Most of the action in William Faulkner's Light In August takes place about seventy-five years after the end of slavery. Only two characters in the book are slaves or former slaves, and those are only seen in flashbacks. However, the cultural legacy of slavery on the characters in the novel is very clear, as evidenced by Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden.
Joe Christmas's primary dilemma centers on his mixed racial identity. During the time of slavery, racial mixing-"miscegenation"-was the white South's worst fear, and their social and legal regulations show how deeply rooted this fear was in Southern society. In the Southern states, laws were created that showed the sexual double standard. These laws highly discouraged any sexual contact between white women and black men, and they discouraged any attempts for white men to legitimize their relationships with black women or the children borne from their relationships with black women. According to Catherine Clinton, the biracial offspring of these "relationships" (for they were often forced) between white male slave owners and black slave women "were recognized as the flesh of their white parents, but denied the privilege of their blood." These children remained slaves and had no legal protection. Sometimes they were freed in their father's will, but this was often prevented.
Southern whites were maddened by the possibility that someone with any black blood would be able to "pass" as white. As a result, they became obsessed with proving pedigree and doing their best to prevent anyone without pure white descent from participating successfully in society. Even long after the end of slavery, as Light In August claims, passing was considered a dangerous sin. So too was any kind of sexual contact between a white woman and a non-white male, black or biracial. Clinton says that "pollution of the symbol of cultural purity-a white woman's body-threatened white supremacy," and thus for a white woman to have sexual contact with a black male was tantamount to threatening the entire cultural structure of the white South.
The question of whether the sexual contact was voluntary or not became vital, although often the white woman's reputation would be irreparably harmed either way. The real significance came in the punishment meted out to the black male: if rape was proven, or decided upon, then the male faced either execution or castration. Although the Southern society in Light In August does not sentence Joe Christmas for sleeping with Joanna Burden, Percy Grimm perpetuates the horrors of the old South by castrating Christmas not as punishment for the murder, but as punishment for his relationship with Joanna.