How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?

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tags: racism, literature, southern literature

Last year, Fordham University hosted a symposium on O’Connor and race, supported with a grant from the author’s estate. The organizer, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, edits a series of books on Catholic writers funded by the estate, has compiled a book of devotions drawn from O’Connor’s work, and has written a book of poems that “channel the voice” of the author. In a new volume in the series, “Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor” (Fordham), she takes up Flannery and That Issue. Proposing that O’Connor’s work is “race-haunted,” she applies techniques from whiteness studies and critical race theory, as well as Toni Morrison’s idea of “Africanist ‘othering.’ ” O’Donnell presents a previously unpublished passage on race and engages with scholars who have offered context for the racist remarks. Although she is palpably anguished about O’Connor’s race problem, she winds up reprising those earlier arguments in current literary-critical argot, treating O’Connor as “transgressive in her writing about race” but prone to lapses and excesses that stemmed from social forces beyond her control.

The context arguments go like this. O’Connor was a writer of her place and time, and her limitations were those of “the culture that had produced her.” Forced by illness to return to Georgia, she was made captive to a “Southern code of manners” that maintained whites’ superiority over blacks, but her fiction subjects the code to scrutiny. Although she used racial epithets carelessly in her correspondence, she dealt with race courageously in the fiction, depicting white characters pitilessly and creating upstanding black characters who “retain an inviolable privacy.” And she was admirably leery of cultural appropriation. “I don’t feel capable of entering the mind of a Negro,” she told an interviewer—a reluctance that Alice Walker lauded in a 1975 essay.

All the contextualizing produces a seesaw effect, as it variously cordons off the author from history, deems her a product of racist history, and proposes that she was as oppressed by that history as anybody else was. It backdates O’Connor as a writer of her time when she was a near-contemporary of writers typically seen as writers of our time: Gabriel García Márquez (born 1927), Maya Angelou (1928), Ursula K. Le Guin (1929), Tom Wolfe (1930), and Derek Walcott (1930), among others. It suggests that white racism in Georgia was all-encompassing and brooked no dissent, even though (as O’Donnell points out) Georgia was then changing more dramatically than at any point before or since. Patronizingly, it proposes that O’Connor, a genius who prized detachment, lacked the free will to think for herself.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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