From the Archive — From the June 2017 issue

Southern Harm

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We are faced with two apparently irreconcilable facts in the South: the one being the decree of our national government that there be absolute equality in education among all citizens, the other being the white people in the South who say that white and Negro pupils shall never sit in the same classroom. Only apparently irreconcilable, because they must be reconciled since the only alternative to change is death. In fact, there are people in the South, Southerners born, who not only believe they can be reconciled but who love our land — not love white people specifically nor love Negroes specifically, but our land, our country: our climate and geography, the qualities in our people, white and Negro too, for honesty and fairness, the splendors in our traditions, the glories in our past — enough to try to reconcile them, even at the cost of displeasing both sides. These people are willing to face the contempt of the Northern radicals who believe we don’t do enough, and the contumely and threats of our own Southern reactionaries who are convinced that anything we do is already too much.

The tragedy is the reason behind the fact, the fear behind the fact that some of the white people in the South — people who otherwise are rational, cultured, gentle, generous, and kindly — will — must — fight against every inch which the Negro gains in social betterment. It is the fear behind the desperation which could drive rational and successful men to grasp at such straws for weapons as contumely and threat and insult, to change the views or anyway the voice which dares to suggest that betterment of the Negro’s condition does not necessarily presage the doom of the white race.

And yet the tragedy is less the fear than the tawdry quality of the fear — fear not of the Negro as an individual Negro nor even as a race, but as an economic class or stratum or factor, since what the Negro threatens is not the Southern white man’s social system but the Southern white man’s economic system — that economic system which the white man knows and dares not admit to himself is established on an obsolescence — the artificial inequality of man — and so is itself already obsolete and hence doomed. The white man knows that only ninety years ago not one percent of the Negro race could own a deed to land, let alone read that deed; yet in only ninety years, although his only contact with a county courthouse is the window through which he pays the taxes for which he has no representation, he can own his land and farm it with inferior stock and worn-out tools and gear — equipment which any white man would starve with — and raise children and feed and clothe them and send them North where they can have equal scholastic opportunity, and end his life holding his head up because he owes no man, with even enough over to pay for his coffin and funeral.

That’s what the white man in the South is afraid of: that the Negro, who has done so much with no chance, might do so much more with an equal one that he might take the white man’s economy away from him, the Negro now the banker or the merchant or the planter and the white man the sharecropper or the tenant. That’s why the Negro can gain our country’s highest decoration for valor beyond all call of duty for saving or defending or preserving white lives on foreign battlefields, yet the Southern white man dares not let that Negro’s children learn their ABC’s in the same classroom with the children of the white lives he saved or defended.

© 2017 Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the Literary Estate of William Faulkner, Lee Caplin, Executor.

From “On Fear,” which appeared in the June 1956 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 167-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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