Study Guide

A Confederacy of Dunces Race

By John Kennedy Toole

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"I thought maybe the Night of Joy like to help somebody become a member of the community, help keep a poor color boy outta jail. I keep the picket off, give the Night of Joy a good civil right ratin." (2.20)

Jones is trying to use the threat of a Civil Rights boycott to get the Night of Joy to give him a job. The threat is hollow, though, and racism, in the form of vagrancy laws and police harassment, remains much stronger than the Civil Rights movement. As a result, it's Jones who ends up blackmailed.

"She ain't exactly hire me. She kinda buyin me off a auction block." (2.48)

Jones suggests that Jim Crow laws and vagrancy laws are a continuation of slavery by other means. This is underlined later in the novel when Lana Lee forces Jones to dress up as a slave.

"She think cause I color I gonna rape her. She about to throw her grammaw ass out the window. Whoa! I ain gonna rape nobody." (2.248)

Racism in the novel works in a number of ways. On the one hand, Lana seems to have no particular prejudice against black people; she simply exploits racist institutions (like vagrancy laws) for the purposes of economic gain. The woman on the bus, on the other hand, sees Jones through the lens of racist stereotypes and prejudice.

"Times changing," Jones said, adjusting his sunglasses. "You cain scare color peoples no more. I got me some peoples form a human chain in front your door, drive away your business, get you on the TV news. Color peoples took enough horses*** already, and for twenty dollars a week you ain piling no more on." (3.150)

Again, Jones's threats of Civil Rights action are hollow. The only Civil Rights demonstration in the novel is the one at Levy Pants… and that doesn't exactly work out.

"In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the N****es wish to become active members of the American middle class. I cannot imagine why. I must admit that this desire on their part leads me to question their value judgments. However, if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business." (5.185)

Ignatius is condescending to everyone, but he's condescending to black people, too. He doesn't really care about racial injustice; he just likes using it as a metaphor for his own unique, romantic isolation. He doesn't seem to realize quite how bourgeois it is to sneer at the bourgeois aspirations of folks who are being deliberately kept in poverty.

Also… is Ignatius's exile from society really voluntary? I mean, would you hire him? We wouldn't, not even to do the guide for the Consolation of Philosophy.

"The lady in charge of the choir may choose the tune. Knowing nothing of your musical folkways, I shall leave the selection to you, although I wish that there had been time enough to teach all of you the beauties of some madrigal." (6.92)

Folk music, including spirituals, is closely associated with the Civil Rights movement. Toole is perhaps commenting on the condescending way in which white activists could assume that black people were especially connected to an authentic folk culture. In reality, of course, most black people in the 1960s listened to popular music and hit songs, just as most white people did. (Though the exact hit songs that were popular might differ from community to community.)

"Their little friends at college told them that from what they'd said about their father, he sounded like a plantation owner living on slave labor. The girls were very excited. I meant to mention it to you, but I had so much trouble with that new hair designer that it slipped my mind. They want you to raise the salaries of those poor people or they won't come home again." (6.190)

If Mrs. Levy were really concerned about worker welfare, she wouldn't be distracted from it by a new hair designer. Civil Rights is just another excuse to snap at her husband, just as for Ignatius, Civil Rights is just an excuse to impress Myrna. Confederacy doesn't really believe in altruism; no white people in this book are going to fight for Civil Rights out of an abstract sense of justice.

"Who needs a girl who isn't dedicated enough to work gratis in a project that would benefit her race?" (7.261)

Myrna likes to see herself as a Civil Rights crusader, but she—like Lana—is reluctant to actually pay a black person to work, though.

"Ongah is real and vital. He is virile and aggressive. He rips at reality and tears aside concealing veils." (9.80)

Ongah is a Kenyan student whom Myrna briefly has a crush on. She sees Ongah as sexual and violent—and though those characteristics to her are positive, they also are based on the same kind of racist stereotypes that made the woman on the bus afraid of Jones. Myrna seems interested in Ongah not as an individual, but as an embodiment of her own ideas of blackness as authentic or real or earthy.

"Do you know of any N****es with ulcers? Of course not. Live contentedly in some hovel. Thank Fortuna that you have no Caucasian parent hounding you. Read Boethius." (11.399)

If Ignatius only knew how much harder it is to be Jones, he would belch in rage. Alas, he is far too concerned with himself to even consider his good fortune at having been born a white man in an era and part of the country deeply prejudiced against black people.

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