Ghosts of the South Alfreda Hughes grew up black in a segregated Baltimore and heard the family story many times: She had the same great-grandfather as a white man from Mississippi. The man's name? William Faulkner. And therein lies a tale.

September 21, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

That William Faulkner novel is around the house somewhere. Or so Alfreda Hughes believes. Truth is, she hasn't seen it recently and hadn't given it much thought until a reporter showed up at her home asking about Faulkner and the South and what she knows and what she would like to know. It has been enough to know what she has always known, growing up black in a segregated Baltimore: that she and this famous American writer, this white man from the Deep South, share a common ancestor, a connection rooted in slavery.

Her mother, Blanche, told the story when Alfreda was a little girl: Her great-grandfather was also William Faulkner's great-grandfather. The how and why of that connection taxed the mind of a 10-year-old who could but tentatively grasp the meaning of slavery, much less miscegenation: People owned people as people owned horses. And her great-grandfather owned her great-grandmother.

Were they married? a young Alfreda asked.

No. Could not be married.

Why not?

It was the South.

So goes Alfreda's version of the story, told at the kitchen table in her Columbia townhouse on a cool, still afternoon. Such a strange place to hear this tale with all its Southern Gothic overtones. There should be wisteria blooming outside the window of a rotting antebellum manse long past glory. A three-bedroom townhouse in all its 1970s suburban-ness will have to do.

This is Stop One in the Search for the Continuing Relevance of Faulkner during the 100th anniversary year of his birth. Faulkner, who died in July 1962 at age 64, earned a Nobel Prize, two Pulitzers and an exalted place in the world literary canon by mining his own back yard, rich in universal human themes. Looming large among them, race -- no less an American obsession now than when Faulkner began writing about it in the 1930s.

Because of the centennial of his birth, the annual Faulkner

conference at the University of Mississippi drew more speakers and a bigger crowd of spectators than usual this summer. Other anniversary observances are planned or have already taken place in Louisiana, Virginia, Delaware, Missouri, France, Beijing and Moscow. Ceremonies are planned on his birthday, Sept. 25, in Oxford, Miss., Faulkner's hometown, and in his birthplace, New Albany, Miss.

Nothing is planned at the Hughes house, where there are no pictures of Faulkner on the walls and no copies of his books on the shelves. Alfreda Hughes rummages around briefly in the basement, but she cannot find that paperback copy of "Absalom, Absalom!", perhaps his greatest novel. Nevertheless, the townhouse resonates with a literary echo, a delicious Faulknerian coincidence. His Deep South obsessions live here in suburbia, of all places. Even in Alfreda's life.

She has had reason to wonder what race means, a mystery Faulkner often brooded upon in his fiction. Neither came up with a certain answer. Both come close to saying that in America it means nothing and everything.

Columbia, whose founders envisioned a utopian community blind to racial division, lies 800 miles northeast of Lafayette County, Miss., whose 19th-century founders saw two separate worlds, one black, one white. Faulkner transformed Lafayette, where he lived most of his life, into the parallel universe of Yoknapatawpha County, where past and present are not readily distinguished, where the individual cannot easily free himself of the burdens of history and family, where order is maintained by a caste system of economics, gender and race.

As in the real Lafayette County, order in this fictional world is disrupted when the race line blurs, when white men father families with black women not their wives. Faulkner was not the first American writer to address miscegenation, but he excavated its emotional and psychological depths to levels not seen before in literature. His broodings often focused on people of mixed race, who were everywhere to be met. He wondered: What if I, a white Southerner, had black relatives? Could I embrace them as kin? What if I, a white Southerner, were actually part black? How would I live then?

Thus the coincidence in the Hughes household, where the family story illuminates Faulkner's fiction and vice versa. The story goes that the writer's great-grandfather, Col. William C. Falkner, took as a mistress a younger slave woman, Emeline Lacy, Alfreda Hughes' maternal great-grandmother.

At least this is what Alfreda Hughes has always heard from her mother, Blanche, who is 94 now and suffering with Alzheimer's Disease. Alfreda asked that her mother not be bothered with questions. But the story she told Alfreda was handed down by Blanche's own mother, Fannie Forrest Falkner, the daughter of Emeline and the Old Colonel, as he was known. And it was validated by Joel Williamson, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who published it for the first time in 1993 in "William Faulkner and Southern History." (The writer added the u to the Falkner surname around 1918.)

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