Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Flannery O'Connor, the Phenomenology of Race, and the Institutions of Irony

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Flannery O'Connor, the Phenomenology of Race, and the Institutions of Irony

Article excerpt

Flannery O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger" was originally published in the Kenyon Review in April 1955. The story would be published again later the same year in the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, but its initial editing and publication occurred in consultation with John Crowe Ransom, Kenyon Review's founding editor. During the editing process, Ransom asked if O'Connor would like to alter her story's title to avoid insulting "black folk's sensibilities" (quoted in Armstrong 2004: 298). O'Connor declined the request, insisting instead that the title was "much more damaging to white folk's sensibilities." This dialogue occurred only a few months after the Brown v. Board decision and not long before the two events that forced the civil rights movement into mainstream white consciousness: the murder of Emmett Till in August 1955 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955. O'Connor's repartee with Ransom thus occurred in the midst of the growing outcry against institutional racism. According to O'Connor, the title of her story is meant to offend the racial sensibilities of the offenders, and in fact she explains in a letter dated May 4, 1955 to one of her readers, "What I had in mind to suggest with the artificial nigger was the redemptive quality of the Negro's suffering for us all" (HB 78). In both her letter to a reader and her response to one of the leading New Critics who exerted significant influence on the shape of postwar fiction, O'Connor positions herself as an outsider whose fiction criticizes white mainstream America and its view of race. By identifying with "the Negro's suffering," O'Connor felt her story created an avenue for racial and social redemption. Such explanations are consistent with the common claim among the story's critics that the enigmatic ending amounts to a "working of grace" (Oates 1998: 160), a method of reconciliation and unexpected enlightenment.

Other critics have been less quick to take O'Connor's gloss as gospel. Nicholas Crawford (2003: 3), for example, identifies a "recurring pattern" in many of O'Connor's stories, wherein her black characters "catalyze" a white protagonist's "spiritual homecoming at the expense of a secular and psychological one." Crawford reframes O'Connor's claim that her fiction culminates in a "moment" in which "the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected" (MM 118). Instead, Crawford argues that these moments of grace often follow a racial rather than a religious pattern, one in which the black characters are not the subjects of empathy but a "psychological roadblock that hinders [the white characters'] archetypal return" (2003: 4). According to this view, O'Connor's black characters become little more than tools for a white homecoming.

Jeanne Perreault (2003: 390) similarly argues that O'Connor undermines her stated aspirations regarding racial solidarity by using the confrontation with a "large colored woman" to prompt one of the protagonists' "spiritual development." According to Perreault, the racial politics of the story "subverts her own deeply held belief in the necessity of unifying body and spirit for true spiritual integrity." In other words, O'Connor objectifies black bodies for the spiritual use of white ones. Indeed, these arguments by Crawford and Perreault depict O'Connor's engagement with institutional racism in a way that echoes Michael Szalay's (2012: 31) cultural history of the appropriation of blackness by many postwar writers in order to "produce new kinds of political meaning." In this view, O'Connor's depiction of race is not so much an avenue for religious grace as the expression of white fantasies about blackness during the era of the civil rights movement.

The interpretive problem centering on the confrontation of O'Connor's white characters with blackness is entangled with another of the story's historical registers--the relationship of postwar fiction to the institutions of American higher education. …

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