Redefining stereotypes: Joanna Burden and Southern womanhood in William Faulkner's Light in August/Sterotipleri yeniden tanimlamak: Joanna Burden ve William Faulkner'in Light in August adli eserinde guneyli kadin imgesi.
In what follows, I will examine how the notions of sacred Southern womanhood are deconstructed and redefined in William Faulkner's Light in August (1932) to show that an analysis of it is important for understanding his Yokanaptawpha novels and short stories. Beginning with a description of the origin and purpose of Southern female stereotypes, I will point out that they, as the product of Southern patriarchal culture, existed to control gender, race, and class relations in the U.S. South. In the second section, I will discuss how the definitions of sacred Southern womanhood are renegotiated in the character of Joanna Burden. I will conclude by considering, in the light of possible objections, some consequences of my argument: Southern womanhood was founded on a canonized discourse, resting on a cultural and social personification--a description, a code, a stereotype. Although seen as legitimizing and authorizing, it, what is more important, challenged the Southern interpretation of whiteness and blackness, culture and nature, masculinity and femininity, superiority and inferiority, power and subordination providing insight "into anxieties and aspirations of the culture" (Roberts xii). The notion of Southern womanhood has also become a recurring motif in Southern fiction, in particular, in William Faulkner's oeuvre. The performance of the Southern womanhood in Light in August thus relies upon Joanna Burden's subversive penetration into Southern cultural and social matrix which challenges its racialized and sexualized discourses.
Southern female stereotypes
The (re)production of sacred Southern womanhood rested on Southern female stereotypes whose existence in Southern history, literature, and (popular) culture was justified by, at least, four premises. First, in being stereotyped into belle, spinster, mother, mammy, widow, farm woman, Confederate woman, or tragic mulatta; woman in the U.S. South was the product of Southern antebellum chivalry and masculinity codes the origin of which can be looked for in attempts to preserve English moral standards in the U.S. South. Second, Southern female stereotypes rested on a set of very rigid class, race, and gender traits: in contrast to black Southern female stereotypes of mammy and tragic mulatta, which were the embodiment of either motherly ideal or sensual temptation, white Southern female stereotypes had to display attributes of a "true woman"--piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Piety was given to woman as God's gift; it belonged to her by divine right and represented the source of her strength. As moral instructress, woman was in charge of the souls of her nucleus family which, in turn, emphasized the importance of her role within family. Of course, it goes without saying that the emphasis on woman's piety actually tranquilized "the many undefined longings which swept the most pious young girl and about which it was better to pray than to think" (Welter 373) and kept her in her "proper sphere"--her home. The second feature--purity--was seen as woman's priceless virtue and her most valuable asset in the marriage market since it guaranteed her the upward mobility in the patriarchy. It set forth woman's superiority as the guardian of her own innocence because women, "weak in themselves and sources of weakness, being the embodiments of the vulnerability of honour" (Bourdieu 51), symbolized negative honor which could either be defended or lost. (2) Submissiveness was brought into being by focusing upon woman's passivity, helplessness, selflessness, altruism, renunciation, and sacrifice. An example of demands and duties women were expected to fulfill provides an insight into how this feature operated: a really submissive woman had to spend her life servicing to others--her husband, her children, her parents, and relatives--with ambitionless cheer, never-ending strength, and unconditioned love. Tellingly, all this was justified by the premise that women "choose to adopt submissive practices, [...] or even that they love their own domination, that they 'enjoy' the treatment inflicted on them, in a kind of masochism inherent in their nature" (Bourdieu 39-40). The fourth feature of the "true woman"--domesticity--provided the basis for multiple oppression of women which manifested itself through women's rendering to the role of mother, nurse, household servant, educator, and "custodian of culture" (Bartlett and Cambor 11). Simply put, women were supposed to be mothers since this was their civil and racial duty; they were expected to dispense comfort, morality, cheer, and hospitality, to engage in housekeeping, health care, and elementary education of their family and to provide enough refined entertainment for their family and their guests. All these tasks and duties were presented both as uplifting steps in emphasizing woman's importance and authority and as her contribution to the social capital of her family and her community. However, given the fact that the man, the husband, was, by divine, constitutional, and legal right, the possessor of money, law, and voting right, woman's "elevation" was actually used to mask the reality in which women operated as dependent, voiceless, and valueless property.
As one would expect, the construction of Southern female stereotypes had its racial background as well. In being glorified for legitimate preservation of white superiority, white upper class woman possessed racial "purity" that guaranteed her inaccessibility to inferior races and classes of men. Black or mulatto women represented, on the other hand, easily accessible sexual prey whose blackness justified their sexual exploitation and set the ground for white women's glorification as the untouchable moral standard. In this way a white Southern woman became "literally responsible for reproducing existing class and race relationships in the South, and thus paradoxically, was responsible for reproducing a system that held her in a kind of bondage" (Tracy 51). The Southern woman's involvement in divinization process initiated her identification with the U. S. South itself and, consequently, promoted the idea that the attacks on Southern way of life were actually the attacks on the honor and integrity of its greatest ornament--the white Southern upper class woman.
Lastly, it is interesting to note that being a (white) Southern female stereotype implied partaking in a prestigious cultural discourse reserved only for a chosen minority. In placing a woman at "focal point of its myths about itself" (Entzminger 10), Southern society gave her "great power as a cultural icon" (Entzminger 10) but, at the same time, silenced her by denying her "individual desire or agency" (Entzminger 10). Southern woman's adherence to seemingly divine but actually oppressive and denigrating pedestal is also tied to the (limited) access to public sphere which such position allowed her. This was also one of the reasons why Southern women, even though they had many reasons for abolition of slavery (sexual transgressions of their fiancees, husbands, fathers, and brothers, isolation on plantations, problems in managing slaves and servants, supervision of agricultural production, dealing with slave insurrections in absence of their husbands, fathers or brothers, etc.) and were attributed chastity, gentleness, compassion--virtues that corresponded to abolitionist rather than proslavery movement--did not rebel, did not subvert or transgress the prescribed codes of behavior. They remained loyal to the institution of slavery and Southern patriarchy and, as a consequence, "earned" the pedestal they were put on.
Challenges to this viewpoint began to appear during the Civil War. The Civil War called into question many of the assumptions Southerners had had about the roles of men and women, heralded "an era of greater independence for women in both the public and private arenas" (Entzminger 75), and, as a consequence, put emphasis on Southern woman's determinacy, strength, and inventiveness. During and after Reconstruction "the terror of losing jurisdiction over women's bodies created discourses of nostalgia and threat" (Roberts 104) and transformed Southern woman's suffering into that of the U. S. South's. She became an "even weightier symbol of the southern way of life" (Entzminger 77), soothing in this way her man's wounded pride resulting from the U.S. South's military defeat. In the 1920s and after, owing to changed economic, political, and social situation which allowed women, even in the U. S. South, to vote, work, get educated, and, consequently, enjoy greater financial and personal independence, a new discursive space on Southern womanhood was opened. It rested on criticism and judgment rather than on eulogies, since the Southern female stereotypes were now used to demythologize Southern myths. The virtues Southern womanhood should have been the embodiment of--beauty, passivity, submissiveness, virginity, and asexuality--became the unstable and destructive property. Nevertheless, although given an opportunity to call into question socially and culturally prescribed gender roles, Southern women were not allowed, or maybe did not want, to leave the pedestal completely. The reason, I think, should be looked for in the fact that deeply rooted prejudices concerning women's behavior were still the part of Southern culture. Just as Southern women "might be no longer queens and saints, [so too] they were not allowed to be 'flesh and blood' humans either" (Roberts 109). The failure to obey the prescribed codes of behavior usually implied a severe punishment--hysteria, madness, rape, losing social privileges, or death.
Joanna Burden and Southern womanhood
As a Southerner, Faulkner could not resist the influence of values, myths, and images of his birth-place. He, however, tried to redefine them by negotiating them through the subversive potential of Southern female stereotypes and the prescriptive rhetoric of Southern cultural codes they assert once they are separated from its institutional binding. Through Southern belles, mammies, tragic mulattas, Southern mothers, spinsters, Confederate women, and farm women, Faulkner appears to depict rises and falls of his South, its (in)capability to survive changes it faced, its struggling with the changed values and new tradition as well as "the powerlessness of modern man, victim of the shallowness and dissolution of the twentieth century" (Entzminger 27). Female stereotypes in Faulkner's oeuvre are also the sign and symbol of both his ambivalence and his suspicion about the possibility of their permanent affirmation in the modern world.
Faulkner's Light in August is, for sure, a perfect example of (de)construction of Southern female stereotypes, for at its center are Lena Grove, Mrs. McEachern, Mrs. Hines, and Joanna Burden. Whereas the analysis of Lena Grove, Mrs. McEachern or Mrs. Hines relies upon analogy with the stereotype of a Southern mother or, to quote Diane Roberts, a Dixie Madonna, Joanna Burden appears to be quite detached from the realms accorded and assigned to them. This placelessness Joanna immerses herself in is present as a continuous thread woven into the fabric of Light in August and is tied to her race and gender appearance in subversive disclosure of Southern womanhood in the novel. Joanna's challenges to the sexualized and racialized inscription of Southern notions of masculine and feminine thus crystallize around three points: (1) her refusal to be confined within proper gender role; (2) her subversion of Southern race codes, and (3) her role in the black rapist myth, demonstrating the instability of feminine and masculine, black and white, forbidden and allowed, reactionary and stereotypical in the Southern domestic metaphor.
Joanna's first point of departure from what she is expected to be takes place within the boundaries of gender role she is supposed to perform. She is female, single, alone, unprotected; she has well passed the marriageable age; she has never been perceived as a mother but always as an aunt [...] Although different in meaning and morphology, these words always connote the same when placed in the sexualized context of the patriarchal matrix--a spinster. Unlike wives and mothers who were "both utilitarian objects and bearers of value" (Gan 202), spinsters were seen as valueless on the marriage mart because they did not participate in "natural" functions of wife and mother and could not contribute to survival and maintenance of human kind. Represented as the binary opposite of wife and mother, spinsters were nevertheless occasionally recognized for their dedication and effort and allowed as nurses or teachers to come nearer to what was considered to be woman's center in the patriarchal society. With their gender role modified, compared to that of wife and mother, and adapted to the context of the nucleus family, spinsters became respected "mothers" to their family and community and ceased, through the recognition of their emotional energy, to be a threat to patriarchy. As care takers, spinsters proved their loyalty and usefulness to society because they engaged in natural, inborn, female duties. On the other hand, in describing someone who spins, the word spinster announced the possibility of redefinition of woman's role through her work and her participation in the market economy; it acknowledged woman's right to refuse the heterosexual union as woman's "natural" and "only" option as well. Unlike marriage that has always suggested a kind of financial and sexual agreement between man and woman, spinsterhood had the connotations of a life style that allowed women to preserve their identity, protest against sexual exploitation, engage in public activities, gain greater access to higher education, and be economically independent.
In the narrative space of Faulkner's Light in August, Joanna performs the role of the spinster stereotype on two occasions only: before Joe Christmas's arrival and after her horrible death by his hand. Before Christmas's arrival Joanna was a peculiar but stereotypical spinster: she was "calm, cold-faced, almost manlike, almost middle-aged woman who had lived for twenty years alone, without any feminine fears at all, in a lonely house" (3) (LA 194). The house and its owner alike were marginalized, dark, lonely, abandoned. Joanna was engaged in intellectual and domestic activities and helped, in the manner of a good aunt, her African American proteges. This very definition was readopted after her death when she, as the part of the myth of the black rapist who lurked the white woman's body, regained the social status of helpless and idealized white Southern lady. As a protagonist in one of the most used racist myths--the myth of the black rapist--Joanna Burden inspired "chivalry" of her townspeople who lynched Joe Christmas to demonstrate their loyalty to the concept of white Southern womanhood and, consequently, to the white supremacist ideology. For "murdering a white woman" (LA 219), regardless of her marginality, unpopularity, and origin, called for revenge and posthumous protection. On the other hand, such an act can also be read as the community's "triumph over her, for her death erases the good works she has performed for the local African Americans and instead confirms the white community's racist view of the world" (Clarke 101). And because she is
both a sign (a commodity) and a speaker of signs (an exchanger) she cannot negotiate in [...] [Southern] phallocentric economy. She cannot get what she wants, nor can she become the valuable commodity [...]. She is therefore doubly trapped in male systems. Her voice speaks panic and sorrow. To listen is painful and terrible, for what we are hearing is the female voice of patriarchal culture speaking loss, speaking what it means to be denied subjectivity and access to one's own desire. (Gwin 57)
In Southern cultural and social discourses Joanna thus unmasks the process of gender and sex objectification which commodifies women and values them according to their usefulness to patriarchy or their exchangeability in patriarchy bearing "the weight of another pejorative feminine identity imposed on women by a heterosexual economy that views women through a utilitarian lens only" (Gan 203). In refusing to be asexual and to stay on the pedestal reserved for white upper class Southern women, and "in being intelligent, opinionated, and single, Joanna violates every aspect of the local social code for women" (Wittenberg 117). She is, therefore, perceived as the "traitor" of her gender. Her female body, which in its resistance to reproduction and asexuality becomes the symbol of defeat of Southern patriarchal ideology of supremacy of white over black and man over woman, must be humiliated, silenced, murdered, stereotyped because it threatens to slip out of the prescribed roles for every member of Southern society.
Joanna's second point of departure from the idealized concept of Southern womanhood occurs through her Civil Right activism. Initiated by the economic and social changes in the New South, Civil Right activism generated discourses of fear and threat that materialized themselves through the concept of white nigger. Whereas this term, first and foremost, denoted African Americans who "passed" as whites, it proposed different readings of white identity as well. It is significant that this very concept "was used as a justification for effectively controlling those whites whose commitment to white Southern economic, political, and social interests was questionable" (Zackodnik 440). The categories of whiteness and blackness were therefore determined not only by the performance of inner morality, but also by exterior conduct. In other words, a person's behavior and reputation became the criteria of race identity not only for African Americans, but also for rebellious white Southerners. As an issue of control over Southern white and black population who did not believe that skin colors should have been personal value determinant, the concept and idea of "white nigger" occurs as one of the most important motifs in Faulkner's 1932 novel. It is little wonder that the right on the privilege of doubt, and the corresponding title of "white nigger", Faulkner "deeds" to Joanna Burden. She is, as her name indicates, forced to carry the "burden" of family tradition--the "burden" of Civil Right activism. (4) And in being given the name after Juana, her father's first Mexican wife who symbolizes the obsession of the male Burdens with dark-skinned women and miscegenation, Joanna is somehow also forced to "repeat the pattern in reverse in becoming the mistress of a man whom she believes to be a mulatto and who may remind her--incestuously?--of her half-brother, shot at the age of twenty 'over a question of negro voting' (235)" (Bleikasten 86). Similarly, her life is strongly influenced by the vision of African Americans who she did
not [consider] as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which, we lived, all white people, all other people. [She] thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they drew breath. And [she] seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of a cross. (LA 190)
The black shadow of a cross "marks her as a woman who knows how to reconcile the literal and figurative" (Clarke 99). Second, it emphasizes the fact that "she lives her life as a practical expiation for the sins of racism" (Clarke 99). She thus sent "advice, business, financial and religious, to the presidents and faculties and trustees, and advice personal and practical to young girl students and even alumnae, of a dozen negro schools and colleges through the south" (LA 175), and visited "the schools in person and talked to the teachers and the students" (LA 176). Given dominant race values in the U.S. South at the time, this placed Joanna in a kind of social limbo since she as a "lover of negroes" (LA 37) claimed the most unbelievable thing: "that niggers are the same as white folks" (LA 42). As such, her conduct could not be justified by a community where the measure of a person was her/his racial narrow-mindedness. In revenge for transgressive behavior which defied the prescribed ways of thinking and acting in the white supremacist U. S. South, Joanna Burden was raped, silenced and, finally, decapitated.
Lastly, Joanna's challenge of holly Southern womanhood occurs within the space of the most dreaded Southern taboo: that of racial intermixture through the black rapist myth. A focus on the black rapist myth is here helpful in at least three ways. First and foremost, the black rapist myth was the result of Southern whites' fears about racial intermixture, which escalated after the abolition of slavery and reflected the South's obsession with protecting white womanhood and ensuring the purity of the white race. (5) Second, whites perpetuated this myth in order to retain racial control, as they assumed that the act of rape represented the desire of black men to overthrow white supremacy in the South. The rape myth was "a public and ritualized manifestation of growing white panic about a shifting social order in the South that promised blacks education, property, political participation, and social inclusion" (Richardson 59) and was therefore constructed to "justify withholding citizenship from African Americans by representing black men as 'moral monsters'" (Lott 39). Third, the black rapist myth was used to cushion the increasing social divisions between lower-class and upper-class whites in the South; to reinforce white solidarity. The patriarchal ideology of upper class whites designated white womanhood as the "property" of all white men, so that even those with little or no material wealth could make a claim to ownership; they could now claim to possess property in the form of the bodies of their wives, daughters, and sisters. Alongside this ideology of "sex as property" was the white man's "right" to protect his women using whatever means necessary, including lethal violence. Consequently, throughout most of the South lynching occurred as a ritualized disciplinary practice of racial, class, and gender control. As a response to "the theoretical effect of emancipation, which was the definition of black men as socially the same as white males", lynching was used to re-create a "disturbed" or "threatened" social order by demonstrating black men's and women's "vulnerability and debasement", white women's racial purity and dependence upon white men, and white men's "intention to occupy the loftiest position in the racial and gender hierarchy of the South" (Tucker 54).
The black rapist myth also mirrored white Southerners' "anxieties and obsessions with respect to sex" (Finkenstaedt 160). Driven by the impetus to forbid and punish any thought or desire (conscious or unconscious) to violate the taboo of miscegenation, the black rapist myth "sanctified" two of the most sacred Southern stereotypes: "that black men are rampagingly sexual and that white women are immutably chaste" (Roberts 170). Behind this also lurked white Southern men's fear that they could have been characterized as sexually inadequate and that potent black males could have replaced them in their wives' beds. This highly improbable yet widely cherished assumption was justified upon several premises, the origins of which can be found in both Southern men's ideas of acceptable sexual behavior for men and women and in their insistence on chivalric manhood and asexual and sanctified womanhood. With white women elevated so high on the pedestal and emancipation denying them as much access to black women, white Southern men balanced between their "women angelic above ... [them and] the black male (fully supported by black women) below" (Williamson 188). Caught in, to use Freud's terminology, white male penis envy, white men had to project their own forbidden sexual urges onto black men, to portray them as sexually pathological and perverse and to hyperbolize their phallic power in order to redeem their own sinfulness. Out of jealousy and fear, they put black men "in their place"--in the myth of the black rapist. (6) The sexual contextualization of the black rapist myth climaxed in the castration of black men. The very act of castration had a double function: not only did it signify "the mob's denial of both the physical sign of the masculine and the symbolic marker of patriarchal authority" (Tucker 54), but it also showed that "these white sons of the South control the most important symbol of male power: the penis" (Leak 42).
This very myth is brought into being in Light in August with Joe Christmas as "the black rapist" and Joanna Burden as his "victim". His choice is, however, overwrought with many possible implications since it creates ambiguity in the roles of man and woman, white and black, and even, at particular moments, rapist and victim. From the very outset of Joe Christmas's arrival at Joanna's house, there are signs that this performance of the myth of the black rapist will be somehow different. Joanna Burden is not afraid of him; she really treats him as a "nigger"--leaves the back door open for him, leaves the food for him in the kitchen, rarely talks with him in public, and wants to send him to "a nigger school" (LA 208) to become "a nigger lawyer" (LA 208). Unlike Joe Christmas's previous victims, she is not as feminine and race-conscious as he expects; her control and stoicism are "decidedly masculine, not the hysteria or fear required from the lone white woman in the narrative of the black rapist" (Nelson 62). Even the very act of rape--despite its vivid brutality and dehumanizing character--represents another blow for Joe Christmas's male ego since he perceives it as a physical struggle "with another man for an object of no actual value to either" (LA 177). As such, it introduces the possibility of a rather different gender performance. When Joe Christmas states: "it was like I was the woman and she was the man" (LA 177), he announces his own uncertainty about Joanna Burden's willingness to take part in the stereotypical feminine performance. It becomes obvious that the act of rape has failed to achieve what it should have accomplished: the prescribed race and gender balance of the role of white and feminine for Joanna and the role of black and masculine for Christmas. Thus, in playing out the story of rape again and again, and in participating in the courtship codes and the jealous lover's tale with her rapist, Joanna Burden subverts the very myth of the black rapist. As the generator and the protagonist of her own rape narrative, she turns upside down the prescribed notions of race, class, and gender and sets out new rules for both of them. In this way Joanna Burden achieves a provisional mastery over Joe Christmas, but this cannot be maintained, and eventually she has to submit to him, even if this means her death by decapitation.
Therefore, it can be seen that the literary redefinition of Southern female stereotypes in the character of Joanna Burden demonstrates the complex and, at moments, violent development of Faulkner's idea of subversive Southern womanhood. Giving insight into culturally and socially established codes of sanctified and pedestaled Southern womanhood, this essay attempted to assert that its existence was supported by several factors most important of which were preservation of class and race purity, partaking in prestigious cultural rituals, and women's subordination. Literature, in being, at least in part, the reflection of life, also shares its affinity to employ and examine similar subject matters. Present in the works of other Southern writers, the idea of subversive Southern womanhood is one of the recurring motifs in the works of William Faulkner as well. His Light in August examines, through the character of a spinster and Civil Right activist Joanna Burden, how each and every premise of Southern womanhood can be challenged, transgressed, or subverted. Joanna's challenges to the sexualized and racialized inscription of Southern notions of masculine and feminine occur through (1) her refusal to be confined within proper gender role; (2) her subversion of Southern race codes, and (3) her role in the black rapist myth. In this way she becomes an outsider and "a new configuration of Faulkner's feminine" (Kang 129) in the narrative space of the novel.
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(1) Norbert Elias discusses the concept of civilizing processes in European societies in his The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations (Oxford; Cambridge: Blackwell, 2000).
(2) In other words, this very virtue forbade woman to demand sexual gratification and gave patriarchal hierarchy perfect instrument of control of female sexuality and reproduction.
(3) Subsequent page references for Light in August will be given as LA in parentheses in the text.
(4) As the Northerners, who arrived in the U.S. South after the Civil War and who, therefore, were not welcome, they, as their family name indicates it, had to carry the "burden" of racial, class, and gender tolerance in the region which was not willing to accept it, or even to take it into consideration as a possible outlet for its problems. Both unwanted and misunderstood, the Burdens paid their exclusivity at the highest expense: sacrificing their lives for the noble cause of racial justice. In the U.S. South, obsessed with "the holy honor", their act of courage was equaled to the accusation for lying. Undermined and emasculated after the defeat in the Civil War, Southern white male culture had to restore the self-projection it developed in the antebellum days. Consequently, "the central issue of concern to men in such a culture is not the nature of some underlying reality but the acceptance of their projections" (Greenberg 62). Joanna's grandfather and brother, with their Civil Right activism, implied that the world of racial appearance in the U.S. South did not correspond with the racial self-projection Southerners made. Accused of "lying", the white, male South could do the one thing only to defend its honor: destroy and kill.
(5) It should be noted that some scholars have debated whether the development of the black rapist stereotype was an exclusive product of the post-emancipation period. For example, Peter Bardaglio's study of antebellum law testimony concluded that white antebellum Southerners "widely shared the belief that black men were obsessed with the desire to rape white women" (752). However, others, such as Martha Hodes and Diane Sommerville, argue that there was no significant white antebellum apprehension regarding black sexuality. See Peter W. Bardaglio, "Rape and the Law in the Old South: 'Calculated to Excite Indignation in Every Heart'" Journal of Southern History, 60 (1994); Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, CT, 1997); Diane Miller Sommerville, Rape and Race in the Nineteenth Century South (Chapel Hill, 2004).
(6) The sexual aspect of the black rapist myth also disclosed something else--the issue of black women's rape. Guttman explains that "the emphasis on protecting white womanhood concealed the sexual victimization of black women. The invisibility of black women's rape was a product of those stereotypes that, in part, supported the myth of the black rapist. While the white woman was cast as the desirable and inaccessible symbol of white power and culture, the black woman occupied the place of her opposite, the easily accessible symbol of the uncivilized, animalistic black masses" (171). It is also interesting to note that rarely if never a rapist of any race has been sentenced to death for raping a black woman which, as N. Jeremi Duru notes, sends "an unmistakable signal that rapes of white women have historically been deemed more tragic in America than rapes of black women" (366).
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