Thursday’s 2016 John Nuveen lecture focused on how the works of William Faulkner relate to black disenfranchisement in the past and present.
Professor Kenneth Warren has been part of the UChicago faculty since 1991. He teaches American and African-American literature from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century. In two of Warren’s books, Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism and So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism, Warren discusses views on race in American literature.
Warren opened the lecture by reading a letter written by William Faulkner on March 5, 1956.
William Faulkner, born in 1867, grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner’s works generally focus on the evolving political and social climate of the South.
In the letter, Faulkner writes, “I was against compulsory segregation. I am just as strongly against compulsory integration…. So I would say to the NAACP and all the organizations who would compel immediate and unconditional integration: ‘Go slow now. Stop now for a time, a moment.’”
Warren then discussed how Faulkner’s southern background influenced his published remarks on civil rights. Political participation by the black community was an anomaly around the time Faulkner grew up, Warren explained.
Warren quoted Gavin Stevens, a character in Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust, as saying, “In time the black American will vote any when and anywhere a white man can and send his children to the same school anywhere the white man's children go and travel anywhere the white man travels as the white man does it.”
Faulkner conveys through Gavin that these changes will not happen right away and that they will not happen through the simple ratification of a piece of legislation. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, enacted right after Faulkner’s death in 1962, brought along these changes faster than he had expected.
The Voting Rights Act, Warren said, is a piece of legislation still praised today. He quotes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who called the Voting Rights Act “one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation’s history.” Warren then noted the irony of Section 4’s coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act being struck down in the recent Shelby v. Holder case.
Warren explained that Chief Justice John Roberts’s written majority ruling shows how Roberts believes that the South should no longer be held to its past actions and should be treated no differently than the rest of the nation. Roberts claimed that the pre-clearance mandated by Section 4’s coverage formula chains the South to its past.
“The Government falls back to the argument that because the formula was relevant in 1965, its continued use is permissible so long as any discrimination remains in the States Congress identified back then—regardless of how that discrimination compares to discrimination in States unburdened by coverage,” Roberts writes in the majority opinion of Shelby v. Holder. “This argument does not look to ‘current political conditions,’ but instead relies on a comparison between the States in 1965.”
Warren then directed his attention to the dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg states that history is still ongoing. Ginsberg believed that Congress’s consideration of history was appropriate, challenging Roberts’s view that Congress had failed to see the historical changes that have occurred since the passing of the Voting Rights Act.
Warren ended the lecture by noting Faulkner’s influence on the present political condition of the South. “The South is indeed the land of deregulation, anti-unionism and abandonment of the public sphere, but that doesn’t make it distinctive. Just another part of the neoliberal America that was decried and paradoxically enabled by the world that Faulkner made.”