Confronting Flannery O’Connor’s Racism

A Response to Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor is seen in an undated photo. (CNS photo / Floyd Jillson / Atlanta Journal-Constition, via AP)

Flannery O’Connor is one of the boldest and most original writers in the American Catholic literary tradition. The subject of O’Connor and race, vexed since the publication of many of her letters in The Habit of Being in 1979, has become more so with the publication of long-withheld remarks of O’Connor’s by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell in her book Radical Ambivalence. It is the remarks themselves that are damaging to O’Connor’s reputation, and it’s the grim recognition of this by people who cherish her that has led to their being downplayed and/or withheld for so long—and that has now led O’Donnell to downplay them in Commonweal

In my 2003 book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, I addressed the topic of O’Connor and race at length. Of her letters, I observed that “there is the word ‘nigger’ running through the correspondence. There are quips about blacks, offered again and again as punch lines. There is, in the letters, a habit of bigotry that grows more pronounced as O’Connor’s fiction, in matters of race, grows more complex and profound—a habit that seems to defy the pattern established by her art.” I’ve been pondering O’Connor ever since: teaching her fiction at Georgetown, publishing essays (including in Commonweal), reading newly archived O’Connor materials when they become available, and lecturing on O’Connor and race.

At an academic conference in Atlanta last November, I heard CUNY professor Carole K. Harris present a paper about O’Connor’s friendship with Maryat Lee. Harris cited a PhD dissertation by O’Donnell from 2018, which discussed O’Connor and race. Back in New York, I downloaded the dissertation, read it, and saw O’Connor’s long-withheld remarks for the first time. I wrote to O’Donnell and asked for proofs of her then-forthcoming book, a revision of the dissertation, which was scheduled for release in June 2020. Meanwhile, I’d seen a rough cut of a documentary film about O’Connor also set for release in spring 2020. In December, I proposed an essay on O’Connor and race to the New Yorker.

Radical Ambivalence is published in Fordham University Press’s Studies in the Catholic Imagination: The Flannery O’Connor Trust Series. In 2018, Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, where O’Donnell is associate director, was granted $450,000 by the trust to “promote the work of America’s most distinguished Catholic writer” and Catholic literature more broadly through scholarly initiatives. In a news item about the grant, O’Donnell set out a position on the correspondence: “Some writers stumble around trying to find their subject and their voice, but not O’Connor. Even in her letters she knew she was writing for posterity.”

In the book, O’Donnell quotes for the first time the remarks in O’Connor’s correspondence that scholars have known about but only paraphrased; she cites the “happy turn of events” whereby the author’s estate has let her “make those remarks public” in “the interest of truth-telling.”        

Here are the long-withheld remarks. In a letter to Maryat Lee dated May 3, 1964, O’Connor wrote:

“You know, I’m an integrationist on principle & a segregationist by taste anyway.  I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.” 

Those remarks were followed by others that have been known since 1979. But on May 21, 1964, O’Connor wrote to Lee again:

“About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent. Baldwin can tell us what it means to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too. M.L. King I dont think is the ages great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do. Don’t know anything about Ossie Davis except that you like him but you probably like them all. My question is usually would this person be endurable if white. If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute.” 

Those remarks were objectionable when O’Connor made them. O’Donnell recognizes this, and she recognizes that they are damaging to O’Connor’s reputation.

Those remarks were objectionable when O’Connor made them. O’Donnell recognizes this, and she recognizes that they are damaging to O’Connor’s reputation. “Reading [the unpublished letters],” she writes, “it is not hard to imagine why they were not selected for publication” by O’Connor’s family and executors. O’Connor “demonstrates attitudes that are hard to describe as anything but patently racist.” And O’Donnell observes that among scholars there is a “general, though by no means universal, reluctance to come to terms with what Paul Elie calls ‘the habit of bigotry’ that imbues her correspondence, especially in the letters exchanged with Maryat Lee.” 

In the New Yorker essay, I describe the surging interest in O’Connor’s life, the elevation of her correspondence, and the ways scholars downplay those remarks. And I present the long-withheld remarks near the end of the essay.  

The inconvenient truth is that O’Connor stated her dislike of “negroes...particularly the new kind” twice in May 1964. That is, she did so very late in her career, after she revised her story “Revelation,” deep into the Civil Rights Era, ten weeks before her death. That is, those remarks defy any claim that she was repentant, “recovering,” or undergoing a “slow conversion” on matters of race. 

O’Donnell recognizes this, too. In a long chapter of her book, she argues that “Revelation” is an allegory for O’Connor’s “saving self-recognition” of her own racism.  But alas, O’Connor made those remarks after she finished the story, so O’Donnell flippantly dismisses them as instances of “quasi-racist” role-playing.    

Now O’Donnell is downplaying those remarks. In her article for Commonweal, she euphemistically suggests that they show merely that O’Connor was “capable of entertaining and confessing racist thoughts.” Here as elsewhere, she doesn’t let the reader see O’Connor’s words or even give the gist of them. The remarks she made public a few weeks ago “in the interest of truth-telling” are unspeakable again.  

Her tendentious view of O’Connor’s stories as “anti-racist parables” is not supported by the stories, which are barbed and paradoxical. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a bigoted white Southern woman gets her comeuppance, but so does her progressive son, and her comeuppance comes at the hands of a Black woman who is very nearly a stereotype: “sullen-looking,” full of rage. In “Revelation,” a bigoted white Southern woman gets her comeuppance, but the revelation that follows is true to the woman’s character; she envisions Blacks going to heaven ahead of whites, but sees the heavenly company processing by race and class, equal but separate. In “Judgement Day,” a bigoted white Southern man gets his comeuppance at the hands of a dapper Black actor in New York, and dies. His last wish, fulfilled by his daughter, is that his body be returned to Georgia. In a reverie, he sees his Black handyman there as a double, a “negative image of himself”—but still sees the man as help whom he supports paternalistically: “You make a monkey out of one of them and he jumps on your back and stays there for life.” The story is valedictory in spirit—a story of a white Southerner’s homegoing to genial, gradualist Georgia, free at last from the inhuman integrated North.

Flannery O’Connor isn’t going anywhere. Neither are the remarks she made and the questions they raise. To diminish their sting is to diminish the reality of racism in our society. To promote the person who wrote them as “the perfect writer for our moment,” as O’Donnell does, is to fail to take either the remarks or the moment seriously.  If we are going to look to O’Connor’s work to help us understand matters of race—and surely it can—we’ve got to understand the work itself, including those remarks of May 1964. As I wrote in the New Yorker essay, the reluctance to face them squarely has become a stumbling block that keeps us from approaching O’Connor with the seriousness that a great writer deserves. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s hostile response to the essay suggests that the stumbling block is still in place, and that those remarks will be sidestepped for another generation by the very people who are in a position to confront them directly.

Paul Elie, a senior fellow in Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), a group portrait of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. He has contributed to Commonweal since 1990.

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