In a recent New Yorker essay, Paul Elie asks, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” His headline aims to be incendiary, to rile people up, to give us a scapegoat for our rage against racism. Racism is obviously a serious sin. But Elie’s portrait of the author is incomplete. Because he misreads much of O’Connor’s writing, he concludes that she was unrepentantly racist. But O’Connor did not embrace bigotry. Like all of us, she was a sinner who struggled to purge herself of prejudices she knew were immoral. And she boldly fought racism—in both others and in herself—the best way she knew how: by writing stories.
Elie notes that in private correspondence, O’Connor used inexcusable racial slurs, and confessed to friends that she struggled between the Christian in her, who believed that all are God’s children, and the Southern white lady in her, who was trained to see black people as inferior. Elie declares O’Connor a racist because of these letters, and suggests that O’Connor scholars are unwilling to see or speak of them. Never mind that scholars have wrestled for years with the letters Elie quotes. (Elie draws his provocative quotations from Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Radical Ambivalence, which I review in the forthcoming August/September issue of First Things.) Elie does not show us the other side of O'Connor: the O’Connor who was an integrationist, if a gradualist one; who had black friends in Iowa and New York; who was close with activists such as Father McCown and Tom and Louise Gossett, and twice invited John Howard Griffin to visit her home; who kept a portrait of Louise Hill, her mother’s African American housemaid, in her room; who reviewed a biography of the African American minister Richard Allen and declared it would transform readers. Elie omits all these details.
Most important, Elie does not sufficiently examine O’Connor's fiction, much of which condemns racism. To fully understand O’Connor, we must study her novels and short stories. That is where we find her ultimate commitments, both religious and moral. Through her fiction, O’Connor exorcised the demons that possessed her.
Rather than preach to the choir, O’Connor tried to change those who thought differently; in her fiction, she often moved racist characters from sin to redemption. For the past five years, I have been editing O’Connor's third novel, which she was working on when she died. It is called Why Do the Heathen Rage? The plot centers on a white man who writes letters to a white woman, a civil rights activist in New York. In his correspondence with her, this man pretends to be black. He is testing whether she loves people as much as she claims she does. O’Connor planned for the novel to end with his conversion, his comeuppance. The story takes a close look at Koinonia, the integrationist farm in Americus, Georgia, established by the Baptist radical Clarence Jordan. Why Do the Heathen Rage? shows that O’Connor did not shy away from difficult conversations, but used her fiction to call for Southerners to repent of racist attitudes.
African American writers have often lauded O’Connor’s work as contending with racism. Hilton Als notes that O’Connor started writing “less than a hundred years after Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and just a decade after Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.” Unlike those writers, he says, O’Connor did not treat her black characters with “patronizing sentimentality.” She wrote with courage as she pointed a finger at racial bigots—and at the bigotry she saw in herself.
Elie’s most egregious error is his misreading of “Revelation.” O’Connor wrote this story from her hospital bed as she struggled against lupus in the winter of 1963, months before she died. It concerns a racist Southern woman, Ruby Turpin, who is humiliated in a doctor’s office by a sophisticated Wellesley student named Mary Grace. Mrs. Turpin has been expressing her disdain for the “white trash” she considers as worthless as black people, much to the silent disdain of sour-faced Mary Grace. Inwardly, Mrs. Turpin thanks Jesus for not making her black, white trash, or ugly. She suddenly shouts aloud, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!” Mary Grace responds by hurling a book at Turpin, striking her in the eye, knocking her down, and attempting to strangle her. With eyes of accusation burning, Mary Grace whispers, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!”
The moment scandalizes Mrs. Turpin, and at the end of the story, she stands atop a fence by her pig pen and yells at God for allowing her to be thus disgraced. Although the insult came from a stranger’s lips, it is as though God has called her out. She shouts at the Lord, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” O’Connor could just as well be aiming the question at herself: How can I be a sinner and a believer at the same time? How can I be racist and write stories against racism? When Mrs. Turpin rages and roars one final time, “Who do you think you are?,” the question echoes back to her from the tree line, as though God were speaking the words. O’Connor suggests that the proud woman must be knocked down to her rightful place, humbled before the Lord.
As the sun sets, Mrs. Turpin receives a vision at her pig pen. She beholds a bridge extending from the earth “through a field of living fire.” She sees a congregation of souls dancing and leaping in a great heavenward procession—both “white trash” and black people in white robes. Mrs. Turpin observes that those like herself and her husband Claud trail at the end of the line. Elie interprets this as a vision of segregation—people separated by race and class even while processing to heaven. But O’Connor is actually alluding to the biblical teaching that the first will be made last and the last first. The vision puts Ruby Turpin in her place, so to speak, as she watches small-minded “virtues”—her “dignity” and “common sense and respectable behavior”—being “burned away” in the purgatorial fires. After this revelation, Mrs. Turpin literally steps “down” from where she stands and descends the “slow way” back home.
In the final summer of her life, when she was about to receive treatment for lupus, O’Connor jokingly wrote to her friendly antagonist Maryat Lee that she would sign her name as “Mrs. Turpin” when she was checked into the hospital. Elie interprets this as yet another sign of racism: O’Connor, he says, is identifying with her racist character. But this is another misreading. “Revelation” does not lift up Mrs. Turpin as a model, but calls for her and those like her to repent. By referring to herself as “Mrs. Turpin,” then, O’Connor was repenting of her own serious faults. No wonder that O’Connor writes in her essays that it is the Christian novelist’s duty to unmask the devils that possess us. “Revelation” holds a mirror up to the author herself. In this reflection, O’Connor sees herself possessed by racist prejudices and in need of purgation.
If we cast out all writers who ever struggled with sin, we will be left without a single one. If we start scapegoating O’Connor, we will end by rejecting many eminent writers who fought racism in their work—Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is unfair to lambast O’Connor without recognizing how her work has helped us combat racist attitudes. As we make strides to uproot bigotry from our nation and seek justice on behalf of those who have suffered unjustly, we should see Flannery O’Connor not as a hindrance but as someone who helped us come a long way.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.