The Single Greatest Moral Imperative Of Her Age
In her concern for the grand religious questions, Flannery O’Connor rnay seem to have ignored the clamant social issue of her own time and especially of her own place — namely, the race question. Her publishing career (1952-64) spans the same decade that brought the Supreme Court decision banning segregated education the defiance of that ruling in the public schools of Little Rock and New Orleans, and at the :universities of Alabama and Mississippi; the black bus and lunch counter boycotts in Montgomery and Greensboro; the bombing of Negro Baptist churches in Birmingham; the slaying of civil rights workers in Mississippi and Alabama the harassment of Clarence Jordan’s interracial Koinonia Farms in O’Connor’s own native state; the rise of Martin Luther King, JR, as the nation’s chief civil rights leader; and the massive protest march of blacks and whites from Selma to Montgomery. Although she did not live to witness the murder of King and the attendant racial riots of 1968, O’Connor had more than enough raw evidence to indicate that the single greatest moral imperative of her age was the liberation of black people from their American, and particularly their Southern, bondage.
Her Response To The Racial Crisis
Yet Flannery O’Connor did not respond to this racial crisis in the accepted literary ways — signing manifestoes, inviting black writers to her home, joining public demonstrations. Not did she take up the case against segregation in her fiction. Eudora Welty, by contrast, wrote a furious response to the senseless slaying of Medgar Evers, the Negro dentist and Mississippi civil rights leader. In an Atlantic short-story entitled “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” Welty excoriated Governor Ross Barnett and other Mississippi officials. It was their legal recalcitrance, Welty suggests, that inspired racist goons to murder Evers. One could cite similar examples of literary courage in the work of other Southern writers, especially Robert Penn Warren and William Styron. From every quarter of civilized thought and opinion, there arose a cry of protest against Southern race prejudice and violence. That Flannery O’Connor did not join this nearly unanimous chorus of condemnation is a fact that must be accounted for if her fiction is to be regarded as redemptive in the truly comic sense.
O’Connor’s racial views must not be sanitized. She was nobody’s liberal in matters social and political. Even if liberalism cannot be made the prescribed norm for fiction, neither can literary creativity atone for retrograde racial attitudes. Nor is there any antiseptically pure criticism that is able to skirt the moral implications of art. It is not ideas alone which have ethical and political consequences; so do works of fiction.
To ask whether Flannery O’Connor is a racist writer is not, therefore, to raise an extra-literary question. Indeed, the real test of her comic vision lies precisely here — whether she penetrated to the heart of the racial issue that vexed her age, or whether she retreated into an oblivious laughter. I contend that, far from dodging the racial question, O’Connor analyzed it acutely. She discerned those spiritual subtleties that the gross moralism of the time was prone to ignore. Convinced as she was that God’s grace overthrows all our conventional judgments and expectations, O’Connor turned her critical eye on the enlightened rather than the benighted. There she detected what the age was eager to deny — that the sins of the supposedly righteous were altogether as egregious as the evils of the obviously wicked.
The Artificial Nigger
The fact not previously noted is that O’Connor’s most convincing comic stories all have to do with race relations. In dealing with the subject about which she may have seemed illiberal, she became a truly redemptive writer Instead of furiously satirizing contemporary unbelief, she proved herself a comedian of positive grace. In “The Artificial Nigger,” she discloses that white prejudice and black suffering have not only a causal but also a curative relation. Negro anguish is not only produced by racial hatred; it can, when redemptively borne, be a cure for that very malice. In “The Enduring Chill,” O’Connor reveals again how surprisingly the moral categories can be reversed.
By the strange paradox of human sin and divine grace, racists can become generous while liberals remain mean-spirited. In “Revelation,” O’Connor shows how Ruby Turpin’s racial pride is not only a violation of the Negroes she pretends to love, but also of the faith which she complacently professes. Anything less than the mercy of God would petrify her racial pride into an embittered recalcitrance. All of the protagonists in these stories discover — as rarely happens in O’Connor’s work — that God’s grace is not first and last a devastating negation but an edifying affirmation. Only the cooling succor of divine mercy can reveal the real heat of God’s wrath. So unbounded is the forgiveness bestowed upon these characters that, in the light of God’s clemency alone, do they discern the hugeness of their sin
The Complex Irony of Racial Manners
Flannery O’Connor did not share, as we have noted, the official liberalism of the American literary and intellectual establishment. The chief liberal concern of her day was to break the shackles of racial discrimination that had held Southern blacks in ancient thrall. That this was not also O’Connor’s main aim does not for a moment imply any sympathy with the White Citizens Councils organized to preserve “segregation forever”– as their sloganeers liked so immodestly to claim.
But she does refuse to endorse the easy moralizing that the racial revolution afforded many liberal politicians and religionists. Thus does she describes the civil rights workers — who descended upon the South after leaving behind great bastions of unofficial segregation in their own Northern cities — as possessing a “moral energy that increases in direct proportion to the distance from home”
Her Reaction to John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me
It should come as no surprise that O’Connor has little sympathy for John Howard Griffin’s celebrated journey across the South impersonating a Negro, thus revealing the evils of racial hatred while gathering material for his much-controverted book of 1960, Black Like Me. O’Connor says that Griffin would be welcome to visit her in Milledgeville, but only if he did not appear “in blackface.” One’s racial identity is not something, in O’Connor’s view, that can be put off and on with either an actor’s skill or dermatological devices; it is the given fact of one’s existence. “If I had been one of them white ladies Griffin sat down by on the bus,” O’Connor writes with countrified acerbity, “I would have got up PDQ (pretty damn quick) preferring to sit by a genuine Negro.”
Her Reaction to James Baldwin
O’Connor’s regard for the black writer James Baldwin may cause even more consternation. To a friend wanting to bring him to the O’Connor farm for a visit, O’Connor replies that she would be willing to see Baldwin in New York but not in Milledgeville: “I observe the traditions of the society I feed on — it’s only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.” This seems a peculiarly uncourageous declaration on O’Connor’s part — as if she were bound by social convention, and as if her fiction were not a sustained satire of other evils endemic to her native milieu.
Perhaps the real reason O’Connor did not want to see Baldwin is that she thought him a poseur. He uses his deserved reputation as a writer, she argues, to engage in public attitudinizing. “Baldwin can tell us what it feels like to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too.” It is Baldwin’s moral posturing, not his racial identity, that O’Connor will not abide. She admires Martin Luther King, by contrast, for his spiritual integrity, for his willingness to do “what he can do and has to do!’ For O’Connor there is but a single standard of civility and decency that measures blacks and whites alike. “My question is usually, would this person be endurable if white? If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him for a minute.” She confesses that she prefers Cassius Clay, despite his conversion to Islam and his taking the name Mohammed Ali. Brashness befits a boxer, one must presume, as it does not become a writer. “Cassius is too good for the Muslims.”
No Defender Of “The Moonlight, Magnolias, And Mint-Julep” Version Of Southern History
Such angular opinions might make one conclude that O’Connor was an unreformed apologist for all things Southern. Quite to the contrary she was never enthralled by what W. J. Cash calls “the moonlight, magnolias, and mint-julep” version of Southern history. Far from thinking the Civil War (or the Late Unpleasantness, as diehard Southerners still call it) to be a glorious defense of traditional values, O’Connor regarded it as a supremely boring subject. Nor did she read I’ll Take My Stand, the Southern manifesto of the Vanderbilt Fugitives, until late in her short life. Even then, she did not accept their agrarian dream of a medievalized South freed from the supposed evils of machine production and a market economy.
Yet O’Connor did share the Agrarians’ contempt for Menckenism — the notion that the postwar South was a cultural and religious backwater whose benighted condition was best revealed in the Scopes trial. Like Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle, she scorned the received liberal dogma that the “Southern problem” constituted the chief national ailment. According to such conventional wisdom, the entire Republic could have been assured progress and prosperity if only the South could have conquered its inveterate poverty, illiteracy, and racism. The Southern problem, in this view, is its alienation from mainline America. The problem with the South, O’Connor replies crustily, is that “it is not alienated enough, that every day we are getting more and more like the rest of the country that we are being forced out not only of our many sins, but of our few virtues as well.”
The Nation’s Subtler Sin — Spiritual Naivety
The South’s “many sins” are revealed preeminently in its racial injustice. That O’Connor does not devote more of her literary energy to limning the evils of Southern racism may signify a certain moral complacency on her part. It may also mark, on the contrary, her kinship with Hawthorne, Melville, James and other American writers who have been troubled by the nation’s subtler sin — namely, spiritual naivety.
One needs only to read a literary critic like R. W. B. Lewis (The American Adam), a historian like C. Vann Woodward (The Burden of Southern History), or a theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness) to discern that there is, in fact, a shadowy underside to the sunny American optimism about human nature and destiny. Our nearly boundless natural resources, the moralistic character of our religious life, the vastness of our geographical space, the newness of our political institutions — all of these often combine to inspire Americans with the naive conviction that every human problem has a human solution. Many of our best writers and thinkers and preachers are convinced, on the contrary; that this wondrous freedom to right old wrongs and to seek a perpetual freshness of life constitutes, paradoxically, a pernicious problem of its own. It makes Americans prone to underestimate the crookedness of human character, to ignore the tragedy of human existence, and thus to fall prey to fatuous schemes for human health and happiness.
Liberal Self-Satisfaction And Racist Injustice
Flannery O’Connor belongs to this dissident tradition in American thought and letters. Her chief concern lies not with bigots who demean and degrade Negroes. She is exercised, instead, about the naive righteousness which besets enlightened people like herself and her readers. It was a more courageous act, in O’Connor’s opinion, to write about liberal self-satisfaction than about racist injustice. In this regard she shares the concerns of the medical psychologist Robert Coles. He came to the South during the sixties in order to witness the effects of the racial revolution on children. What at first perplexed Coles is that the worst victims of racial and social injustice — poor whites and blacks alike — often cared more about Jesus and the Bible than they sought their own political liberation. Gradually he came to discover that the same people who had their eyes set on heaven also had their feet planted more securely on the earth than did many of their secular counterparts.
Coles cites the testimony of a black woman who, fifteen years later, recalled the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. She reveals, with arresting candor, the surprising truth that deliverers can be as arrogant as oppressors, that secular liberators can be as complacent as the most bigoted racists, and that idealist utopias which ignore the facts of sin and redemption can be as repressive as the old systems of discrimination and segregation:
You’d tell your faith to the civil rights folks, and they’d look down at the ground, and they’d wait you out, with a bad, bad look in their eyes, and their mouths turned down, and they’d be scratching the back of their necks, until you’ve stopped talking, so they could start talking. And boy, did they talk! I told one white boy from up there in Massachusetts that he’s going to be a minister of Christ the Lord one of these days, when he sees the light. But he didn’t like what I said, no he didn’t. He just went on, telling me what should be, and telling me about the heaven we’re going to have here in this country, if we’d only turn everything around.
Well, there’s no heaven but in Heaven. And if you don’t know that, you don’t know much That’s what I believe Of course, you can’t tell some people much. They want to tell you everything. That’s how it goes: they come here to help us, but oh, if we don’t bow and scrape to their every idea, then they lose patience with us, and I declare, you see them looking at you no different than the sheriff, and the people at the post office, and like that. Scratch some of the white civil rights people and you have the plantation owners. Scratch some of the black civil rights people, and you have white talkers. .
Some of these people who came down here, they believed in men, not angels; and sure enough, they didn’t believe in God. It’s their choice, but it might have been nice if they’d said to me:It’s your choice. Instead, they felt sorry for us. Jesus Christ didn’t feel sorry for the people. He went and attended to. He loved them. He healed them out of love, He wanted them on their feet and the equal of other people. He didn’t want them to pray to other people. He wanted them to thank God. On your knees to him “Yes, sir” and “Yes, Ma’m” to the white folks, and Hello to your colored brethren, but to God Almighty, it’s a prayer, and it’s please dear Lord, please, and I’ve failed again. There’s a big difference between Him and us, that’s for sure.
Robert Coles, Flannery O’Connor’s South
This anonymous black woman from Mississippi is worth citing I at length because she detects, in her marvelously unsophisticated way, the same ironies that Flannery O’Connor seeks to uncover in her fiction. Against the intellectual and moral grain of her cultured audience, O’Connor reveals an evil — ethical self-righteousness — that is far subtler than injustice and far deeper than prejudice.
Southern Religion And Southern Manners
The further irony is that Southern religion and Southern manners — the two things that seemed to be the worst buttresses of the evil order — are potentially liberating, and ennobling as their secular replacements are not. Among the South’s “few virtues,” Flannery O’Connor regarded its sense of manners as chief. There is something immensely salutary she believed, about the South’s proverbial graciousness and politeness, its civility and propriety. Manners are not, of course, the equivalent of morals. Suavity of appearance and correctness of deportment may mask, in fact, a terrible cruelty of mind and heart.
At their best, she insists, manners are a secular acknowledgement of original sin. They are a means of setting limits upon the vagaries of our fallen condition and the depredations of, human self-interest. To behave courteously, therefore, is to accord fundamental respect to those one does not perhaps like, to preserve a necessary distance between people who are divided by preference and experience, and to assure privacy even among the closest of companions.
A Gradualist In Her Attitude Toward Racial Integration
Given her high regard for the venerable Southern sense of manners, O’Connor is predictably gradualist in her attitude toward racial integration. She did not believe that the past could be erased and history remade from the start. She thus feared that the old injustice done to Negroes would be overcome only at the loss of the civility which had helped to assuage the original evil. Yet she hoped that, slowly and patiently, Southern blacks and whites would discover, through a newly developed social propriety, a means for living together in mutuality no less than equality:
The uneducated Southern Negro is not the clown he’s made out to be. 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 The South has survived in the past because its manners, however lopsided or inadequate they may have been, provided enough social discipline to hold us together and give us an identity.
Now those old manners are obsolete, but the new manners will have to be based on what was best in the old ones — in their real basis of charity and necessity In practice, the Southerner seldom underestimates his own capacity for evil. For the rest of the country 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.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
The Paradox Of Civility And Formality Within Segregation
This paradox — that the evil system of segregation was ameliorated by an admirable civility and formality among both blacks and whites — is the background to Flannery O’Connor’s stories that deal with race relations. They are not moralistic accounts of blacks breaking free from the fetters of racist injustice, nor of whites being condemned for their inability to accept the brave new world of racial equality. They are stories about the grace that makes clowns of us all, liberals no less than reactionaries, the old no less than the young, the genteel no less than the uncouth. In these works, unlike much of O’Connor’s other fiction, her characters are not turned into mere fools; they are made fools for Christ.
Their foolishness is exposed only in order that they might acquire that jesting kind of freedom the early followers of Saint Francis embodied; they were called jongleur de Dieu. These first Franciscans were the merry jugglers and tumblers of God because they had seen the whole world upside down, as if standing on their heads. From their topsy-turvy perspective, the world no longer appeared to be an immovable mass, rocklike and self-sufficient. It was now seen as a fragile orb, something delicately floating and literally dependent, hanging like a ball by the thread of God’s grace.
G. K. Chesterton observes that, once he had been revolutionized by the call to evangelical poverty Francis could no longer take pride in his native Assisi as the city too strong to be thrown down. Instead, “he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped, he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.” It is such a joyfully revolutionized perspective that Nelson and Mr Head acquire at the end of “The Artificial Nigger.” There they discover that white mockery and black endurance can form an emblem of the crucifixion itself and thus of a forgiveness that transcends mere equity.