Last week, Loyola University Maryland announced that it is renaming the Flannery O’Connor Residence Hall on campus. In an email to the Loyola community, President Brian F. Linnane, S.J., stated that he made this decision based on “information coming forward recently” which “revealed that some of [O’Connor’s] personal writings reflected a racist perspective.” “The building names we use at Loyola,” he wrote, “Should declare to our students—and entire community—what sort of values we esteem and hope to instill in our graduates.”
The announcement is the school’s official response to a two-sentence, grammatically infelicitous petition from a white student:
Recent letters and postcards written by Flannery O'Connor express strong racist sentiments and hate speech. Her name and legacy should not be honored nor glorified on our Evergreen Campus.
Comments from signees complain that O’Connor is “disgusting” and that students cannot live “under the name of bigotry.” One wonders, though, how many of these signees know anything about the celebrated Catholic author they have so eagerly condemned. Many admit that they have no clue who this mysterious O’Connor was or why anything was named after her in the first place. Apparently, none are aware that the “recent postcards” were written in 1943, when O’Connor was just a teenager traveling outside the segregated South for the first time. As for the so-called “recent letters,” it is doubtful many realize that O’Connor has been dead for fifty-six years and that her letters were published forty years ago.
The “recent” revelations Linnane mentions have a single source: an essay by Paul Elie, published in The New Yorker two weeks after American cities erupted in protests and violence over the killing of George Floyd. The essay—pointedly titled “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”—takes O’Connor’s admirers to task for either excusing or ignoring the racist remarks and attitudes that appear in her personal correspondence.
I won’t bother criticizing Elie’s essay carefully, as scholars Amy Alznauer, Jerome C. Foss, and Jessica Hooten Wilson have already ably done so. Elie’s piece doesn’t offer much new information; he has merely brought O’Connor’s personal failures to national attention at a moment when racial tensions are especially high. Those of us who have bothered to assess the evidence (which has been available for some time) already knew that O’Connor was not free from the sin of racism. While she was committed in principle to integration and civil rights for black Americans, O’Connor admitted that by inclination she preferred the company of whites. In a particularly cringeworthy discussion of James Baldwin, she reveals a condescension toward black intellectuals that is disappointing. She sometimes used inexcusable racial slurs, in keeping with the customs of the racist culture she lived in—a culture she critiques and exposes in her fiction, but whose habits of speech and feeling she had internalized to some degree. Of course, we must confront O’Connor’s personal failures honestly. However, in the context of Catholic education, we must do this on Catholic rather than secular terms.
From a Catholic perspective, is the life and fiction of Flannery O’Connor still worth celebrating, in spite of the fact that she harbored some of the racist attitudes of her time and place? I believe that it is. As a devout Catholic, O’Connor knew that we are all marked by sin and therefore in need of God’s merciful grace. As a disabled woman in the male-dominated world of literature, she faced and overcame many challenges by placing the Eucharist at the center of her life. In her fiction, O’Connor reveals a vision of grace centered on the power of God’s love to break us out of our own complacency, in spite of our sins and our dispositions to sin. O’Connor wrote about the people her own culture had cast aside—the freaks, misfits, losers, and outcasts—and she was keen to show them in the fullness of their complex humanity, as equally created in the image of God and worthy of our attention. Her art reveals the truth that there is a powerful and ever-present temptation to resist, ignore, or distract ourselves from a reality that does not flatter us. Her fictional characters are comically ignorant of their own defects of soul, and need the violence of grace to reveal those defects to themselves in extraordinary and often painful ways. This human drama of sin, suffering, and redemption is powerful art because it is true to human life.
It is well known that O'Connor's fiction directly challenges the toxic racism of white Southern culture, but it is less well known that she did not exempt herself from its negative influence. In her personal letters she makes an unflattering comparison between herself and one of her own racist characters, Mrs. Turpin. Her letters and journals reveal a woman aware of and forthcoming about her own sins. We ought to prefer O’Connor’s self-deprecating and revelatory honesty over a self-congratulation fed and watered by self-deception.
The student-led petition at Loyola presents an opportunity for us to consider what sort of values a Catholic institution of higher education ought to instill in its students; this is a good thing. It is an opportunity for Loyola’s Catholic leadership to acknowledge and reaffirm the truth that we humans are a fallen lot—that good and evil inevitably run through all of our hearts; to reaffirm the need for our culture to be elevated by grace; to remind young people that our quest for justice must be tempered by mercy and humility; and to explain, in Christian charity, what in O’Connor’s life and art is truly honorable and what is not.
Finally, the petition presents an opportunity for Catholics to address the contemporary demand that those we honor be perfect and free from the stain of sin—especially the sin of racism. We should resist this impossible demand. We need moral exemplars to provide models for our own lives, but we must accept that those exemplars will inevitably be wounded by sin—original, personal, and structural. We need to see those we honor in their wounded humanity, or we will never be able to see ourselves in them at all.
Jennifer A. Frey is associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina.
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