The Life and Death of a Black Man
By Kyra Brue
Since the beginning of American history, Black men have been treated differently and unfairly. Oftentimes, people have had preconceived ideas of how African American males act, which has caused this group of men to be put into boxes that not all of them fit into. Repeatedly, people label black men as aggressive, scary, loud, ghetto, etc. before they even get the chance to prove themselves. Because of this “angry black man” stereotype, people in this group have been followed around stores, beaten within an inch of their lives, or even killed. It is important to focus on how these stereotypes, which are present in all forms of media and literature, impact the psyche and behavior of Black men in America. Using William Faulkner’s novel, Light in August, I will use the life and death of the character, Joe Christmas, to highlight the impact that the “angry black man” stereotype has on his fate throughout the novel, and how his fate compares to those of African American men in today’s society.
Joe Christmas is one of the many characters that the audience is introduced to in the first part of Light in August. As a rather complex character, Joe provides the reader with someone who simultaneously grows and diminishes throughout the story. In the beginning of the novel, the reader only gets to see the mystery man that he is on the surface, but further into the book a spotlight is shown upon Christmas, and the reader can see what he is really like underneath his “tough guy” exterior. Through the many struggles that this character faces, it is believed that he might rise above and become a better man, but fate has a different plan for him.
Joe’s life begins with him feeling unwanted and othered, and because of these early life events, he becomes the angry man we see throughout the novel. The unfair and unloving treatment that he faces at a young age, is carried with him throughout his life. And even though Christmas is able to pass as white, he is still treated like he is a nuisance to his blood and adopted family throughout the important early stages of his life. On Christmas eve, his grandfather, Doc Hines, drops him off at an orphanage. However, Hines doesn’t just leave. He goes on to work there as a janitor so he can keep an eye on young Joe and make sure that his life is a living hell. Doc believes that Christmas is a “walking pollution… [and a] damnation” that shouldn’t exist in this world, mostly because he knows something that we don’t, Christmas’ true ethnicity (Faulkner 128). He dislikes Christmas so much that he stays for a while and then he begins spreading rumors about young Joe’s race, causing him to be treated differently than the other kids. At the end of the novel it is made apparent that his grandfather has known that Christmas was part black since before he was even born. So, Hines isn’t just spreading a lie; he is spreading the truth in order to purposely hurt young Joe. Even with the circulation of these rumors going around, Christmas remains oblivious to the fact that he is part black, so he feels as though he is unwanted for no reason. This type of abusive behavior from his grandfather is one of the principle elements that cause Christmas to grow up to be troublesome and violent.
Eventually, Joe is adopted by a religious man, who treats him poorly, with a kind wife, who acts oblivious of her husband’s abusive actions towards young Christmas. His luck unfortunately doesn’t get any better during his stay with the McEachern’s, for he continues to be treated like he is nothing, further molding him into the angry and violent man he becomes. The beginning of Christmas’ violent outbursts occur soon after he is brutally whipped by his adoptive father. During the time of this beating he is still a young child, so he is impressionable and more likely to think that these actions are normal. This beating also roughly mirrors how a slave would have been whipped during slavery, but since Christmas is still unaware of his true ethnicity at this time, he just takes the beating because he thinks he deserves it. Even after being pounded on, he goes on and eats his food off of the floor because he feels that this punishment is justifiable. According to Jean Piaget, a renowned child psychologist, “children think in strikingly different ways compared to adults” (McLeod). Therefore, young Christmas likely understood that being beaten wasn’t right, but due to the traumas caused by these beatings, he was worn down and made to think that a beating was the correct response to someone doing something wrong, no matter how small. This distorted idea is carried into the adolescent and young adult phases of his life as well. An article by the Australian Institute of Family Studies states that “adults with a history of abuse and neglect had a higher likelihood of arrests, adult criminality, and violent criminal behaviour,” which is exactly what happens to Christmas (“Effects of child abuse and neglect for adult survivors”). As a result of the abuse that he endures at a young age, he grows up to enact violence towards many people, both men and women. As the years go by, Christmas grows into an adolescent. At one point during his teenage years, another act of violence occurs, but this time it is Christmas enacting the violence upon another. One night, he and some local boys meet up to have sex with a consenting Black woman, but when it is Christmas’ turn to “have a go” at her, he explodes and begins to beat her instead. This incident can be seen as both an effect of his abusive childhood and a sign of his displeasure with the underlying idea of him being part black. When he beats this Black woman, it seems as if he is almost trying to “beat” the black part of himself, while simultaneously letting out years of anger and frustration that has built up over time. This anger has followed him around for years, and now that he is older and stronger, he uses it to his advantage. Another burst of violence occurs a little while later. One night, Christmas finally snaps and kills his foster father in a bout of rage, which is to be expected, due to the terrible treatment that he endures at the hands of Mr. McEachern. After the killing, he goes to meet with his “friends,” but instead of having a good time, he gets beaten, robbed, and called the n-word by his “lover,” Bobbie, and her two accomplices, Mame and Max. All of these brutal events only add to the blind rage that he carries with him into adulthood. Because of these experiences, he grows up not knowing who he truly is, being loved by no one, and holding on to anger until he explodes, time and time again.
The abuse that Christmas goes through during his early developmental, directly correlates to the violence that he enacts upon the prostitute and his stepfather during his teenage years. It isn’t by chance that he grows up to beat a woman and kill a man. He is groomed to become this way from a very young age. His own grandfather goes out of his way to bring him down, his stepfather physically and mentally abuses him, and his stepmother stands by and does nothing to help relieve some of the pain from Christmas’ miserable life. It is said that “children [who are] exposed to violence, later become perpetrators of violence directed to their peers and partners” (Farrington et. al 305). Children who grow up in violent households, like Christmas did, are more likely to become violent adults at some point in their lives. Farrington et al. states that “experiencing abuse and growing up in a violent home can have the effect of normalising the behaviour and also producing attitudes in children that favour violence in their own relationships”(306).This explains, but does not condone, why Christmas reacts violently towards the women and men who he was semi-close to throughout his life. He becomes a man who grew up wanting to be loved and treated fairly, but because of the compassion that was never given to him, he becomes a violent man instead. Throughout his life, Christmas never really finds out the truth behind his racial origins, but the abuse that he deals with during his formative years causes him to continuously act out in hostility towards people who just want to help him, even after he feels he finds a place where he can be happy.
After killing his father, Christmas wanders from place to place for years until he finally settles down and gets a job at a mill. On his first day at this job, he arrives wearing dusty shoes, soiled trousers, a white shirt, a tie, and a brand-new straw hat. Accompanied with his outfit is his signature brooding expression, which makes his fellow workers wary of him and his foreign sounding last name. Even with his attempt to look acceptable, his attitude and weird name make him appear to be an outcast, just like before. At first glance, the other workers see him as the audience does: an angry man with a mysterious past. The mill workers take one glance at Christmas’ appearance and decide that he is to be treated differently than everyone else, similar to how he was treated as a child and how Black men from all different backgrounds are looked at today. They are immediately judged based on their appearances before they even open their mouths to introduce themselves.
A mere ten years ago in July of 2009, a renowned African-American scholar named Henry Louis Gates Jr. was trying to get into his own home, near Harvard University, when “he was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after police said he ‘exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior’” (Roots). Gates was doing nothing criminal, except looking black in the wealthy neighborhood that he lived in. Luckily for Gates, this case ended in the charges being dropped, but the fact that an incident like this occurred sparked controversy throughout the nation, causing fellow African American’s to see it as “an outrageous but all-too-common example of how police treat [Blacks in America]” (“Charge Dropped Against Harvard Scholar”). This case can be compared to the profiling that Christmas goes through at the mill. Even though Christmas passes as a white man, his fellow mill workers do the same thing to him that these officers did to Mr. Gates. They took one look at his outward appearance, and immediately thought negatively of him, resulting in Christmas being treated unfairly, yet again.
Because of his fellow mill worker’s unequal treatment of him, Christmas ends up keeping to himself for a while, but when a man named “Joe Brown” comes to work at the mill, Christmas begins to display more of a personality when he is seen talking, laughing, and eventually forming a friendship between himself and Brown. This part of the story is one of the few moments where we see Christmas as this “normal” and happy human being. He is finally being appreciated by someone and it gets even better for him when he meets a woman named Joanna Burden. Christmas’ relationship with Joanna begins as a give and take type situation. Joanna cooks and gives him food, and in turn they sleep together. She is nice and almost motherly towards him at first, but they start out as complete strangers who barely speak to one another. After an incident where he throws her dishes across the room, he decides to avoid her for months. However, she confronts him one night and he learns that she is just as much of an outcast as he is, due to her Yankee origins. During this time period, people who were from the north were treated as poorly as Black men in some cases. After she shares her story with him, he becomes calmer and less aggravated for a while, accepting her compassion. Eventually, time passes and their relationship begins to evolve into something more complicated. Joanna begins to show two different sides of herself, which begins to frustrate Christmas. At one point she is described as “naked, or with her clothing half torn to ribbons upon her, in the wild throes of nymphomania” (259). Eventually, Joanna desires more than just a wild sexual relationship with Joe. She wants a real relationship with Christmas that involves children of their own, but he doesn’t desire that at all. However, after trying to pull away, he eventually gives up fighting her and months later Miss Burden tells Joe that she is pregnant. Unfortunately, they don’t get to enjoy this news together, for they gradually stop seeing one another until the fateful night that Joanna asks Joe to come up to the house and pray with her. After that night their relationship comes to a sad and violent end, similar to that of Christmas’ sad and violent life before Joanna. Several scenes later, it is revealed that Joanna is dead and her home is up in flames, and Christmas’ supposed friend, Joe Brown, tells the townspeople that Christmas is Black and then he names him as Joanna’s murderer. The police immediately send search dogs out to find him without even batting an eye, and the slight semblance of happiness that he has is gone, thus beginning his demise.
This act of deceit from Joe Brown is what finally breaks Christmas and causes his life to implode. Brown goes from being Christmas’ “friend” and roommate to backstabbing him and causing him to take the fall for Joanna’s murder just because Brown says he is Black. At this moment in the novel, Brown is unaware that the rumor he has just spread is actually true. He only tells this lie to throw Christmas under the bus and make his life even more miserable than it already is. Watching the town immediately jump on Brown’s bandwagon just comes to show that profiling goes beyond just looking black. Looking white and still being of African American descent is enough to make the townspeople think even less of Christmas. When the townspeople find out he is allegedly Black, they automatically believe it, and if Christmas is Black, he must be a murderer too, right? This type of assumption is seen in current times, especially through the police profiling of Black men. However, in today’s climate, Black men are profiled for looking and acting stereotypically Black. In Christmas’ case, he still looks white, but the newfound information about him being Black, even if only a little bit, flips the script. Since a white man like Joe Brown says he’s Black, it must be true and he must be treated accordingly. People already treated Christmas differently because he was an angry, misunderstood recluse, but after finding out that Christmas isn’t fully white, they have another reason to dislike and mistrust him.
In our world today, Black men are treated similarly to how Christmas was treated throughout his entire life. They are persecuted before they even open their mouths or move a muscle. They are profiled every day, and all too frequently innocent lives are lost in the process. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and so many more have died at the hands of police for simply being Black men in America. Most of them were thought to be violent or dangerous due to their actions, way of speaking, or overall appearance. And similar to them, after the revelation that Christmas is “allegedly” black, he is profiled and treated like an animal before he has the chance to speak his truth. In a study conducted by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it was discovered that people perceive black men as more dangerous than white men who are the same height and build (Wilson et al. 65-66). The media doesn’t help to change the perception of black men either. Wilson and others state that the “stereotypes of Blacks, and particularly young Black men, often focus on violence, threat, and crime” (60). When we see black men presented in film, TV, and literature, they are usually portrayed as being ghetto and/or violent. When people see these depictions, it only fuels the negative ideas that they have towards African American men. In the end, the results of this study “have disturbing consequences for how both civilians and law enforcement personnel perceive and behave toward Black individuals” and in Light in August, Joe Christmas becomes a part of those negative consequences (77). Even as a man who passes as white, he is instantly portrayed as being more threatening as soon as the idea of him being Black enters people’s minds. Before learning of his black heritage, the townspeople already dislike him because of his personality and by the time they find out about his African American identity, he ends up being accused of a crime that the audience is unsure he has even committed. The events that lead up to Christmas’ demise furthers Tom Jacobs statement that “for whites, the stereotype of the threatening black male is easy to activate. Once it’s lodged in the mind, it is then unconsciously projected onto others of his race and gender…” Once someone perceives a negative view of a person, their distaste towards them persists. The townspeople’s preconceived ideas of black men are projected upon Christmas after finding out he is Black. Joe Christmas’ death, and the deaths of black men in contemporary America, are the results of these dangerous assumptions.
Joe Christmas lives his whole life as an outcast and, even after finding some happiness, he still ends up right where he began: troubled and alone. During his final years, he wanders around aimlessly, with no motivation to better himself and then he eventually makes it to Mottstown, where he is captured, and a mysterious couple show a suspicious amount of interest in him. We eventually find out that the couple are Joe’s maternal grandparents, the Hines’, and his ethnicity is officially revealed to the audience. It isn’t a rumor anymore. He is officially labelled as Black, on his father’s side, and everyone officially knows it. In the end, Christmas escapes from jail, but this time he is captured and, in a racist fury, a vigilante crew, led by white supremacist Percy Grimm, violently shoots and castrates him. After the gruesome dismemberment of his external organ, Grimm makes sure to utter a final, chilling remark towards Christmas’ nearly dead body, stating, “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell” (464).
This line that Grimm expresses to the audience depicts the mindset of a racist white man during this time. His hatred of Christmas, after learning that he not only killed a white woman, but is also a black man, leads to the grisly events that wrap up Joe Christmas’ life. This blind hatred of a Black man, no matter how light he appears to be, by a white supremacist is similar to another real-life case that occurred in 1955, about 23 years after this novel was published. Fourteen-year-old, Emmett Till, “while visiting his relatives in Mississippi…went to the Bryant store with his cousins, and [allegedly] whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam [then] kidnapped and brutally murdered Till, dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River” (“The Murder of Emmett Till”). This senseless murder caused an uproar in the African American community, especially when the killers walked free. Similar to Till, Joe Christmas was accused of doing something that he allegedly didn’t do but was still killed by a civilian who thought it would be best if they took matters into their own hands. Both victims had an interaction with a white woman and because of their race they were presumed guilty of their acts, leading to them being killed before they were able to refute or confirm the claims made against them. The mindset of these white murderers in the 1930s and 1955, are practically similar to one another, even with the substantial gap in time, and this mindset is still present today, as seen through the hundreds of deaths of black men at the hands of police and white supremacists. Profiling, like what is seen in Light in August and the real world, has only negative outcomes on Black men in America. African American men aren’t safe because of the biased views that select people have towards them, and these views all too frequently end in misunderstandings and violence.
The violent childhood of Joe Christmas leads him down a path of resentment and aggravation. However, he wasn’t born with the anger that he has been holding onto for so long; this anger was constructed. His life is filled with too many obstacles and vexations, in which his own happiness and the happiness of others is lost in the process. This complex character, although depicted as an angry man, is still a human being who just wanted to be loved and accepted by those around him. Towards the end of his life, Christmas thinks to himself, in relation to wanting love and acceptance, “’that’s all I wanted…That don’t seem like a whole lot to ask’” (Faulkner 115). His life and death are difficult. He is born alone and unappreciated, lives his life angry and unloved, and dies viciously and shamefully. The struggle that Christmas faces throughout the novel, sadly, isn’t uncommon in the real world. Black men are depicted as angry, dangerous, and scary on a daily basis, and the preconceived idea that Black men are bad men comes with dire consequences. The portrayal of African American men in this way, through the media and in literature, causes people to automatically assume the worst in them. Because of this, they are targeted before they even get the chance to prove that they aren’t a risk to one’s safety. If we have learned anything from the story of Joe Christmas, it is this: murdering a man because of his race and/or outward appearance, before he gets the chance to defend himself, doesn’t end in justice; it ends in upheaval and in more of the violence that people seem to fear so much.
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