Though Flannery O’Connor didn’t live long, she left us some of the best stories ever written. It’s impossible to overpraise “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Displaced Person,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Good Country People,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “Revelation.”
O’Connor’s liberal usage of the word “nigger” has always made many people uncomfortable, however, and considering today’s politically correct climate, she’s likely to have been canceled from most college syllabi.
Most damningly, there are passages from O’Connor’s correspondences that even her staunchest defenders can’t whitewash. On May 3rd, 1964, just three months before her death from lupus, O’Connor wrote to Maryat Lee, “You know, I’m an integrationist by 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.”
So O’Connor allowed or forced herself to think one way, but felt otherwise. On May 21st, O’Connor elaborated to Lee, “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 feels like to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too […] If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute.”
Negroes shouldn’t philosophize, prophesize or pontificate, you see. It’s a white thang.
O’Connor’s disdain and condescension towards blacks don’t show up in her fiction, however. Integrationist by principle, she’s not a racist against blacks in her art.
In O’Connor’s stories, blacks are generally dignified and likable, unlike her idiotic, freakish or criminal white trash. When O’Connor’s blacks transgress, it’s rather harmlessly, like stealing a turkey. They’re not smug idiots, confidence tricksters or murderers, like her white trash.
Unlike the one-armed white trash in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” O’Connor’s blacks don’t steal your car and abandon your deaf daughter at a roadside diner, miles from home. Unlike the three coolly depraved white trash in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” they don’t shoot your grandchildren, including a baby, before finishing you off.
In “The Artificial Nigger,” a brainless rural white trash, ironically named Mr. Head, takes his grandson to Atlanta, to teach him an important lesson, “Mr. Head meant him to see everything there is to see in a city so that he would be content to stay at home for the rest of his life.”
To Mr. Head’s dismay, the boy, Nelson, was doggedly proud to have been born in Atlanta. An orphan, Nelson had spent his first six months there.
Even on the train there, Mr. Head behaved moronically. Rudely waking other passengers, he read aloud everything on his ticket. Later, Mr. Head declared the name of each passing building, forcing Nelson to hiss, “Hush up!” The boy had more innate dignity than his grandpa.
At home, Mr. Head had stressed to Nelson that Atlanta was “full of niggers,” and since the boy had never encountered one, he was totally unprepared for this nightmare. Now on the train, three blacks appeared.
O’Connor, “A huge coffee-colored man was coming slowly forward. He had on a light suit and a yellow satin tie with a ruby pin in it. One of his hands which rode majestically under his buttoned coat, and in the other he held the head of a black walking stick that he picked up and set down with a deliberate outward motion each time he took a step. He was proceeding very slowly, his large brown eyes gazing over the heads of the passengers. He had a small white mustache and white crinkly hair. Behind him there were two young women, both coffee-colored, one in a yellow dress and one in a green. Their progress was kept at the rate of his and they chatted in low throaty voices as they followed him.”
Much classier than Mr. Head and Nelson, the blacks were headed for the dining car. Later, Mr. Head also took his grandson there, but only to look. They couldn’t afford it.
Shooed away after they had tried to poke into the kitchen, Mr. Head cracked a loud joke about cockroaches that got everyone laughing. Triumphant, they returned to their seats.
For lunch, Mr. Head had brought a paper bag with some biscuits and a can of sardine, but in their excitement to get off the train, they forgot all about it, so went hungry for the rest of the day.
Tossed into the swirling city, both of them were overwhelmed, but grandpa had a strategy, “Mr. Head was determined not to go into any city store because on his first trip here, he had got lost in a large one and had found his way out only after many people had insulted him.”
Walking along, they browsed stores and even inspected the sewer, for Nelson’s much needed edification. Soon enough, though, they were lost. The houses had become much shabbier, and there were blacks everywhere.
O’Connor, “There were colored men in their undershirts standing in the doors and colored women rocking on the sagging porches. Colored children played in the gutters and stopped what they were doing to look at them. Before long they began to pass rows of stores with colored customers in them but they didn’t pause at the entrances of these. Black eyes in black faces were watching them from every direction.”
In this “nigger heaven,” Mr. Head was too intimidated to ask for directions, so it was left to the boy to approach a woman.
During their brief exchange, the motherless boy was overtaken by a painful, deeply smothered yearning, “He suddenly wanted her to reach down and pick him up and draw him against her and then he wanted to feel her breath on his face. He wanted to look down and down into her eyes while she held him tighter and tighter. He had never had such a feeling before.”
Unaware of this turbulence, the sweet woman merely responded, “You can go a block down yonder and catch you a car take you to the railroad station, Sugarpie.”
Since Mr. Head had never taken a streetcar, they didn’t board one, but merely follow the tracks. When you’re so ignorant yet proud, everything is impossible. Too exhausted and hungry to go on, Nelson had to sit down on the sidewalk, and when he dozed off, Mr. Head had an inspiration.
O’Connor, “He looked at the sprawled figure for several minutes; presently he stood up. He justified what he was going to do on the grounds that it is sometimes necessary to teach a child a lesson he won’t forget, particularly when the child is always reasserting his position with some new impudence. He walked without a sound to the corner about twenty feet away and sat down on a covered garbage can in the alley where he could look out and watch Nelson wake up alone.”
Nelson’s latest impudence was to ask that black lady for help. He needed to be taught a lesson for showing up his grandpa. White trash on a trash can, Mr. Head waited for Nelson’s waking terror.
The boy slept on. Impatient, Mr. Head finally kicked the trash can to jolt Nelson awake.
O’Connor, “Nelson shot up onto his feet with a shout. He looked where his grandfather should have been and stared. He seemed to whirl several times and then, picking up his feet and throwing his head back, he dashed down the street like a wild maddened pony.”
Chasing after, Mr. Head lost sight of Nelson. After the third intersection, he came upon this scene, “Nelson was sitting with both legs spread out and by his side lay an elderly woman, screaming. Groceries were scattered about the sidewalk. A crowd of women had already gathered to see justice done and Mr. Head distinctly heard the old woman on the pavement shout, ‘You’ve broken my ankle and your daddy’ll pay for it! Every nickel! Police! Police!’ Several of the women were plucking at Nelson’s shoulder but the boy seemed too dazed to get up.”
Instead of running to his grandson, Mr. Head hid behind a “trash box” to “get his bearings.” Again, the trash motif. Finally, he approached Nelson, “but only at a creeping pace.”
O’Connor, “The women were milling around Nelson as if they might suddenly all dive on him at once and tear him to pieces, and the old woman continued to scream that her ankle was broken and to call for an officer. Mr. Head came on so slowly that he could have been taking a backward step after each forward one, but when he was about ten feet away, Nelson saw him and sprang. The child caught him around the hips and clung panting against him.”
With the enraged women’s attention turned on him, Mr. Head did something so horrible, it’d sear and shame him forever.
Mr. Head sensed the approach of the policeman from behind. He stared straight ahead at the women who were massed in their fury like a solid wall to block his escape, “This is not my boy,” he said. “I never seen him before.”
He felt Nelson’s fingers fall out of his flesh.
The women dropped back, staring at him with horror, as if they were so repulsed by a man who would deny his own image and likeness that they could not bear to lay hands on him. Mr. Head walked on, through a space they silently cleared, and left Nelson behind. Ahead of him he saw nothing but a hollow tunnel that had once been the street.
Throughout this story, Mr. Head had strangely competed against Nelson, such was his smallness, but with this cowardly act, he became less-than-nothing, but what do you expect from an O’Connor’s white trash? They’re simply the worst.
In another story, “Revelation,” O’Connor reemphasizes this point:
Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, ‘There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash,’ what would she have said? ‘Please, Jesus, please,’ she would have said, ‘just let me wait until there’s another place available,’ and he would have said, ‘No, you have to go right now and I have only those two places so make up your mind.’ She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, ‘All right, make me a nigger then—but that don’t mean a trashy one.’ And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.
Born and raised in Georgia, O’Connor went to Iowa for grad school, then spent a couple of years in New York and Connecticut, before returning to Georgia, where she spent her last 13 years.
It was in the North, then, that O’Connor came into being as a writer, and most of her earliest champions, Paul Engle, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Lowell, etc., were Northerners, as was her publisher, Robert Giroux. Though rooted in the South, O’Connor was also orientated towards the North, with its mores, taste and, yes, attitudes towards race.
From that angle, the South has been little more than a stinking mudhole of white trash, so down the decades, we’re served with Deliverance, Easy Riders, Honey Boo Boo and, yes, also Flannery O’Connor. As great as she is, O’Connor contributes to that relentless calumny.
In 2020, there was an article by Paul Elie in The New Yorker, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”
I’d say pretty damn racist, against poor whites.
In 2021, the term “white trash” has been compacted to just “whites,” so it’s not just the South that is overrun with assorted Mr. Heads and Misfits, but pretty much the entire country, save for half of Manhattan, chunks of California and perhaps Seattle.
It is deplorable. That’s why the US must be rigorously reeducated and deformed, if not destroyed, for the benefit of all trash, of any color.
First they came for the white trash, and no one said nothing…