June 8, 2009: On Flannery O’Connor and Race

Having recently taken a workshop on unlikable characters (Takeaway: Don’t get hung up on some readers’ need for sympathetic characterswhen writing fiction.), I have both created a main character who steals from her generous landlady/employer and reread Flannery O’Connor. Talk about unlikable characters!

O’Connor was Southern—as is my sticky-fingered protagonist—and self-identified as a Catholic writer, two more reasons why this Quaker fiction writer decided to read her again.

But, oh my: Much as I had yearned to learn from O’Connor’s art, her treatment of her black characters appalled me. Hoping I’d find something more, dare I say enlightened, I read her letters, too. Which, sad to say, made her worse in my eyes. Example: In one letter, she tells a story and uses “colored people.” In another letter, to a different friend, she tells the same story but says “niggers.” So don’t tell me she was a product of her time and place. She knew better.

Tons of writers have written about O’Connor and race (Check out Links for an excellent but looong piece.) I want to add my two cents:

My personal theory re why this severely ill (lupus), Southern, white, female, Catholic writer living during the civil rights movement (1925-1964) was so drawn to the grotesque, so convinced that the South was “Christ-haunted” and so clueless that it was, in fact, slavery-haunted, is that she was absolutely all of those defining words AND Irish-American.

My hero James Carroll wrote a wonderful piece in the Boston Globe today re Irish Catholics in light of the recent abuse scandal in Ireland. His point was that to the Irish Catholics, oppressed by the British and decimated by famine, “the Catholic Church had such a grip on the Irish psyche, if not soul. . . ”

No wonder her stories are so fiercely concerned with redemption! And Original Sin. No wonder she believed that “the Catholic writer, in so far as he [sic] has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that is, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.” No “cafeteria-style Catholicism” for our Flannery, no sirree. She puts ALL of it on her tray. Add all that painful Irish history/baggage to her Irish-American, day-to-day struggle to be Catholic in small-town, Bible Belt Georgia and, maybe, just maybe, you’ve got yourself someone so caught up in her own spiritual identity and survival, she was absolutely blind to the horror of racism.


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1 Comment

  1. Hi Patricia
    Also the Irish in America tended to collaborate with racism in order to find a place for themselves…

    A book that talks about that–which has some problems, but is worth reading, is How the Irish Became White. I’ve attached here a link to a sermon about it from a site on racism that might be of interest to you and your readers. http://academic.udayton.edu/Race/01race/white13.htm

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