There’s a moment in William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) that keeps coming back to me on the hot days of this long hard summer. A passing stranger has found a body in a burning house just outside the imaginary town of Jefferson, Mississippi, the body of a white woman named Joanna Burden, her throat cut, and with the gash so deep that her head is almost off. But that’s not what I go back to: not her murder, nor the murderer’s identity, nor even the fact that she’d spent her life in the town where her “carpet bagger” relatives were killed for trying to get black people the vote. What sticks with me is the first step that the local sheriff takes in running his investigation: “Get me a nigger.” That’s what he tells his deputy, and that last word falls like a blow precisely because the thought is so utterly casual, so inevitable in a world in which its violence comes as a matter of course.
The sheriff doesn’t care which black man his deputy finds. Anyone will do, because he assumes that any black man in the neighborhood will know about the crime, or at least can be made to know. Maybe the murderer was living in that little cabin down back of the house? The man the deputy hauls up claims, at first, to know nothing at all, his voice “a little sullen, quite alert, covertly alert.” He watches the sheriff, wary of a blow, and doesn’t pay attention to the white men standing behind and surrounding him. Then he feels the snap and sear of a leather belt across his back. “I reckon you aint tried hard enough to remember,” the sheriff says, and the belt falls again, its buckle rasping across the victim’s flesh, a physical violence as automatic as that racial epithet itself.
Being black makes that man as liable to attack as if he had committed a crime. It’s dangerous, not telling the sheriff what he wants to know, and yet it might also be dangerous to speak. Two white men have been living in that cabin, bootleggers; or at least two men who look to be white. Should that nameless black man give up their names, should he trust his state’s constituted authorities? Will the police protect him if talking gets him in trouble? Anyone who reads Light in August will understand his caution, knowing as the belt falls that this isn’t an isolated bit of brutality. It’s standard police work in that Jim Crow world, and looking it over again helps this white reader understand the long history behind the deep suspicion of law enforcement that so many Americans feel.