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A part of the O'Connor story that remains untold lies in her unpublished correspondence with Maryat Lee.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. …