African Americans in Faulkner’s Flags in the Dust
and Go Down, Moses: Stereotype Versus Reality
By Derek Bowe, Ph.D.
Professor of English
In our age of afro-centric emphasis, William Faulkner may seem to be a problematic
writer to many African American students. On one hand, there are his impressive credentials of
being an innovative writer, meticulous craftsman, and Nobel laureate. On the other, there is a
certain discomfort many African Americans feel when reading some of his novels, for the books
seem charged with stereotypical portrayals of them. In fact, if they do not approach Faulkner’s
writings objectively, they may be tempted to label the author as a racist.
On the surface, it looks as though the novelist’s very background supports the charge.
He was born in 1897 Mississippi, which was still smarting from its Civil War wounds. It was
one of the most segregated regions in the South, having deplorable racial relations. Not only was
Faulkner bred in this environment, but he was also the scion of an aristocratic, slave-owning
family having strong roots in the state. His great-grandfather, Colonel William C. Faulkner, was
a tempestuous Civil War veteran known to have killed two men after the War. According to
Joseph Blotner, the novelist’s biographer, the elder Faulkner included "the harassment of Negro
voters" among his post-war activities (17).
Young William was named in honor of this charismatic businessman, best-selling author,
and influential citizen. Although Colonel Faulkner was long dead by the time his great-grandson
was born, the Faulkner clan revered their forbear, and William wished to be like him. The boy
frequently said that he wanted to be a writer like his popular ascendant (Blotner 23). Added to
these details is James Baldwin’s essay attacking Faulkner, "Faulkner and Desegregation." In it,
the African American writer excoriates what he considers Faulkner’s infuriating caution and
racial hypocrisy. He quotes the Mississippian’s retort that “if it came to a contest between the
federal government and Mississippi, he would fight for Mississippi, ‘even if it meant going out
into the streets and shooting Negroes’” (103).
Taken at face value, these observations paint Faulkner in an unflattering light, but close
reading of two of his books shows that he is not the inveterate racist such details suggest he is.
At the same time, the books do not present him as a full-fledged liberal. His 1929 novel Flags in
the Dust includes stereotypical portraits of African Americans, but there are significant sections
in which the developing young author transcends stereotypes. The 1942 Go Down, Moses
displays his progressive racial understanding. While this short story collection has largely
realistic African American characters, however, Faulkner retains some residual stereotypical
elements in describing them.
Scholars have generally pointed out the novelist’s limitations in depicting African Americans in
works like Flags in the Dust, the restored version of Sartoris. According to Edmond Volpe,
"[T]here is far less variety in Faulkner's major Negro characters or his elite-family characters.
Most of the Negroes with important roles are variations on members of a single Negro family"
(16). In commenting on figures like Flags in the Dust's Simon and Go Down, Moses' Lucas and
Molly Beauchamp, he notes that while such characters are drawn "with skill and respect for their
individuality and character," most of Faulkner's other Negroes "are renditions of the traditional
Negro stereotypes" (16). Hyatt Waggoner makes similar claims of Flags in the Dust’s African
American characters, noting that Faulkner depicts them “not primarily as people but as forms of
behavior, and somewhat stereotyped behavior at that” (30).
Cleanth Brooks, the distinguished Faulknerian, admits that "Faulkner's treatment of them
in this novel [Flags in the Dust], however, will be the part of it most difficult for the reader of
our mid-century to accept. He may object to what he regards as the use of stereotypes..." (113).
In Brook's opinion, Flags in the Dust contains hackneyed images, but its "treatment of the Negro
need not be allowed to go simply by default" (113). He thus observes that the novel “is not an
argument about what the relation between the two races ought to be, but a rendering of the
actuality of its time, in which the relationship is presented as it was in all its complexity and with
all its aspects: good, bad, and indifferent; pathetic, cruel, or tender (114).
Mr. Brooks notwithstanding, African American readers find much of Faulkner’s
treatment of their counterparts repugnant, especially his crude association of them with animals.
Of course, such depiction is not new, but one wishes the novelist had let them forever rest in the
graves of the Thomas Dixons of the world. It is unfortunate that Faulkner draws upon early
twentieth century literature’s tendency to imitate scientific naturalism and to regard African
Americans as animals, the latter belief having roots in theories founded in “the biblical curse of
the sons of Ham” (Sundquist 139).
Influenced by such views, Flags in the Dust portrays African Americans as having
special affinity with animals. Thus Simon, proud of his position as the aristocratic Bayard
Sartoris' coachman, is shown to love "horses, and beneath his hands the sorriest beast [blooms]
and [acquires] comeliness like a caressed woman, temperament like an opera star" (8). When a
spirited stallion throws young Bayard in an unconscious heap to the ground, an African
American hostler, presented as having an almost mystical rapport with the horse, captures it: "it
[submits] docilely to capture by the negro hostler" (141, 142).
It is hardly surprising that Flags in the Dust displays African Americans as being
intuitively adept at handling animals, since it often portrays them in animalistic terms. Standing
on a downtown Jefferson sidewalk, young Bayard views "Negroes slow and aimless as figures of
a dark placid dream, with an animal odor, murmuring and laughing among themselves" (127).
There is a picture of old Bayard observing his retainer, in which Simon appears as a pompous
gorilla: "Old Bayard sat watching his apelike head and the swaggering tilt of the top hat" (260).
When young Bayard recuperates from a car crash, Simon is solicitous but meddlesome: "He
entered on tiptoe, and ... he scuffed across to the table with sounds of a huge rat"(273).
Even in the scene in which young Bayard spends Christmas on a Negro farm, a scene
singled out for its touching evidences of brotherhood and familial love, animalistic depiction
again figures. Outside the cabin, Bayard tells its occupants that he is lost, watching as "the door
[cracks] upon a dying glow of embers, emitting a rank odor of negroes" (387). The implication
that they belong to some untouchable, substandard species is continued when Bayard is given a
quilt with which to cover as the cold night approaches: "It was a quilt, ragged and filthy to the
touch, and impregnated with the unmistakable odor of negroes" (389). The farmer's children are
termed "pickaninnies," the hair of his daughter described as "wool," while another is
characterized as being sexually indeterminate, a thing: "The second one might have been either
or anything" (391). When dinner is ready, "the children [are] crawling about [Bayard's] feet like
animals scenting food" (393). This animalistic depiction is revolting, but its nadir occurs in a
digression in which Faulkner equates a mule with an African American, noting that the
creature’s “impulses and mental processes most clearly resemble his [the African American’s]”
African American readers cannot help but observe further stereotypical sections
tarnishing Flag in the Dust’s greatness. "Nigger," the emotionally charged word that has reduced
their selfhood and future, is used pervasively and matter-of-factly. In so doing, the novel
suggests that its insensitive racial features are natural. One gets the distinct impression that the
young Faulkner, in trying to establish himself as an author, is prostituting his artistic ability to
meet early twentieth century expectations of African Americans.
In his description, an African American’s eyes are forever being rolled. The principal
culprit is Isom: "his eyes rolled whitely in his bullet head" (86); he was "rolling his eyes in the
dark, cool doorway" (120); and he is later shown as "[rolling] his eyes quietly above his steady
jaws" (265). When he takes young Bayard's car for a stealthy jaunt, Simon and old Bayard see
more than just the ubiquitous eyes; they see "the whites of Isom's eyes and the ivory cropping of
his teeth behind the steering wheel" (2). While Narcissa and the recuperating young Bayard
watch the work at a sugar mill, "the [Negro] boy rolled his eyes covertly at them as he fed the
mill" (315). African Americans also are shown to have physical attributes differing from
Whites; Faulkner notes the "lean black calves" of the boy rescuing a driver injured in an accident
Apart from its demeaning physical images of African Americans, Flags in the Dust often
portrays them as shiftless, lazy buffoons. Described as a malingerer, Isom is said to have
"lounged up from somewhere" as Miss Jenny calls him (53). Caspey is shown to be just like
him; wondering about him, Miss Jenny asks, "Where is he now? Asleep I reckon?" (53).
Echoing Miss Jenny, Faulkner notes Caspey's "lazy insolence" (67) and slouching (68) as he
examines Narcissa's car "with a disparagement too lazy to sneer even" (68). Outside Negro
cabins, young Bayard observes "wagons [standing] or warped farm implements [leaning],
shelterless, after the shiftless fashion of negroes" (157). At his place of refuge on Christmas, he
views "the casual farming tools rusting about the barnyard and the dead cotton stalks where the
negro had farmed his land right up to his back door..." (390).
Such "indolent" beings are continually the butts of jokes. Young Bayard delights in
racing his car through the countryside, scaring superstitious "darkies," supposedly embodying
African American fear and ignorance of technology. Once, he terrorizes the elderly Simon,
reducing him to a being in which the eyes "were unwinking and in them was that mindless
phosphorescence of an animal's" (124). Desperately trying to stop the car, the old man gibbers,
"Dat's de way you stops it, Lawd! Dat's de way you stops it, Lawd!" (124). Such clown-like
scene certainly drew laughter from readers conditioned by Stephin Fetchit antics and "Shine"
tales. However, they hurt African American readers.
While Flags in the Dust’s stereotyping may anger them, the novel does have redeeming
racial features. One can see the beginnings of Faulkner's attempt to deal seriously with African
Americans. He tries, in however flawed a fashion, to delineate their world beyond the kitchen.
In Simon, a loveable folk character, one sees beyond his devotion to a White family that he
regards as his own. Faulkner utilizes him to highlight everyday religious and sensual
interactions between African Americans. In Caspey and Isom, furthermore, the novelist attempts
to cover the subjects of the meaning of freedom, respect for one's self, and the dreamings of
Lastly, there is historical accuracy in the book. One literary historian, Joel Williamson,
continually emphasizes this point in commenting on some feature that Faulkner reports:
"William Faulkner, with his usual unflagging instinct for truth about the South" (190); "Faulkner
was probably right again" (195); "William Faulkner was right again" (222). Such praise is not
unmerited. For instance, Faulkner remarks on the silverware "which Simons's grandfather Joby
had buried one time beneath the ammoniac barn floor while Simon, aged three in a single filthy
garment, had looked on with a child's grave interest in the curious game" (40). Frederick
Douglass and Booker T. Washington, both former slaves, corroborate Faulkner's statement in
their autobiographies. On the wearing of a shirt as a garment by slave children, Douglass writes
of a plantation windmill operator: "The old man always seemed pleased when he saw a troop of
darkey little urchins, with their tow-linen shirts fluttering in the breeze, approaching to view and
admire the whirling winds of his wondrous machine" (72). Washington notes that until he “had
grown to be quite a youth this single garment was all that [he] wore” (11). He also confirms the
hiding of plantation silverware during the Civil War: "In the fear of `Yankee' invasions, the
silverware and other valuables were taken from the `big house,' buried in the woods, and guarded
by trusted slaves" (15).
Faulkner's later book Go Down, Moses broadens the involvement of African Americans
in his fiction in a refreshingly realistic manner. He presents abundant evidence of this in his
depiction of their families. To his credit, he neither glorifies nor impatiently dismisses the unit,
but faithfully recounts its weaknesses and strengths. The embarrassment of incest and forced
miscegenation accompanying the genesis of many African American families is unflinchingly
presented in Lucius Quintus McCaslin's using of his mulatto daughter, Tomey. The African
American single parent is broached in the form of Carothers Edmond's former mistress, who has
to raise her octoroon son all by herself. The impact of the broken family unit is delineated
through Samuel Worsham Beauchamp. His father abandons him when the boy's mother dies in
childbirth, leaving his grandmother to raise him—an all too familiar pattern in African American
families. Eventually, young Beauchamp is executed in Illinois for the murder of a White
policeman. In portraying these features, however, Faulkner, to his credit, never stoops to present
them as norms in the African American family.
In fact, his description counteracts stereotypical perception of the unit. Lucas
Beauchamp, for all his deviousness and cupidity for finding "gold", is a strong African American
father figure. As a strong-willed, self-respecting African American, he changes his name from
Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin Beauchamp, one that honored his incestuous forbear, to
Lucas, "making it," Faulkner says, "no longer the white man's but his own, by himself composed,
himself progenitive and nominate, by himself ancestored." Furthermore, Lucas values his
hearth’s sanctity so much that when he suspects Zachary Edmonds has molested his wife Molly
while nursing the White man's motherless infant, he throws all subordination and caution to the
wind, avenging the "transgression" by fighting Edmonds.
Faulkner deftly rounds out Lucas’s characterization in another instance. He notes the
character’s stubbornness when Molly feels driven to divorce him, but he also indicates Lucas’s
readiness to repent when he sees the havoc his obsessive gold-seeking is wreaking on his home.
Thus, Lucas gives his wife a nickel's worth of candy to seal his repudiation of his acquisitiveness
and the divorce bill, telling her softly, "Here...you ain't got no teeth left but you can still gum it"
A singular evidence of the Beauchamp household's strength, though, is seen in their son
Henry’s reaction to adversity from a peer. Young Roth Edmonds, having arrived at the divisive
age of Southern maturity, refuses to associate with the Beauchamps, although Molly had been
his surrogate mother, nursing him as an infant. Later repentant, embarrassed, and floundering in
a sea of emotions over his new perception and shoddy behavior, he returns to the Beauchamp
hearth. He notices that Henry Beauchamp, now forever ostracized by the South’s racial code,
does not eat with him. Faulkner perceptively reports the key interchange between the boys:
“`Are you ashamed to eat when I eat?' he cried. Henry paused, turning his head a little to speak
in the voice slow and without heat: ` I ain't shamed of nobody,' he said peacefully. `Not even
me'” (110). That Henry escaped such a momentous crisis unscathed by bitterness, vengeance,
and self-hatred is testimony to the stability of the Beauchamp home.
Perhaps Faulkner's most telling blows against the familial stereotype is seen in
"Pantaloon in Black." Of "Pantaloon in Black," Blotner writes: "[Faulkner's] story showed a
very different perception of the inner lives of Black people from that in the portrayal of Caspey
and Simon Strother a dozen years earlier in Sartoris" (415). In the story, a sheriff's deputy is
castigating Ryder, the hero, for his alleged inhumane behavior. Ryder's young wife has died,
and at the funeral he is so "unfeeling" that he himself shovels her coffin into the earth. Instead of
taking a day off from work, he labors, indeed performing superhuman feats of strength. He even
has the “audacity” to desecrate his wife's memory by engaging in a cheap card game, which
results in his own demise by a lynch mob.
Considering the "facts" in his bigoted manner, the deputy symbolizes the prejudicial
White attitude towards the African American family. According to him, its members are not
human. “They look like a man and they walk on their hind legs like a man, and they can talk and
you can understand them and you think they are understanding you, at least now and then. But
when it comes to the normal human feelings and sentiments of human beings, they might just as
well be a—herd of wild buffaloes (150, 151). However, his prejudices blind him to the fact that
Ryder's action denotes neither insensitivity nor brutishness—only tender human feeling,
especially in such a behemoth of a man. Ryder acts recklessly because he wishes to die; he
cannot stand the pain of separation from his beloved wife, who, in just six months of marriage,
had swept away the defenses of his rough heart and entwined herself into his very soul.
Because the deputy opts to remain in his cocoon of ignorance, he cannot see that Ryder’s
grief is as intense and natural as any White person in his situation. What the young widower
really wants is to join his bride in death, somehow continuing their oneness there. It is therefore
not surprising that the couple’s love is seen as a model of commitment. Mary Jane Dickerson
points out that in “the novel as a whole, only Ryder's relationship with Mannie in "Pantaloon in
Black" appears to escape [the] blight on relationships between men and women” (422).
All of this is not say that Go Down, Moses is free from stereotypical characterizations.
Chief among these is Faulkner's tendency to gloss over history in his eagerness to portray
Southern slaveholders and sharecroppers positively. "Was," for instance, narrates a slave’s
escape to marry his sweetheart, herself a slave on a neighboring plantation. He is hunted down
with dogs, but when they find him, they frolic around him, happily licking him, instead of
mauling him as the historical data show in such cases. Moreover, he is not bitter toward his
master who has "found" him; he helps him in a card-game!
With all of its beautifully crafted sub-themes of correlative hunts, the tale is a side-
splitting comedy. However, the laughter is uneasy at best, and one that African Americans find
hard to share. They know that Faulkner’s fantasies of the South’s benevolence and its
slaveholders’ conscientiousness is just that—fantasy! The runaway slave’s situation was never
so comic. Just as inaccurate is Faulkner’s treatment of Lucas and Zachary's duel. After Lucas,
an African American, has attempted to kill Zachary, a White man, Zachary is displayed as doing
nothing to wreak vengeance. Thus Faulkner glosses over what the incident would certainly have
incurred: terrible retribution or death.
For all his flaws in depicting African Americans and in analyzing racism, Faulkner is to
be commended, not least of all for his bravery, as a White man, for discussing such concepts so
forthrightly in the pre-1950’s South. He was a literary trailblazer; he afforded his African
American characters a scope and intelligent discussion unparalleled by contemporaries like
Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In fact, not many White authors of our own time match his coverage
of African American characters; the closest to him is perhaps another Southerner, William
Styron. Struggling against the prejudices produced by a lifetime of living in the South, Faulkner
created works of fiction which underscore the worth of all races and which have enlightened us
all about our own prejudices.
He would perhaps be the first, though, to acknowledge his failures in characterizing
African Americans. Blotner remarks that "even towards the end of his life Faulkner would tell
of the difficulty of understanding Negroes' thought and feelings, compelled as they had been to
develop patterns of concealment from white people" (415). The important thing is that the
Mississippian, great-grandson of a slaveholder, tried to portray them honestly—and not without
Although, in Williamson’s evaluation, Faulkner cannot be termed a liberal, he bravely
criticized his native region “for its failure to rise to its potential, for its rape of the land, this
Southern Garden of Eden, and the license it gave to the practice of inhumanity by man to man
(270). If African American students, or students of any race, were to overlook these features in
Faulkner’s evolution, refusing to read his fiction, they would be depriving themselves of insights
that tell us all what we are.
Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. 1961. New York: Dell
Publishing Co, Inc., 1964.
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. one volume edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Dickerson, Mary Jane. "Women in `Go Down, Moses.'" Women's Studies 22 (1993): 417-427.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,
Faulkner, William. Flags in the Dust. Originally published as Sartoris. 1929. New York:
Vintage Books, 1974.
---. Go Down, Moses. 1942. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Sundquist, Eric J. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner. New York: Octagon Books, 1981.
Waggoner, Hyatt H. William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World. Lexington, KY: The
University of Kentucky Press, 1959.
Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. 1901. New York: Grammercy Books, 1993.
Williamson, Joel. A Rage for Order: African-American/White Relations in the American South
Since Emancipation. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.