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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

Alfreda Hughes figures Faulkner's relatives will deny the relationship. That would be typical, she says. Denial -- that's the South, that's America, she says. We have not been honest with each other about our history. That's part of why we cannot put "this race business," as she calls it, behind us.

A religious woman, Alfreda is inclined to speechify about race. Perhaps she inherited the tendency from her grandfather, a Methodist bishop in Baltimore, and her father, a prominent lawyer from early civil rights days, a contemporary and sometime co-counsel of Thurgood Marshall.

In a framed photograph displayed on a living-room shelf stand the Hughes men, William A.C. Sr. and Jr., two people who in their careers and in their appearance defied the notion that the world could be neatly divided into black and white. Either man, considered "colored" under Jim Crow, could surely be taken as white. Whether she looks at her mother's or her father's side of the family, Alfreda finds reason to question "race" -- notwithstanding its monstrous American presence -- as a meaningful human value. She has been surprised to hear that in his novels Faulkner the white Southerner also questioned it.

She wonders aloud: Why did he? Why did he confront this difficult subject at a time when it generally was not discussed? Mississippi, after all, recorded more lynchings of blacks than any other state in the country during Faulkner's lifetime.

"How is it that he would write about it, instead of hiding it like the rest of them?" she asks.

Until recently she has not wanted to know much about Faulkner. Whatever their family connection, he seemed part of a world she already knew from living under segregation. That was enough. She did not care to delve into the depths of Southern culture. It was too painful to think about. All those black women like her great-grandmother, Emeline, who did not have the freedom to say "No" to powerful white men like the Old Colonel.

Alfreda doesn't know what to make of the Old Colonel. On one hand, a slave owner. On the other, her great-grandfather.

There's no trace of him to be found in the house. No physical resemblance to be seen in Alfreda, a 59-year-old retired art teacher, a divorced mother of a grown daughter. Her skin is the lightest tan; her hair, gone gray, flows to her shoulders. Nothing of the Old Colonel can be found in her face, not the aquiline nose or the intense eyes of the Civil War and Mexican War veteran. Her perspective on race, however, has been shaped in small measure by his presence in the shadowy background.

Col. William C. Falkner stands today in the town cemetery outside Ripley, Miss., amid the farmland and kudzu-draped forest of Tippah County. The Old Colonel faces west, eight-feet tall on a 14-foot pedestal, his brow furrowed, his right hand raised as if to emphasize a point. A white marble emblem of arrogant resolve, the figure in frock coat and heavy watch chain towers above every monument in the Ripley graveyard.

William Faulkner visited here many times. The writer traveled up the dirt road running through the heart of the cemetery and looked to his right to see the low wrought-iron fence surrounding the colonel's monument and sarcophagus. If he walked off the dirt road to his left, he would have arrived at the black section of the cemetery. He would have seen the name FALKNER on several headstones. Among them, Emeline Lacy Falkner, buried beneath a plain rock slab about 100 yards from the Old Colonel.

He died eight years before William Faulkner was born, but the distant past would not easily contain so towering a personality as the Old Colonel. Into the writer's consciousness he would march, loom, gallop astride a mount. A man in uniform. A force of nature -- that's how Faulkner liked to think of him. He'd heard the stories about the Old Colonel's exploits in the Mexican War and the Civil War. He heard how he published novels and a travel memoir, how he helped build a railroad in northwestern Mississippi, how he killed two men in the heat of argument and was himself gunned down in the town square. As much an embodiment of the Wild West as the Old South, the Old Colonel was literature waiting to happen.

In the hands of his great-grandson, he would become Col. John (( Sartoris of "Sartoris" and "Flags in the Dust," dead for a half-century but still casting long shadows in the imagination of his descendants. The Old Colonel would morph into Thomas Sutpen, the tragic demon-protagonist of "Absalom, Absalom!" In whatever form, he radiated blood pride and adventure, violence and determination.

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