African-Americans recognize the dizzying dichotomy reflected in the story and the special
pain associated with it. Edmonds recalls looking into the
bright eyes of a student that “held back tears as he wrestled with himself over choosing to be fined or to go to jail.”
(6-7) The FAMU student was jailed for participating in a Tallahassee
sit-in at a lunch counter. Paying the fine represented the easy way out. Some readers would with some justification say it
represented the prudent way out since not paying the fine meant not graduating on schedule, earning troublemaker status, and
traumatizing his widowed mother. Going to jail, however, “meant paying the price for his belief in human dignity and
freedom” (7). Edmonds, with apparent pride, writes that
the student chose jail.
Before that, I had
seen those same two eyes overflow with tears of love and pride for country when he heard “The Star Spangled Banner”
backstage in auditoriums in many African schools and cities. He was participating in a cultural exchange program sponsored
by the State Department, and our mission was to sell American democracy and freedom to Africans through the drama and our
person-to-person contacts. We always played the national anthem before our show--and there were always tears in our eyes when
we heard it. It seemed a tragic and strange paradox to me that this young man should have to cry in America
over what he went to sell to Africa. (7)
Echoing the sentiments
Garnet delivered in his discourse before Congress almost 100 years earlier, Edmonds writes of things desired by African-Americans
beyond human dignity--full citizenship, educational freedom, fair labor, “to eat and live and go where he wills,”
unfettered voting rights, freedom of recreation, and freedom “to pray in the church of his choice.” Not desired
by African-Americans, Edmonds maintained, was paternalism
or pity because such “relegates him to the status of a child and robs him of his right to make choices” (7-8).
Noting the winds of change
that were sweeping through 1962 America, Edmonds believed the country was nearing a “fateful moment of personal decision, especially
in the South” (10). The front lines were properly positioned in the South on the question of equality and first-class
citizenship for African-Americans because it was “the South [that] perpetrated the system which enslaved [them],”
Edmonds wrote (10).
In an effort to make sense
of the “hysteria” engendered over efforts to integrate and desegregate the United States, Edmonds found a James
Baldwin essay on “Faulkner and Desegregation” in Nobody Knows My Name, instructive. Baldwin
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. (11-12)
Edmonds saw the two immediate decades to come as inevitably burdened with ever-increasing
pressures as the demands of African-Americans would gradually become more insistent. Yet, “[i]ntegration and desegregation
will become accomplished fact,” Edmonds asserted (12).
With this thought in mind, Edmonds asks, “What promise
does tomorrow hold?”
First, for African-Americans,
Edmonds saw a need to accept “identification as an American
involved in the whole stream of American life.” Quick to note that such does not require the surrendering of racial
identity and heritage, Edmonds opines that African-Americans
will, however, have to shed an inculcated inferiority complex. Citing a need for community initiative and responsibility that
is cognizant of real communal difficulties, Edmonds saw an
equally important need to accomplish such initiative and shoulder such responsibility “without making excuses about
the crime, illegitimacy and school drop-outs” among Americans of African descent. Perhaps anticipating the present quagmire
reflected in the social statistics of 1995 America, Edmonds maintained that “[t]he causes cannot absolve him from solutions.” African-Americans
must overcome not only the generational inculcation of a separate and unequal mentality but bitterness toward Americans of
European descent “for love, understanding and a consideration for others form the only firm basis for a truly democratic
Second, for white Americans,
Edmonds believed they “must become concerned enough
about racial discrimination and injustice that are beyond the reaches of the law to want to do something about them”
(15). She believed the ultimate challenge for whites, however, is that of their personal compliance with the law. For Edmonds, this meant “having the perceptive insight to know that
he has no more to fear from the Negro than from any other man in a competitive society” (16).
Synopsizing, Edmonds wrote that the personal and moral challenge for white and black in America “will [require] a Kierkegardean ‘leap of faith’ to the
eternal essence of Christianity so that in the North and in the South Christian practice will follow Christian ethics.”
Accomplishing such by both sides requires the reaching of heights “seldom attained by human beings.” This, Edmonds said, was both the greatness and the agony in the challenge,
“[b]ut there have been Americans who have lifted themselves to such heights before and there are Americans today who
are capable of doing so again” (17).
Closing her piece and resting
upon faith as had her great-grandfather, Edmonds again returned
to her focus while both asking a question of her reader and providing an answer. Edmonds queried, “And what will be tomorrow’s promise? The feet of the peacock shall be beautiful
like its body, and the beauty shall spread throughout the land. That is tomorrow’s promise, and this I do believe”
Copyright © Valencia E. Matthews
All Rights Reserved