A Faulkner Tale
Bob Weil

[As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]

I was actually known more often as Bob Weil in the South. Some of you may remember me by that name. I was in Atlanta in the summer of 1963 working with SNCC and then went back to Mississippi in the spring of '64 to set up the information office for the Summer Project. And then in 1965, I was up in the Delta as the chief organizer with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, which carried out a strike that summer of several hundred cotton plantation workers. So there were a lot of things when I was coming today that I could have talked about, but I actually want to recount one other incident which I have always wanted to get out publicly, a supposedly smaller event, different. But since time's short, I wanted to run quickly through that one.

In the winter of '64-'65, after being in Jackson for about nine months, another staff person and I took a tour of the state, partly to sort of see how the work was going in different areas, but also I was looking for a field staff position that would get me out of Jackson and really doing some work out in the communities.

We stopped in Holly Springs in the northeast which is fairly close to Oxford which is where, of course, the University of Mississippi is, but also, it was the home of William Faulkner. And I was traveling with a former schoolteacher in English or American Lit, and as we did in various places that we visited, we went out into the community to talk to some of the local activists as a way of trying to see what the state of the work was, what problems there might be, etc.

And one afternoon, we went out to one house where we talked quite extensively with a middle-aged older woman who was in bad health. As I recall, she had gout, but she talked in this strange kind of — the only way you can describe it is a stream of consciousness language. I'd never heard anything like that, somebody speaking like that. And we talked quite awhile, and when we left, the person I was traveling with said: "That woman talks just the way William Faulkner writes." [Laughing]

So we went back to the Holly Springs office, talked to the staff there, and asked about this woman. Sure enough, she had been a domestic in the Faulkner home and had helped to raise William. So we went back the next day, as you might imagine, and she confirmed, first of all that that's who she was. And then the person I was with, in particular, who was very well versed in Faulkner's writings, started talking with her about all the books and all the characters, and it was clear that she knew all of these characters and that she had talked to William about them. And what really sort of nailed it for us was that she was able to talk about what happened to them after the books. So she really knew these people on whom many of these stories had been based.

Unfortunately, as the [Freedom] work went on; I never had a chance to write this up. Years later, I asked some staff who had stayed in Mississippi, a couple of friends, to go up and try and track this woman down, because I wanted at that point to try and get the story out. I was back up in the North. They went up, and they actually found unfortunately that the woman had died. They did locate family members, but they were reluctant to get involved, basically, at that point. And I later tried to track it down on the web — though by then I no longer even had her name. I couldn't quite match up the dates and the personages of people in the Faulkner home and all, so I can't say exactly what this relation was, but what I can say is that in the 1950's, 1960's, even earlier in Mississippi, it would have been extremely presumptuous and presumably dangerous for a Black domestic to have adopted the language of somebody like William Faulkner and to talk that way. So I have to assume that the flow went the other direction.

And there's actually been a couple of recent things — a couple of years ago there was a book called Was Huck Black? which I can't go into but very convincingly argued that Mark Twain based Huckleberry Finn on a young Black boy that he had known. And there was a recent article just a couple of weeks ago, as it happens, in the New York Times about a journal of a Holly Springs plantation owner that his grandson or great- grandson had had that Faulkner was familiar with, and the article was about how he apparently drew some of his stories from that journal. So apparently he did draw on those kinds of sources.

So I went on to Shaw [Mississippi] where I settled in up in the Delta; that's where we had the start of the Freedom Labor Union which is another whole story. But I want to — there were many things to tell about that — but the sort of moral of this that I want to leave you with is that it wasn't just the lives and the labor of Black people in Mississippi and throughout the South that was being stolen, as we fought against with the Freedom Labor Union, but it was really the culture of Black people as well. And apparently Faulkner is another example of that. He went on to win the Nobel Prize. She apparently, as far as I know, never received any recognition for what her role in that may have been.


Copyright © Robert Weil, 2010

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