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The "Rape Complex" in Short Fiction from the American South

Ineke Bockting
p. 27-38


Cet article porte sur le complexe sudiste relatif à la question du viol qui a pour origine l’idée erronée que tout homme noir est constamment à la recherche d’une femme blanche pour l’agresser sexuellement. Ceci repose sur le mythe sudiste selon lequel la femme symbolise la pureté et les bonnes manières et qu’elle représente ainsi la région dans son entier. Toute atteinte à son intégrité est perçue comme un viol, comme un crime contre le Sud. À travers l’étude de plusieurs textes brefs, on remarque combien ces idées sont ancrées dans les mentalités et combien il est difficile d’envisager des rapports interraciaux basés sur des relations seines

Texte intégral

1Edgar Allan Poe, master of the American gothic short story, defines the genre first of all by its brevity, “the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal.” This gives it “the immense force derivable from totality.” It is a force that the novel does not possess, because there “worldly interests . . . necessarily intervene between sittings,” to “modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book.” Then there is the unity of its effect on the reader. As Poe puts it, the “wise” author does not fashion his thoughts “to accommodate his incidents” but “having conceived, with delicate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this ­preconceived effect.” “In the whole composition,” he concludes, “there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one ­pre-established design” (572).

2Rape stories tend to answer these requirements, moving towards their “pre-established design”: the combined feeling of fascination and fear surrounding the transgression of racial boundaries and the elaborate defences against this transgression of the so-called “Southern Rape Complex.” It was the Southern journalist W. J. Cash who introduced the term “rape complex” in his 1941 work The Mind of the South, arguing:

It is a subject on which there has been much misunderstanding. Negro apologists and others bent on damning the South at any cost have, during the last decade or two, so constantly and vociferously associated the presentation of figures designed to show that no rape menace exists or ever has existed in the Southern country, with the conclusion that this rape complex is therefore a fraud, a hypocritical pretext behind which the South has always cynically and knowingly hidden mere sadism and economic interest, as to have got it widely accepted.
In fact, the conclusion is a
non sequitur. (117)

3Placing this “rape complex” against the actual physical act of rape by showing that, even if “the actual danger of the Southern white woman’s being violated by the Negro” had always been “comparatively small” and the chance was “much less, for instance, than the chance that she would be struck by lightning,” Cash argues that there were, indeed, “genuine cases of rape” and “more numerous cases of attempted rape” (117). He therefore insists that because of this, “there was real fear, and in some districts even terror, on the part of the white women themselves. And there were neurotic old maids and wives, hysterical young girls, to react to all this in a fashion well understood now, but understood by almost nobody then” (118).

4Although he does not say so outright, Cash seems to refer, here, to the greater knowledge of psychology and psychiatry at the time of writing his book, undoubtedly of Freudian origin, such as we also find it in the work of his fellow Southerner, the social critic Lillian Smith. To explain these reactions as psychological, of course, makes them universally human. Indeed, in all societies and at all times, women have been raped, have feared being raped, have secretly dreamt of being raped (“to be abused is better than not to be used at all,” these old maids may have had in mind) and have pretended to have been raped, if they were caught in the act of love-making or fell prey to an unwanted pregnancy, especially if the father belonged to a different class, race or ethnicity.

  • 1 Indeed, one of Mississippi’s politicians went as far as to state in 1948: “When God made the Southe (...)

5Yet, when we think of the specific “Southern Rape Complex,” we must start with the so-called “Cult of Southern Womanhood” which stresses the purity of the Southern white woman and the need to protect her from all that could “soil” her. Cash inflates the image through heavy irony when he presents her as a statue: “the South’s Palladium,” “the shield-bearing Athena gleaming whitely in the clouds, the standard for its rallying,” “the mystic symbol of its nationality in the face of the foe,” “the lily-pure maid of Astolat,” “the hunting goddess of the Boeotian hill,” or “the pitiful Mother of God.” And he imaginatively presents the devotion that was her due when he writes: “Merely to mention her was to send strong men into tears—or shouts. There was hardly a sermon that did not begin and end with tributes in her honor, hardly a brave speech that did not open and close with the clashing of shields and the flourishing of swords for her glory (89).1

  • 2 Many complimentary explanations have, of course, been given. Males of the higher classes had usuall (...)

6“The Cult of Southern Womanhood” is the most important realization of the Southern code of honor, what Cash calls the “ultimate secret of the Southern rape complex” as a phenomenon that rests on “the central status that Southern women had long ago taken up in Southern emotion [and] her identification with the very notion of the South itself” (118).2

7The punishment attached to the “Rape Complex” was thus—unsurprisingly—extremely severe. The black author Richard Wright starts his collection of short stories Uncle Tom’s Children with an “autobiographical sketch”—a story that happens to be true—called “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” In the part numbered VII, Wright talks about the time he worked as a “hall-boy” in a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. He writes:

One of the bell-boys was caught in bed with a white prostitute. He was ­castrated and run out of town. Immediately after this all the bell-boys and hall-boys were called together and warned. We were given to understand that the boy who had been castrated was a “mighty, mighty lucky bastard.” We were impressed with the fact that next time the management of the hotel would not be responsible for the lives of “trouble-makin’ niggers.” We were silent. (7)

  • 3 The fundamentalist preacher John R. Rice argued that the not guilty verdict was perfectly justified (...)

8Obviously, the message was that the bell-boy was lucky only to have been castrated and not to have been lynched as well. But many are the true stories of those accused of rape that were not so lucky. As the story goes, in August of 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago, who was visiting a small town in the Delta country of Mississippi, entered a country store where a white woman accused him of whistling at her. When the young boy was subsequently found mutilated, the white woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother, J. W. “Big Milam,” were arrested. But an all-white jury found them not guilty.3 Look Magazine (1956) published, together with pictures of Emmett Till’s mutilated body, Big Milam’s story:

When a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. “Chicago boy,” I said, “I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand. (Bradford)

9Not surprisingly, the “Rape Complex” plays a large role in Southern stories, more often than not including pervasive gothic elements. Indeed, interracial relationships can be seen as a gothic subject, if one defines the Gothic as a genre of borders, such as there are between life and death (ghost stories), between man and animal (stories of werewolves), man and machine, as well as between such opposites as dream and reality, sanity and madness, innocence and guilt, and, indeed, black and white. It is not for nothing, after all, that Lillian Smith writes of children of mixed race as “little ghosts playing and laughing and weeping on the edge of southern memory,” which “can be a haunting thing” (125). This gothic emphasis is also present in the essay, “Haunted Bodies: Rethinking the South Through Gender” by Susan Donaldson and Anne Goodwyn Jones:

Surely no bodies ever appeared more haunted by society. From the body of the white southern lady, praised for the absence of desire, to the body of the black lynching victim accused of excessive desire, southern sexuality has long been haunted by stories designating hierarchical relationships among race, class, and gender. (1)

10A relatively innocent example to start with is the short story by Eudora Welty entitled “June Recital,” from the collection The Golden Apples. In it, Miss Eckhart, a single music teacher of German descent, is attacked, raped, or threatened with rape, by a “crazy nigger” who “had jumped out of the school hedge and got Miss Eckhart” one evening after dark, when, according to the town etiquette, she should not have walked around by herself anyway (57). What is worse, afterwards she does not behave in a way that would constitute a proper reaction, not, as Nicole Donald puts it, as “an emblem of both sexual and racial purity.” Indeed, Miss Eckhart does not show herself as devastated as she should be, and she does not leave the town in disgrace. Cassie, one of her pupils, who functions as the focalizer in most of the story, believes that “it was the nigger in the hedge, the terrible fate that came on her, that people could not forgive Miss Eckhart” (58). The story, meanwhile, does not explore any actual rape, which happened—if it did at all—before the story starts. But, as Peter Schmidt argues in The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty’s Short Fiction, it “brings into focus as none of Welty’s other stories do the social pressures that ostracize a woman” (86), in this case by members of her own sex. Indeed, it shows very clearly the demand for female purity that is an essential element of the “Rape Complex.” In a way, this spinster, a foreigner moreover, whose “cabbage was cooked there by no Negro and by no way it was ever cooked in Morgana. With wine” (62), got what she had been asking for.

11A more complex story is William Faulkner’s “Dry September.” Here the thirty-eight or thirty-nine-year-old maid Minnie Cooper seems to have been raped by a black man, Will Mayes. Half of the story presents itself as a celebration of the way in which this makes Miss Minnie feel special, a feeling she could no longer obtain during her everyday life of fading Southern Belle:

She was the last to realize that she was losing ground; that those among whom she had been a little brighter and louder flame than any other were beginning to learn the pleasure of snobbery—male—and retaliation—female. That was when her face began to wear that bright, haggard look. She still carried it to parties on shadowy porticoes and summer lawns, like a mask or a flag, with that bafflement of furious repudiation of truth in her eyes. One evening at a party she heard a boy and two girls, all schoolmates, talking. She never ­accepted another invitation. (174)

12But now that the news of her rape has become known and people pity her, the young girls who had started to call her aunty find her interesting enough to include her again. Indeed, as she “enters the square, she in the center of the group, fragile in her fresh dress,” and trembling, she walks “slower and slower, as children eat ice cream” (180), the simile showing perfectly Miss Minnie’s desire to make her position of victim last. By showing her devastation, Miss Minnie is able to fit in again, thus undoing some of the “snobbery” and “retaliation” that she has been experiencing, something that Miss Eckhart, in Welty’s “June Recital” refuses or neglects to do.

13Yet there is more to the story, as the other half of it follows the local men that track down the presumed rapist. The barber is, in fact, the only one who dares to voice a doubt, using the type of “snobbery” that Miss Minnie had been victim of, in order to defend the presumed rapist: “I dont believe anybody did anything. I dont believe anything happened. I leave it to you fellows if them ladies that get old without getting married dont have notions that a man cant—.” But the other men, normally guilty of this same “snobbery,” show that racism will overrule sexism any time: “Then you are a hell of a white man. [...] Do you accuse a white woman of lying?” (170). Even if the barber tries to repeat his attack on the woman, who, like Miss Eckhart, does not fit into the Myth of Southern Womanhood, by saying: “I just know and you fellows know how a woman that never—” he is interrupted by the other men: “You damn niggerlover!” and with irony: “You’re a fine white man” (170). Will Mayes, night watchman at the ice plant, is mercilessly tracked down. He is allowed exactly three short sentences that nobody listens to—“‘What is it, captains?’ the Negro said. ‘I aint done nothing. ‘Fore God, Mr. John’” (177)—after which he is most likely thrown into a sinkhole.

14Faulkner’s “Dry September,” then, goes beyond Welty’s story “June Recital,” by showing, in addition to the failure of a woman to live up to the myth of “Southern Womanhood,” the obviously more urgent need to defend her in the face of the “Rape Complex.” Indeed, Miss Minnie is seen as a hysterical spinster, untrustworthy, and unworthy of respect. Yet, if it is a matter of either stifling her voice and believing a black man on his word or else believing her and silencing the black man, the choice is not difficult and she changes, in the eyes of the men, from a hysterical old maid into the Southern Lady who should be respected, listened to and defended.

15While the first story discussed here excludes the possible fate of the black man altogether, and the second one presents the tracking down of the victim but not his punishment, the story “Saturday Evening” by Erskine Caldwell goes one step further by describing a lynch mob performing an actual lynching. This story closely resembles the case of Emmett Till. As in Till’s case, the glance at a white woman, or the addressing of a few words to her, is enough to set the whole scene in motion. Indeed, as the butcher Tom Denny is told by his partner Jim Baxter, the black man,

[Will Maxie] said something to Fred Jackson’s oldest gal down the road yonder about an hour ago. [Soon] there were thirty or forty cars headed for the creek bottom already and more getting ready to start.
They had a place already picked out at the creek. There was a clearing in the woods by the road and there was just enough room to do the job like it should be done. Plenty of dry brushwood nearby and a good-sized sweet-gum tree in the middle of the clearing. (30-31)

16The unsuspecting victim is chased up the road with “a couple of dozen men [...] behind him poking him with sticks” and “steered [...] into the clearing [where it] was all fixed. There was a big pile of brushwood and a trace chain for his neck and one for his feet. That would hold him. There were two or three cans of gasoline, too” (31). Still, the actual lynching is dealt with quickly in the story and as soon as the man is burning, he is gone, his body to be shot at at liberty:

Will Maxie was going up in smoke. When he was just about gone they gave him the lead. Tom stood back and took good aim and fired away at Will with his shotgun as fast as he could breech it and put in a new load. About forty or more of the other men had shotguns too. They filled him so full of lead that his body sagged from his neck where the trace chain held him up. (32)

17Known as “the gingerbread Negro,” Maxie was likely a man of mixed race—a mulatto, the embodiment of transgression—yet making more money than even the two butchers:

Will could grow good cotton. He cut out all the grass first, and then he banked his rows with earth. Everybody else laid his cotton by without going to the trouble of taking out the grass. But Will was a pretty smart Negro. And he could raise a lot of corn too, to the acre. He always cut out the grass before he laid his corn by. But nobody liked Will. He made too much money by taking out the grass before laying by his cotton and corn. He made more money than Tom and Jim made in the butcher shop selling people meat. (31)

18By being more successful than the butchers, whose meat is smelly and full of buzzing flies, the black man has clearly infringed on the right to superiority of the white race. This economic superiority in itself symbolises the sexual threat he presents. As many critics have argued, the focal point of the white man’s concern was in reality not the purity of the white woman but the potency of the black man, or, as Calvin Hernton puts it in Coming Together: White Hate, Black Power and Sexual Hangups:

[The white man] sees in the Negro the essence of his own sexuality, that is, those qualities he wishes for but fears he does not possess. Symbolically, the Negro at once affirms and negates the white man’s sense of sexual security. [...] Contrary to what is claimed, it is not the white woman who is dear to the racist. It is not even the black woman towards whom his sexual rage is ­directed. It is the black man who is sacred to the racist. And this is why he must castrate him. (111-12)

19Indeed, it is by way of the “manly” act of filling Maxie with lead—so that his body “sagged”—that the white men re-establish their own potency.

20In Caldwell’s story, as well as in Faulkner’s, the victims are obviously men of qualities and competence, known as such by the whites, but they are given no voice. This is totally different in the story “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1936), from Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children. As J. Watson has shown: “every tale in Uncle Tom’s Children opens in a similar way, on a scene, however brief, of black world-making. We see black people involved, singly and collectively, in labors of imagination and invention” (167). This is very clear in “Big Boy Leaves Home,” where we are introduced to four boys who are coming out of the woods together, improvising:

YO MAMA don wear no drawers . . .
Clearly, the voice rose out of the woods, and died away. Like an echo another voice caught it up:
Ah seena when she pulled em off . . .
Another, shrill, cracking, adolescent:
N she washed ’em in alcohol . . .
Then a quartet of voices, blending in harmony, floated high above the tree tops:
N she hung ’em out in the hall . . . (10)

21In a brilliant way, Wright presents the togetherness (harmony) of the boys, their youthful audacity, their link with the tradition of the Blues and the mournful whistle of a passing train, setting them going on another song, which promises a better future:

Dis train boun fo Glory
Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train boun fo Glory
Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train boun fo Glory
Ef yuh ride no need fer fret er worry
Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train . . . (11)

22Finally, the boys decide to take a swim in a local swimming hole, even though they know that “ol man Harvey don erllow no niggers t swim” there (15). This is how misfortune strikes: “a white woman, poised on the edge of the opposite embankment, stood directly in front of them” (18). The woman, of course, screams as a Southern Belle should, and Big Boy gets a chance to say one sentence twice: “Lady, we wanna git our cloes […] we wanna git or cloes” (19). But the scream of the young woman, who sees four adolescent boys naked in front of her, is enough to set the “Rape Complex” in motion. Her fiancé comes running and shoots two boys right there and then, and in the struggle that follows, Big Boy more or less accidentally shoots him. Big Boy is able to hide and eventually to escape up North but the other boy, Bobo, is found and lynched.

23As Watson argues, in “Black Boy Leaves Home,”

what inevitably follows in Wright’s monomyth of Jim Crow is the intrusion of whiteness onto the scene of black making. That whiteness may take the explicit form of physical violence, as here, or it may take other forms, such as a white visit to a black home, white-owned property, or simply white ideology ­objectified and dramatized as character perspective. But the result is always the same: black making, by which I refer to cultural invention and ­performance by African Americans, quickly deteriorates into black unmaking, by which I refer to the infliction of pain on African Americans and the ­deconstruction of those artifacts that extend them into their world or envelop and protect them. (168)

24Indeed, the lynching scene, as it is watched by Big Boy from his hiding place, where he is effectively silenced so as not to give himself away, starts by replacing the joyful singing of the four boys by the hateful singing of the lynchers, first a single voice and then with the voices of women joined in, which “made the song round and full”: “We’ll hang ever nigger t a sour apple tree… (37).

25In contrast to the stories we have seen before, the visual, olfactory and auditory imagery becomes overwhelming here. Indeed, through Big Boy’s eyes, we are forced to see exactly what happens to his friend: “a black body flashed in the light. Bobo was struggling, twisting; they were binding his arms and legs. [...] a tar-drenched body glistening and turning [...] a writhing white mass cradled in yellow flame (38). And we are forced to smell what Big Boy smells, “the scent of tar, faint at first, then ­stronger,” and hear what Big Boy hears, “screams, one on top of the other, each shriller and shorter than the last.” We cannot help, meanwhile, to note that it is the superficial futility of the white woman’s “scream” that leads to the essential horror of the black boy’s. Here we are finally confronted with the ­unimaginable pain inflicted as part of the “Rape Complex.”

  • 4 Meeropol took the pen name Lewis Allan in commemoration of his two stillborn sons. He and his wife (...)

26Two shorter texts expose even more deeply the “Rape Complex” as they leave everything out except the body of the victim. First of all, there is the song “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday and since performed by many other singers. The story is based on a poem by Abel Meeropol, alias Lewis Allan, a Jewish high school teacher and ­poet-songwriter from the Bronx.4 The poem was first published in The Masses, a Marxist publication. But, as Robert O’Meally puts it in his autobiography of Holiday, Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, the songstress “learned the song’s melody and then radically altered it, compressing it into her best range and concentrating its power. In this sense, Holiday, the recomposer, did write the song herself [...] Whatever the name on the sheet music, ‘Strange Fruit’ became an unmistakable part of Billie Holiday’s artistic territory” (qtd. in Griffin 201, n. 4).

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
here is a strange and bitter crop.

27With its juxtaposition of pastoral elements—trees, leaves, roots, magnolias, fruit, wind, rain, sun, fertility—and of death—blood, bulging eyes, twisted mouth, rot—; with the gallant South next to the brutal monosyllabic verbs pluck, suck, rot, drop, the story makes present all the bodily horrors of the “Rape Complex.”

  • 5 This three-part poem was first published in 1923, in the inaugural issue of the journal Modern Revi (...)

28Whereas the small story in song form, “Strange Fruit,” brings together in the purest form lynching victim and region, sufferer and South, a tiny lynching story in blazon-form from Jean Toomer’s poem “Georgia Portraits”5 brings the black body into direct contact with the embodiment of “the gallant South,” the white female body:

Hair—braided chestnut,
coiled like lyncher’s rope,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame. (29)

29In these lines, as Jay Watson shows, the physical attributes of the Southern woman’s “slim white body” are “balanced directly against the victim’s own: lips to wounds, living breath to dying gasp, intact torso to incinerated one.” Thus, as Watson argues, “the blazon’s anatomizing conventions meet their nightmare image—a perverse anti-blazon—as the poem’s second body materializes to haunt and shadow the exemplary body that occasioned the poem” (4). In fact, in the last, dash-less line, the two bodies can be seen to have merged. Thus the poem, as Watson puts it, “brilliantly exploits the irony that it was precisely such entangling intimacies between white women and black men that turn-of-the-century lynching ideology sought to prevent” (4).


Bradford, William. “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.” Look Magazine (1956). Web. 5/02/2016.

Caldwell, Erskine. “Saturday Afternoon.” 1930. The Stories of Erskine Caldwell. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996. 28-33. Print.

Cash, W.J. The Mind of the South. 1941. New York: Vintage, 1969. Print.

Donald, Nicole M. “Of One Kind or Another”: Rape in the Fiction of Eudora Welty. B.A thesis. Millsaps College, 1999. Print.

Donaldson, Susan V. and Anne Goodwyn Jones. “Haunted Bodies: Rethinking the South Through Gender.” Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts. Eds. Donaldson and Jones. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1997. 1-22. Print.

Faulkner, William. “Dry September.” Collected Stories of William Faulkner. 1930. New York: Random House, 1943. 169-83. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmin. “Who set you flowin’?”: The African American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

Hernton, Calvin. Coming Together: White Hate, Black Power and Sexual Hangups. New York: Random House, 1971. Print.

Percy, William Alexander. Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son. 1941. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1990. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Reviews of American Authors: Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Essays and Reviews. New York: The Viking Press, 1984. Print.

Rice, John R. Sermon. “Negro and White,” Is God a “Dirty Bully”? Wheaton, Illinois: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1958. Print.

Schmidt, Peter. The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty’s Short Fiction. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. Print.

Smith, Lillian. Killers of the Dream. 1949. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.

___. Strange Fruit. 1944. Athens: The U of Georgia P, 1985. Print.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.

Watson, Jay. Reading for the Body, the Recalcitrant Materiality of Southern Fiction, 1893-1985. Athens: The U of Georgia P, 2012. Print.

Welty, Eudora. The Golden Apples. 1947. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Print.

Williams, Tennessee. Memoirs. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2006. Print.

Wright, Richard. Uncle Tom’s Children. 1936. New York: Signet, 1954. Print.


1 Indeed, one of Mississippi’s politicians went as far as to state in 1948: “When God made the Southern woman he summoned His angel messengers and He commanded them to go through all the star-strewn vicissitudes of space and gather all there was of beauty, of brightness and sweetness, of enchantment and glamour, and when they returned and laid the golden harvest at His feet He began in their wondering presence the work of fashioning the Southern girl. He wrought with the golden gleam of the starts, with the changing colors of the rainbow’s hues and the pallid silver of the moon. He wrought with the crimson that swooned in the rose’s ruby heart, and the snow that gleams on the lily’s petal; then, glancing down deep into His own bosom, He took the love that gleamed there like pearls beneath the sun-kissed waves of a summer sea, and thrilling this love into the form He had fashioned, all heaven veiled its face, for lo, He had wrought the Southern girl…” (qtd. in Smith 169).

2 Many complimentary explanations have, of course, been given. Males of the higher classes had usually been taken care of, and sometimes even breast-fed, by a black woman, so that their smell, their skin texture and their voices had been woven into the very fabric of their sensuality and desire. Memoirs by white Southerners seem to confirm this never-ending love for the black skin. William Alexander Percy, for instance, expresses it as follows: “I loved her devotedly and never had any other nurse. Everything about her was sweet-smelling, of the right temperature, and dozy. [...] Chiefly I remember her bosom: it was soft and warm, an ideal place to cuddle one’s head against” (26). This romanticized world is conveyed in many white Southerners’ memoirs as well. To give another example, Tennessee Williams writes about “the wild and sweet half-imaginary world” in which he and his sister Rose, together with their “beautiful black nurse Ozzie existed, separate, almost invisible to anyone” (14) and he explains their fondness “of the blacks” as the result of their “devotion to [their] beautiful black nurse Ozzie when [they] were children in Mississippi” (319).

3 The fundamentalist preacher John R. Rice argued that the not guilty verdict was perfectly justified. According to him, the NAACP and other “race agitators” were responsible, rather than any white men. In one of his sermons, “‘Negro and White,’ Is God a ‘Dirty Bully’?” the accusation of having whistled at a white woman is “enhanced” to include an attempt “to embrace and to make a date with and to seduce the young married white woman,” which amounted to a cocky attitude agitators have cultivated among colored people.” Bringing in all of the aspects of the “Rape Complex,” Rice continues: “remember, it was down in the delta country in Mississippi, where a white woman dare not walk the streets alone at night or go anywhere alone at night because of the animosity and the standards of the large Negro population.” (158)

4 Meeropol took the pen name Lewis Allan in commemoration of his two stillborn sons. He and his wife Anne adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Robert and Michel Rosenberg, six and ten years old, after their parents’ execution for high treason in 1953.

5 This three-part poem was first published in 1923, in the inaugural issue of the journal Modern Review. It was later republished in Cane.

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Ineke Bockting, « The "Rape Complex" in Short Fiction from the American South », Journal of the Short Story in English, 67 | 2016, 27-38.

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Ineke Bockting

Ineke Bockting holds doctoral degrees from the Universities of Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Montpellier, France. She has taught at Universities in The Netherlands, Norway and France, and she is now a full professor at the Catholic University in Paris. Her publications include articles on various aspects of the American South, ethnic literatures, travel-narrative, autobiography, and literary stylistics and pragmatics, as well as a book length study of the novels of William Faulkner, entitled Character and Personality in the Novels of William Faulkner: a Study in Psychostylistics.

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