Flannery O'Connor's Racial Morals and Manners
Wood, Ralph C., The Christian Century
Flannery O'Connor's art makes powerful testimony to the profoundest commonalities shared by blacks and whites, chiefly our common dependence on the grace and judgment of God. But O'Connor's recently revealed correspondence with her friend Maryat Lee will surely lead many to conclude that the novelist was a racist. In the letters O'Connor not only makes unsavory remarks about blacks; she also reveals herself to have been deeply out of sympathy with the civil rights crusade of the 1960s. Both disclosures threaten to undermine our esteem for the most important southern writer since Faulkner.
The time has come to assess the question of racism in O'Connor's work. It is especially important to do so because she was, first and last, an avowed and unapologetic Christian. She declared herself to be "no vague believer." She was a Catholic, she said, "not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist." O'Connor confessed her work to be rooted in "the central Christian mystery: that [the world] has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for." Everything she saw and said and wrote sprang from this central belief. What, then, does it mean if this writer was also racist at heart?
We need to assess O'Connor's racial attitudes also in order to take the measure of our own. The word "racism" is often used to silence debate. We can dismiss those who disagree with us on race issues by deploying the "racist" epithet. It need not be so, for the term has specifiable meaning: a racist is someone who denies the dignity and worth of other human beings because of their skin color, asserts the inherent superiority of one's own race over all others, and thus mistreats members of the so-called inferior races. Politically, racism means a refusal of the justice and the equality of opportunity that are due to every citizen of a republic whose Constitution is colorblind. Theologically, racism rejects the doctrine that all people are created in the image of God, that all races have sinned and fallen short of Gods glory, that we are therefore brothers and sisters saved not by our own righteousness but by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Neither politically nor theologically, I will argue, was O'Connor a racist. On the contrary, she was a writer who, though not without temptation and struggle, offers the real antidote to racism.
A part of the O'Connor story that remains untold lies in her unpublished correspondence with Maryat Lee. She was the Kentucky-born sister of the president of Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, O'Connor's home town. As a Wellesley graduate and a lesbian, as a New York playwright and self-styled intellectual, Lee formed the perfect antithesis to O'Connor. That their many antagonisms served to attract rather than repel is the miracle of their relationship. They must have felt the aptness of William Blake's aphorism: "In opposition is true friendship." Each knew that she had to define herself in relation to her counterpart. Yet O'Connor and Lee did not exchange their long string of letters merely to trump each other's arguments. Because their friendship could not be threatened by disagreement, they were able to josh and banter and exaggerate. They playfully caricatured each other, even as they wittily parodied themselves. Lee thus appears as the ultimate bleeding-heart Yankee liberal, and O'Connor assumes the role of the starchily unreconstructed ed southern racist.
Even allowing for japing self-mockery, O'Connor's liberal use of the word "nigger" discloses an illiberal numbness to the evils that blacks suffered in the segregated South. The lynchings and castrations and murders are the obvious horrors that she never mentions. Neither do we hear about the lesser evils of racial discrimination - in schools and voting stations, in employment and medical care, in restaurants and hotels, in housing and loans and almost everything else. We hear a good deal of complaint, by contrast, about northern journalists who regarded court-ordered desegregation as the only interesting southern question. In her less testy moments, O'Connor replied that blacks and whites have always "milled about" in the South, and that the Supreme Court's decisions against segregated public schools would serve only to increase the number of places where the races would "mill about" together. Her short-fused response - she confessed to Lee that only the Lord kept her from making it public - was to urge that the "niggers" be returned to Africa.
Not many but still a disturbing few of O'Connor's letters contain signs of unmistakable malignancy toward blacks. O'Connor likens the suffering of jailed black demonstrators, for example, to a grasshopper that Lee had left at the O'Connor farm. Feeling sorry for the caged creature, O'Connor tells Lee, she released it, only to see it promptly gobbled up by a duck. Such racial rancor ran deep in O'Connor. In what surely is the most troubling of all her letters to Lee, O'Connor admits that she is an integrationist in the legal but not the aesthetic sense. With remarkable candor, she confesses her distaste for Negroes. The greater her dealings with them, especially with the new liberated blacks, the less her regard for them, she says.
Before wincing too sharply at such bilious sentiments, we must remember that O'Connor penned them during the spring and summer of 1964, as she lay dying. Her literal pain and her spiritual frustration must have been enormous. I suspect that O'Connor was ill-tempered with anyone who sought to draw her attention to the immediate horizon of the race question when, as a mortally ill woman, she sought to fix her gaze on the tree line of eternity.
That O'Connor never gave public voice to her racial opinions also indicates that she may have had doubts about them. Opinions are often quickly formed and quickly abandoned. We often keep our opinions to ourselves, lest they give needless offense, and lest we be made ashamed at their disclosure. Convictions, by contrast, are slowly acquired and firmly maintained. We do not surrender them readily nor keep them private, no matter whom they may offend. They are the public verities upon which we stand, the truths by which we live and die. For this reason we need to take O'Connor's public work much more seriously than her personal letters. That she said uncharitable things about blacks in private but treated them with unfailing charity in her public essays and fiction does not make her an oleaginous hypocrite. It reveals, as I shall seek to show, that her thoughtful convictions triumphed over her doubtful opinions.
In any case, it is no excuse to say that O'Connor's racial attitudes were a predictable product of her time and place. Eudora Welty was a product of the same region and the same era, and yet she publicly aligned herself with civil rights activists - she sought to declare where the voice of murder and mayhem was coming from. O'Connor did not. In private if not in public, she often relied on her tastes rather than her beliefs. Though tastes are instinctive rather than chosen, Christians know that they must be cultivated into conformity with the gospel.
It is true that we are commanded to love rather than to like our neighbors, but it is also surpassingly difficult to love those, black or white, whom we do not like. Nor is it legitimate to deny the evils that lie at our own feet while training our eyes on eternity. And so it must be said, not in accusation but in contrition, that O'Connor's Christian conscience was insufficiently stung by the suffering of southern blacks and by the sins of southern whites. She never criticized, in open and angry and unequivocal terms, the racial abominations committed in her native territory. There is nothing in the whole of her work, alas, that resounds with the spiritual plangency of Walker Percy's lament:
The failure of the Christian in the South has been both calamitous and unremarkable. And perhaps this is the worst of it: that no one finds the failure remarkable, not we who ought to know better, not the victims of our indifference who confess the same Christ, and not even the world who witnessed our failure. No one was surprised. The world which said many years ago, "See how the Christians love one another," would presumably have been surprised if these earlier Christians had violated each other or turned their backs upon the violation. Now as then, the children of the world are wiser than the children of light: they witnessed the failure we concealed from ourselves and found it not in the least remarkable (Signposts in a Strange Land).
O'Connor did not join Will Campbell and Walker Percy and other southern Christians in their baffle against bigotry because she had deep misgivings about the civil rights movement. She feared that many white liberals were turning a rightful demand for racial justice into a wrongful demand for moral congratulation. Their ethical energy increased, as she famously said, in direct proportion to their distance from home. And so she aimed her satire at the enlightened rather than the benighted.
In "Everything That Rises Must Converge" O'Connor prophesied against the new sins that were being committed in the attempt to correct ancient evils. The story concerns a frustrated young college graduate named Julian who still lives at home with his mother. He becomes obsessed with a desire to expose and reform his mothers racial sins. In willful defiance of her segregationist attitudes, and in attempted solidarity with a victim of racial injustice, Julian sits down by a black man on a bus. The Negro instantly penetrates the self-seeking dimension in such white "charity," brusquely refusing Julian's attempt to use him as the means for practicing his own moral hygiene.
Julian's mother could have taken advantage of her sons public humiliation, but she does not. Though conventionally prejudiced, Julian's mother is capable of the love that matters most: she cares deeply about her uncaring son. And despite her verbal scorn for blacks, she is no Vicious racist. On the contrary, she humorously accepts the hard lesson in economic equality that she is forced to learn: across the aisle is a black woman wearing a purple hat identical to her own. This humbling revelation does not sour her friendly and outgoing nature. Indeed, she remains so jovial and affectionate that a little black boy - whose mother wears the selfsame hat - is instinctively drawn to her. Julian's mother innocently plays peek-a-boo with the child and then gives him a penny as they get off the bus.
The black mother is infuriated. Blinded by a racial rage that makes her unable to distinguish a kindly from a con-descending gesture, she lashes out in murderous fury, striking Julians mother to the ground and giving her a fatal stroke. Yet even as she dies, the white lady remains gracious. In her addled state of mind, she calls out for Caroline, the black nurse from her childhood. Yet the real murderer is not the black woman but Julian himself. He has been so obsessed with casting out the racist mote in his mother's eye that he remains oblivious to the beamlike presumption and ingratitude that afflict his own vision. Julian can "love" the anonymous Negro whom he does not know, but not the mother whom he does know and who also knows him.
O'Connor surprisingly reveals, therefore, that the voice crying with hatred and the hand striking with death spring not only from the seething envy of rednecks but also from the unredeemed rage of the righteous, black or white. Yet such human evil cannot finally block the workings of divine mercy - the burning mercy, as O'Connor called it, that incinerates sin. His mothers death prompts julian to a searing moment of self-recognition. He sees that her conventional racism has blinded him to her unconventional graciousness. Having discerned it at last, Julian embarks for his true country, "the world of guilt and sorrow."
Another reason O'Connor was cool toward the civil rights movement was that she feared its advocates lacked a proper regard for the time and patience required to embody social justice. There is an old southern saying: "In the North they don't care how high blacks rise, so long as they don't get too close. In the South, we don't care how close blacks get, so long as they don't rise too high." O'Connor knew that the integration of southern society would complicate interracial closeness with interracial competition. Blacks who already lived near at hand would begin to compete economically and educationally with whites, especially poor whites. To make racial equality work socially no less than legally would be a matter of civil manners rather than civil rights. "For the rest of the country," she observed, "the race problem is settled when the Negro has his rights, but for the southerner, whether he's white or colored, that's only the beginning."
O'Connor called for a new code of manners to help ensure mutual regard rather than internecine hatred. It may seem exceedingly odd, even antique, to speak of manners at this late date in our history, especially knowing how the old southern manners often reinforced racist conventions. But for O'Connor, manners were the indispensable means for enacting the social roles without which we would not be selves at all. Even in their negative form, they ensure the necessary social distance which our sinfulness requires, protecting us against heedlessly intruding into others, privacy. At their best, manners maintain civility and cordiality among people who may feel an instinctive antipathy. They enable us to treat others with respect even when we don't like them. "Formality preserves that individual privacy which everybody needs and, in these times, is always in danger of losing."
To grant blacks their civil rights without working out a new interracial decorum - a new code of formality that preserves privacy - would drive out the devil of injustice, only to welcome in seven new devils of incivility. O'Connor forecast our present situation: justice without civility and courtesy leads to enforced codes of speech and behavior that are as oppressive as the injustice they seek to correct.
What is most lamentably lost is the greatest requisite of all: the sense of humor. We will have achieved racial sanity, I believe, when blacks and whites can joke together about our apprehensions and misapprehensions. Most of O'Connor's blacks possess this gift of laughter that eases pain. They have survived their suffering, in very large part, through their comically mannered means for fending off evil. "The uneducated southern Negro is not the clown he's made out to be," O'Connor observed. "He's a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy."
Perhaps the chief item in the repertoire of black manners is the art of "signifying": the verbal device for taunting oppressive whites with false praise. What often appears as "Tomming" - abject acquiescence to the whites - can be used to get revenge by indirection, to save oneself from returning evil for evil, and thus to preserve ones own sense of dignity and worth when the white world has denied it. O'Connor had an especially keen ear for this black gift.
In "The Enduring Chill," two Negro workers named Randall and Morgan play a wicked trick on Asbury Fox, the white intellectual who wants to liberate them from his mother's seemingly repressive rules for running her dairy. Asbury regards his mother as a rabid racist for refusing to let her black laborers have their fill of the farms nutritious and abundant milk. Yet the uneducated Randall and Morgan prove far smarter than the cultured Asbury, they know that to drink unpasteurized milk is to court disease.
They also see that Asbury's professed solidarity with them is a form of moral preening. So little does Asbury know Randall and Morgan that he cannot tell them apart. Yet he wants them to imbibe the forbidden milk with him in a secular communion that would defy his mothers racist restrictions. After encouraging the gullible Asbury to drink deeply of this sickening font, the two black men offer their own devastating commentary:
"Howcome you let him chink that milk every day?"
"What he do is him," Randall said. "What I do is me."
"Howcome he talks so ugly about his map?"
"Because she ain't whup him enough when was little," Randall said.
Asbury earns the wages of his sinful righteousness when he contracts undulant fever. Though he hopes to die as a martyr to his mothers villainy, his disease is not, alas, fatal. Yet even as he lies sick, Asbury seeks to spite his mother in an act of forced friendship with the two black workers. Randall and Morgan Will have nothing of it. When Asbury offers them a cigarette in yet another gesture of spurious commonality, Randall seizes the whole pack. The two Negroes take their leave of the undying Asbury only after indulging in a final session of "signifying."
"You certly does look well."
"I'm about to die," Asbury said irritably.
"You looks fine," Randall said.
"You be up and around in a few days," Morgan predicted.
Manners may provide comic relief from injustice and self-righteousness. They may even ensure an essential respect among people who are divided by preference and experience. But manners remain fundamentally dependent on an underlying charity. Manners have no power to transform human existence, to engender new life, to reconcile those who have sinned against each other. Our proverbial southern sweetness has often served to mask horrible evils: we have killed with our kindness no less than our meanness.
O'Connor seems not to have discerned these limits. Though she was a writer who declared that her stories are so violent because her characters have such hard heads, she failed to see that firm federal intervention was required for the South - indeed, for the nation - to overcome racial injustice. Nor did she discern that lesser incivilities may have to be tolerated in order that greater barbarities - both the subtle and the egregious acts of racist terrorism to which blacks were often subjected - might be ended.
But about the deepest racial matter O'Connor remained clear. She understood that, severed from charity, both morals and manners are without foundation. Nothing less and nothing other than the grace of God can work the miracle that enables the races not merely to tolerate each other but to live together as redeemed and reconciled brothers and sisters of the same Lord.
O'Connor reveals the nature of such a miracle in her favorite story, "The Artificial Nigger." She was fond of it, I suspect, because it is a work that inverts a racist symbol into an emblem of antiracist redemption. Indeed, at the three chief turning points of the story, the protagonists are offered redemption by Negroes.
Yet the story is not a study in black and white relations. The characters who stand most drastically in need of reconciliation are divided not by race but by will. A grandfather named Mr. Head and his grandson named Nelson dwell alone in the remoteness of rural Georgia. Though they should be bound by the most blessed ties of familial interdependence, they are bitterly determined to dominate each other. These two rustics have never heard of Nietzsche, but their nihilistic will to power lies at the heart of the modern malaise. Only in overcoming the demonic urge to subject others to our desires, O'Connor shows, can there be hope for families or races.
Their first offer of racial redemption occurs on the train to Atlanta. Knowing that Nelson has never seen Negroes, Mr. Head determines to take his grandson to the city in order to teach him the truth about "niggers" - that they are a blackened and unsavory race. No sooner have Nelson and Mr. Head boarded the train than a large coffee-colored Negro strides majestically past them, followed by two young women, as if in a grand procession. One hand resting on his ample stomach, the black man uses the other to pick up and set down his cane in a slow, kingly gait. With his neat mustache and his light-colored suit, with his yellow satin tie and ruby stickpin and sapphire ring, this elderly Negro shows all the signs of prosperity. He has risen well above his assigned state in the segregated South. But having climbed so high, the black man cannot be allowed too close. He is thus walking to the segregated dining car from the black carriage at the rear of the train. Yet there are no marks of resentment in this man who has every light to rage and chafe at his fate. In spite of the injustice done to him, he maintains his quiet but proud dignity.
Once the entourage has passed, Mr. Head does not explain to Nelson that these were Negroes. Instead, hoping to trap the boy in his ignorance, he asks Nelson what he has seen. "A man," Nelson replies. As often happens in O'Connor's fiction, children have an instinctive discernment of the truth. The boy knows what he cannot articulate. late. Sinfully opaque to such truth, Mr. Head publicly humiliates Nelson for failing to detect "his first nigger." Nelson is furious, of course, but not only at his grandfather for tricking him; he is also enraged at the tan-colored Negro for failing to be recognizably black.
Moralists read this episode as revealing the true nature of racism: it shows how ethnic distinctions are socially constructed, how racial hatred must be willfully inculcated, how we might overcome the petty barriers of race and class and gender by taking our indiscriminate place in the universal human family. O'Connor was no such moralist. She is after something far deeper: she wants to demonstrate why this Negro remains so regally serene despite the discrimination he suffers.
In their sinful struggle for power, grandfather and grandson lose their way in the Dantesque maze of Atlanta's streets, stumbling unawares into the black ghetto. Nelson wants to cry out for help. Gladly would he cast himself upon anyone who could deliver them from their appalling lostness. He is offered such a figure in the presence of a large black woman leaning idly in a doorway. Nelson wants this great Negress to draw him to her huge bosom, to hold him tight in her arms, and to breathe warmly on his face, as he would look "down and down into her eyes."
Though Nelson's longings are vaguely sexual, they are more significantly spiritual and maternal. This white boy would happily collapse in supplication at the feet of this black Madonna. But Nelson can confess his desires neither to the Negro woman nor to Mr. Head. Such a confession would violate the racial code Nelson has so recently and painfully learned. Even worse, it would bring an end to his proud sufficiency. To declare his dependence would open the way to reconciliation with his grandfather. Nelson wants nothing of it. The luxury of alienation is far too rich for either of them to be able to discern in this black woman a sign of their salvation.
Soon Nelson and Mr. Head commit ever more terrible acts of betrayal and spite against each other. So tightly do they entangle themselves in the knot of evil that their plight seems hopeless. In their deepening bewilderment and estrangement, they wander into a white suburb. There they discover "an artificial niger" in front of an elegant house. This degrading image of black servitude is not carrying a lantern or grasping a horses reins, but is holding a discolored piece of watermelon. He is supposed to be a smiling and carefree "darky," but he has a chipped eye and he lurches forward at an awkward angle. "It was not possible," declares the narrator, "to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either."
At last Nelson and Mr. Head are able to recognize this third black emblem of redemption as they stand strangely transfixed and transformed before the wretched statue. Though meant to signal the triumph of whites over blacks, it becomes a secular crucifix to these mutually sinful kinsmen. Even their southern and Protestant eyes can discern the sign of the cross. "They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy."
O'Connor does not show grandfather and grandson instantly transformed. They will have to work out their redemption the hard way, in fear and trembling, but also in the slow and patient way of manners. Their religious experience will have to issue in a more courteous solicitude for each other, and for any Negroes they may meet in the future.
Among all of O'Connor's works, "The Artificial Nigger" was the story, I suspect, that inspired Alice Walkers judgment about her sister writer from Milledgeville.
Essential O'Connor is not about race at all, which is why it is so refreshing, coming, as it does, out of such a racial culture. If it can be said to be "about" anything, then it is "about" prophets and prophecy, "about" revelation, and "about" the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don't have a chance of spiritual growth without it (In Search of Our Mothers Gardens).
I also suspect that the reason O'Connor liked this story best was that it fictionally incarnates her firmest convictions about both race and religion. She instructs herself no less than her readers in the deep things of the gospel. Perhaps O'Connor knew that her own racial sinfulness had been dissolved in an unbidden gift of artistic mercy. It enabled her to turn a racist icon into an ironic testament to the mystery of charity - a mystery which, though always hidden, is infinitely greater than the mystery of iniquity. This "artificial nigger" not only illumines the evident evils of slavery and discrimination but discloses the subtle grace inherent in suffering that can be redemptively borne because God in Christ has borne it himself. Only as we take such suffering upon ourselves, in acts of civil courtesy and racial generosity, can our unmannered, unjust and discourteous society find its radical remedy.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Flannery O'Connor's Racial Morals and Manners. Contributors: Wood, Ralph C. - Author. Magazine title: The Christian Century. Volume: 111. Issue: 33 Publication date: November 16, 1994. Page number: 1076+. © 2009 The Christian Century Foundation. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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