The Texture—Gendered, Sexual, Violent—of James
Baldwin’s Southern Silences
Spurred on by Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The
Nickel Boys (2019), which is set in Tallahassee, FL, during the
1950s and 1960s, this essay presents a close-up look at James Baldwin’s
visit to Tallahassee in May 1960. Moving between Baldwin’s writings about
the South, especially “They Can’t Turn Back,” published by
Mademoiselle magazine in August 1960, and subsequent
writing about the movement in Tallahassee, and checking off against
Whitehead’s fictional treatment, we find a lattice of silences obscuring
the names and contributions of Black women. Most importantly, we find that the
historic case of the rape of Betty Jean Owens in May 1959, and the subsequent
trial that summer, appears neither in Baldwin’s nor Whitehead’s
writing about Tallahassee at the time. This essay establishes the missing names
of Black women in the places marked and unmarked by Baldwin in his work at the
time, and puts the case of Betty Jean Owens on the historical map where it
belongs. In so doing, we figure issues of race, gender, sex, and violence for
the ways they twist together, ways suppressed in historical (and even some
contemporary) writing, ways crucial to our deepening consideration of
Baldwin’s work and the history which he drew upon and to which he
contributed so profoundly.
11 In addition to the classic work by John Pilling, C. J. Ackerley, Mary
Bryden and James Knowlson, see Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui:
Notes diverse holo (special issue on the Trinity College Dublin manuscripts), eds Matthijs Engelberts, Everett Frost and Jane Maxwell, 16
(2006); Daniela Caselli, Beckett’s Dantes: Intertextuality in the Fiction
and criticism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005); Dirk
Van Hulle (ed.), Beckett the European (Tallahassee, FL: Journal of
Beckett Studies Books, 2005) and Manuscript Genetics: Joyce’s Knowhow, Beckett
Beckett and nothing
Ibid., pp. 4, 5, 89, 190.
Ibid., pp. 12, 40.
Ibid., p. 161.
See John Pilling, A Companion to ‘Dream of Fair to Middling Women’
(Tallahassee, FL: Journal of Beckett Studies Books, 2004), p. 274.
John Pilling (ed.), Beckett’s ‘Dream’ Notebook (Reading: Beckett
International Foundation, 1999), entry 919.
Ibid., entry 125.
Beckett, Dream, p. 185.
Pilling (ed.), Beckett’s ‘Dream’ Notebook, entry 1067.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.
F. J. Payne, 2
Disturbances (New York:
Grune and Stratton, 1948), p. 22.
34 Woodworth, Contemporary Schools, pp. 92–3.
35 Trinity College Dublin 10971/7/10.
36 Goldstein, Language, p. 5.
37 ibid., p. 5.
38 ibid., p. 5.
39 See, in particular, C. J. Ackerley, Demented Particulars: The Annotated
Murphy (Tallahassee: Journal of Beckett Studies Books, 2004),
40 Trinity College Dublin MS 10971/7/12.
41 Samuel Beckett, Murphy (London: Picador, 1973), p. 31.
42 Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber &
Faber, 1990), p. 42.
43 ibid., p. 43.
44 Beckett, Disjecta, pp. 171