Racial hatred is the major motivating factor for the violence depicted in “Dry September.” Through Will Mayes’s unjust abduction and likely murder at the hands of a vicious white mob, Faulkner presents a highly critical view of racial relations in the South in the 1920s—where black men’s behavior is criminalized while white men are free to commit violent acts without fear of reprisal. At its core, “Dry September” is thus a story of the consequences of irrational fear of and anger towards black men; Faulkner’s depiction of Mayes as submissive and likely innocent illustrates the degree to which racial hatred can turn deadly despite its utter irrationality.
The white men in the story clearly do not see Mayes as their equal, nor even as a full human being. With the exception of Hawkshaw, who defends Mayes’s character, the men do not call their suspect by name. He is instead a “black son” or a “nigger,” an epithet that denotes their feelings of hatred and racial superiority. Even Hawkshaw, who stands out as the most rational character in the story, is not immune to the profound, systemic racism of this society. His defense of Mayes is rooted in his belief that the man is a “good nigger,” reinforcing the idea that black men are inherently different from—and more criminal than—white men, and that the former should be defined first and foremost by their skin color. This thinking effectively denies Mayes his humanity, and instead allows the vigilante mob to cast Mayes as a predator solely because he is a black man. His story is never heard, and it is never clear whether or not Mayes is guilty of anything at all—on the contrary, it is heavily implied that he is, in fact, innocent.
The scene in which the men abduct Mayes further creates a sharp contrast to this widespread image of black men as violent and aggressive. Mayes attempts to remain as submissive as possible during his abduction, politely asking what is happening and calling his captors “Captains,” “Mr. John,” and “Mr. Henry.” He struggles briefly before getting into the car, even “drawing his limbs in so as not to touch” the white men surrounding him. Mayes uses the few lines he has in the story to defend himself despite seeming unaware of what crime he has committed. He argues, “I ain’t done nothing. White folks, captains, I ain’t done nothing: I swear ‘fore God.” Yet his words are meaningless to the mob of men—at this point, Mayes is seen to be guilty regardless of whether or not the rumor is true.
In contrast, the mob of men cannot contain their anger and violence, rushing towards Mayes and attacking him both verbally and physically despite his submissive demeanor. Some of the men wanted to kill Mayes at the ice factory where they abducted him, murmuring “Kill him! Kill the black son!” As they put Mayes into the car, the men also strike “with random blows,” further suggesting they aim not to subdue their prisoner, but rather to satisfy their own desire to inflict violence. The men also use handcuffs on Mayes when they transport him to the location of his death, a detail that directly references the treatment of black slaves only some decades earlier. The handcuffs do not come from a member of law enforcement or any official authority in town, but rather by a group of angry white men subduing a black man. Faulkner refers to Mayes’s “manacled hands,” recalling images of black slaves in shackles as they were brought work or to be murdered by their white slave owners. The use of this image reminds readers that despite ostensibly being out of bondage, black men will never be free within a deeply racist society.
Racism Quotes in Dry September
“Except it wasn't Will Mayes,” a barber said. He was a thin, sand-colored man with a mild face, who was shaving a client. “I know Will Mayes. He's a
good nigger. And I know Miss Minnie Cooper, too.”
“Kill him, kill the black son!” the voice murmured. They dragged the Negro to the car. The barber had waited beside the car. He could feel himself sweating and he knew he was going to be sick at the stomach. “What is it, captains?” the Negro said. “I ain't done nothing. ‘Fore God, Mr John.” Someone produced handcuffs.
“That's the one: see? The one in pink in the middle.” “Is that her? What did they do with the nigger? Did they?” “Sure. He's all right.” “All right, is he?” “Sure. He went on a little trip.”