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Radical Ambivalence:
Race in Flannery O’Connor

by angela alaimo o’donnell
fordham, 192 pages, $30

In 1974, ten years after Flannery O’Connor died, Alice Walker visited O’Connor’s farm in Georgia. It was located minutes from the sharecropper shack where Walker had once lived. ­Walker had read O’Connor voraciously, but put her stories away when she discovered other writers, whom she had never heard of—black, Southern, religious writers who were not being celebrated and taught. She felt “almost ashamed,” Walker recalled, that O’Connor “had reached [her] first.” But in time, Walker realized she “would never be satisfied with a segregated literature.” Her library came to include Zora Neale ­Hurston and Flannery O’Connor, Nella Larsen and Carson McCullers, Jean Toomer and William Faulkner.

Critics indict O’Connor for not writing more explicitly about race. Eudora Welty responded to the assassination of Medgar Evers by publishing “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” Walker Percy wrote essays expressing outrage toward white segregationists. O’Connor was ­quieter and more ambivalent. “The topical is poison . . .” she wrote, “I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.” Walker did not have access to O’Connor’s letters, in which this statement appeared, but she defends O’Connor’s fiction nonetheless: “I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all sides of the story are put together. . . . And the whole story is what I’m after.”

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell examines O’Connor’s racial attitudes in Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor. O’Donnell chooses her title well. In her letters and stories, O’Connor appears neither as a racial progressive nor as the stereotypical bigot. On the one hand, O’Connor supports racial integration and humiliates her racist white characters. On the other hand, in her letters, she infantilizes the ­African-American field hands who served on her family’s farm and makes remarks most of us would be embarrassed to overhear.

How to account for a writer who claims at one point to dislike black people yet spends nearly two decades revising a story about a racist old man for whom two black characters become his saviors? O’Donnell points to a letter in which O’Connor states, “I hope to be of two minds about some things is not to be neutral.” O’Connor was caught, O’Donnell observes, “between aspirational hope and the reality of her own experience.” As a Catholic, O’Connor was committed to seeing God’s image in every person and to treating everyone as her neighbor. Yet she benefited from a system of injustice that she never protested. 

Ralph Ellison warned that American writers who “stereotype or ignore the Negro” do so to the detriment of “their own humanity.” Whatever her faults, O’Connor did neither. Alice Walker first felt drawn to O’Connor’s stories because of their realism: “Not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air,” she writes, “and these black folks without melons and superior racial patience, these are like the Southerners that I know.” Hilton Als gives similar ­commendation: “Her black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world. . . . She didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply—and complexly—drew from life.”

O’Connor did not, however, maintain the same level of respect in her letters. O’Donnell assumes that “toxic animosities [were] in the air O’Connor breathe[d] and, inevitably [became] part of her way of seeing the world.” Such a claim seems ­unlikely, considering what an outsider O’Connor was, and how much her experience living in Iowa, at Yaddo, and in Connecticut broadened her perspective. She saw beyond what others saw around her. Yet she nonetheless felt bound by the manners of her white neighbors. When her friend Maryat Lee proposed that James Baldwin visit O’Connor’s home in Georgia, O’Connor responded, “In New York it would be nice to meet him: here it would not. 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.”

What explains her apparent passivity? O’Connor seemed to mistrust activism. When Dorothy Day visited the integrationist community ­Koinonia, she was shot at in the middle of the night. O’Connor writes of the incident: “All my thoughts on this subject are ugly and uncharitable—such as: that’s a mighty long way to come to get shot at, etc. I admire her very much.” What does O’Connor mean when she says she admires someone whom she also mocks? She viewed Day’s visit much as we might view a trip taken by teenagers to spend a week caring for the poor abroad. She disapproved of attempts to correct a problem from the outside. She worried that such interference smacked of pride.

If O’Connor’s letters are evidence of a prejudiced imagination, her stories reveal a broader sympathy. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “The Enduring Chill,” for example, a young, educated man believes he has surpassed his racist mother. Unfortunately, his intellectual advance has not transformed his heart. In both stories, the young men exploit black characters in order to humiliate their less progressive mothers. O’Connor pushes readers to see that charity begins in a disposition of the heart toward those who are closest to us, then radiates outward. She distrusted ideological conversions that neglected the call to love those who think differently.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, Paul Elie detects racism not only in O’Connor’s letters but also in her final published story, “Revelation.” At the end of the story, the racist Mrs. Turpin has a vision of black people and poor whites going up to heaven ahead of self-consciously respectable people like her. Elie describes this as a segregationist vision, “in which people process to Heaven by race and class, equal but separate.” He contrasts it with Martin Luther King’s vision of “blacks and whites holding hands at the end of time.” This is a misreading. O’Connor is expressing the Biblical truth that those who consider themselves first on earth will enter last into Heaven, preceded by those whom they have oppressed in life. She rebukes pride of class and race.

O’Connor wrote her fiction in line with her ideals, not her prejudices. She told Maryat Lee, “I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste.” She joked she would sign herself into the hospital as “Mrs. ­Turpin.” Elie mistakenly interprets this gesture as O’Connor’s embracing racism. In fact, O’Connor is confessing her need to be purged of attitudes she knows to be wrong.

While O’Donnell acknowledged O’Connor’s aspirational commitment to equality, I do not think O’Connor cared, as O’Donnell suggests, whether she was “on the right side of history.” O’Connor sought to be on God’s side, and she knew that she often was not. What we have to acknowledge is that neither, most of the time, are we.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas.

Image by Will via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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