Flannery O’Connor is the latest cultural figure to be canceled. The very title of Paul Elie’s recent article in The New Yorker, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” assumes her guilt. Jumping upon the cancellation bandwagon, the Jesuit president of Loyola University Maryland has announced that her name will be removed from a dormitory.
But this is the woman who wrote a story poignantly revealing the suffering of black people in the South. This is the woman whose spiritual director was a Jesuit priest, James McCown, who was known as a strong proponent of integration. And this is also the woman who said, after an upsetting experience involving a bus driver’s cruel remark toward black passengers, “I became an integrationist.”
True, O’Connor sometimes used the “n” word in her letters and stories, as well as the term “white trash,” but this was not shocking for someone born in 1925 in Georgia.
Indeed, some of O’Connor’s best stories reveal the ugly underbelly of racism among white Southerners, while also showing how God’s grace can convert hearts. In “Revelation,” a poor white woman sitting in a doctor’s waiting room talks aloud of sending blacks back to Africa. Mrs. Turpin, who prides herself on being a landowner rather than “white trash,” shares her own racist thoughts until a quietly seething college girl hurls a book at Mrs. Turpin and whispers, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
This is the moment of grace for Mrs. Turpin, who later has a vision of people processing into heaven, blacks entering first and white landowners at the end.
Paul Elie cited an incident in 1959 where black author James Baldwin was traveling to Georgia and a New York friend suggested O’Connor should meet him. O’Connor set her friend straight about the manners of the Deep South: “In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not.” Such a meeting, she added, would cause “the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion” in a Southern town.
Elie claims this refusal is proof of O’Connor’s racism: “O’Connor-lovers have been downplaying those remarks ever since. But they are not hot-mike moments or loose talk. They were written at the same desk where O’Connor wrote her fiction and are found in the same lode of correspondence that has brought about the rise in her stature.”
But William Sessions, a lifelong friend, said O’Connor expressed “considerable anguish” about being unable to receive Baldwin in her home, and that when O’Connor became close friends with a black woman during her graduate-school days in Iowa, her mother, Regina, protested that interracial contacts were dangerous. The young O’Connor had held her ground, saying her “friendships would not be fettered by racial considerations.” The thirty-two-year-old O’Connor was suffering from lupus and was extremely dependent on her mother – and thus more inclined to follow her rules.
O’Connor’s 1955 short story “The Artificial Nigger” caused great controversy then and still does today, but it reveals her sympathy for the suffering of Southern blacks perhaps better than anything else she ever wrote. Backwoods Mr. Head wants to take Nelson, his 10-year-old grandson, to visit Atlanta, so the boy can witness the bleakness of the big city and be content to stay at home in their small town.
Nelson has never seen a black man, and Mr. Head assures him he won’t like Atlanta because it’s “full of n*****s.” After they get lost, the grandfather decides to show how important he is to the boy by pretending to leave him behind. Nelson becomes so terrified that he plows into a crowd, knocking down an elderly woman. The police show up and want Mr. Head to assume responsibility for the boy’s behavior, but the old man does the unthinkable by denying the child is his kin.
After this terrible moment of betrayal, the two come across the plaster figure of a black man. The statue is unsteady, cracked, chipped, and holds a brown watermelon. They can’t tell the age of the artificial man, since it looks “too miserable” to be young or old.
As they stand to gaze at it, they see it as “the monument to another’s victory” and feel it “dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.” The broken-down statue awakens in Mr. Head the first feelings of sympathy for what blacks have endured in the South. O’Connor later said nothing encapsulated the tragedy of the South so much as these statues.
In a letter, O’Connor described an experience that had brought her face to face with the real-life suffering endured by blacks. A personal revelation had taken place on a bus. The driver told the rear occupants, who were black, “All right, all you stove-pipe blonds, git on back there.” O’Connor’s reaction? “I became an integrationist.”
O’Connor favored slow, rather than dramatic, social changes, largely because of her concern about backlash from the KKK. In tiny Milledgeville, Georgia, they burned crosses and threatened lives whenever there were sit-ins and frightened some black people into leaving town.
In 1963, O’Connor reported that some blacks in Milledgeville had petitioned the city council to integrate the schools, restaurants, and library. Unbeknownst to them, however, the library had been quietly integrated the year before. For O’Connor, that exemplified change coming about quietly, without publicity – and without trouble.
She believed the problems in the South wouldn’t be entirely solved by passing laws, but instead required a change in behavior and culture. The South had to evolve “a way of life in which the two races [could] live together with mutual forbearance.” This would require “considerable grace” and a code of manners based on mutual charity.
She would no doubt agree that we can legislate the ways people receive education, the places they can go, and the things they are allowed to do. But we can’t pass laws requiring people of different races to see each other as neighbors. We can’t require them to love each other as Christ loves them. This change of heart, above all else, requires God’s powerful intervention in the hearts of men.
As O’Connor remarked, the South “still believes that man has fallen and that he is only perfectible by God’s grace, not by his own unaided efforts.” In short, some people need to be clipped on the head by a book, like Mrs. Turpin was, before they see the light of truth.