Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Race Relations in the Midcentury South
One of the main themes of Intruder in the Dust is race relations in the South in the mid–twentieth-century. Lucas Beauchamp is a proud black man who is accused of having killed a white man. Charles "Chick" Mallison comes to Lucas's defense, in part because Lucas helped Chick when Chick fell into a creek four years before. While Chick's uncle, Gavin Stevens, at first does not want to defend Lucas, Chick convinces him to do so and finds evidence that exonerates Lucas.
The relationship between Lucas and Chick is complicated and captures some of the complexity of the relationships between black and white people in the South during the era of Jim Crow and, later, the civil rights era. Chick is indebted to Lucas for having helped him after Chick fell into the creek several years before, but Lucas refuses to let Chick pay off his debt. Chick thinks to himself about Lucas, "If he would just be a nigger first, just for one second, one little infinitesimal second." Chick is uncomfortable because Lucas refuses to allow him to pay off the debt Chick feels he owes Lucas. Chick would be more comfortable if Lucas acted submissive instead of being proud. Even when Chick sends Lucas an imitation silk dress for his wife, Lucas sends him some sorghum molasses so that Chick remains in Lucas's debt. Chick knows that Lucas is his equal, and the way in which Lucas will not allow Chick to pay off his debt motivates Chick to help Lucas when he is accused of committing a crime.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
A related theme is the way in which black people in the South at the time are considered guilty before being proven so. Chick's uncle assumes Lucas's guilt, and Chick is only helped in proving Lucas's innocence by a black man and a seventy-year-old white woman named Miss Habersham who grew up with Lucas's now-deceased wife, Molly. Faulkner writes of Miss Habersham and Molly,
Both suckled at Molly’s mother’s breast and grown up together almost inextricably like sisters, like twins, sleeping in the same room, the white girl in the bed, the Negro girl on a cot at the foot of it almost until Molly and Lucas married.
The image of Molly, a black person, and Miss Habersham, a white woman, having been suckled at the same breast expresses the closeness of blacks and whites in the South. They are close as children but learn to treat each other with distrust and fear as they age. Miss Habersham's willingness to defend Lucas and exonerate him is an expression of the way her closeness to Molly as a child has allowed her to overcome racism to some degree. She is willing to see beyond race to some extent and to defend Lucas in a climate characterized by difficult race relations. Faulkner's book is about the tangled interaction of the races in the mid–twentieth-century South.