Susan Sink recently had a chance to interview Angela Alaimo O’Donnell about her new book, Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor (Fordham, 2020). The book is the first book-length study of O’Connor’s attitude toward race in her fiction and correspondence. It is also the first study to include controversial material from unpublished letters that reveals the complex and troubling nature of O’Connor’s thoughts on the subject. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a professor, writer, and poet at Fordham University and Associate Director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Her recent books include Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith, and a collection of sonnets from O’Connor’s point of view, Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor. Angela attended the Collegeville Institute Summer Workshop “Apart, and Yet A Part” with Michael N. McGregor in 2019.
There’s always a desire, I think, to have our literary heroes be the best people possible, and especially on the right side of history when it comes to things like Civil Rights and racism. Your approach to famed writer Flannery O’Connor is interesting, separating the art from the life by separating the stories and novels from the letters where she expressed more disturbing opinions, including “a preference for segregation and … a personal dislike for African Americans.” Could you talk a bit about the “double-mindedness” you describe in O’Connor?
The book begins with—and takes its title from—a letter O’Connor wrote to a friend in which she refers to the issue of racial integration in America: “I hope that to be of two minds about some things is not to be neutral.”
Though she clearly recognized the problem of racism and the injustices imposed upon African Americans by a government that treated Black people as unequal to white people, she also had enough self-knowledge to recognize that she, too, was guilty of the sin of racism. In her letters, many of which remain unpublished and can be accessed only in archival collections, O’Connor is frank about her views. Though I knew from reading scholarship that these letters existed, it was still deeply disturbing to me when I first read the clearly racist statements Flannery makes. (My book publishes several of these statements for the first time.) The challenge for me, then, was how to reconcile these passages with her stories, in which she (for the most part) perceives clearly and depicts skillfully the plight of her African American characters.
What emerges from a close reading of these stories is the fact that, even at her best, when she is trying to lay bare the racism of her white characters, O’Connor’s own white privilege comes through. What becomes evident in considering the stories and the correspondence is that a writer can be both unconsciously racist and consciously anti-racist at the same time.
…even at her best, when she is trying to lay bare the racism of her white characters, O’Connor’s own white privilege comes through.
I’m reminded of the character of Ruby Turpin in O’Connor’s story, “Revelation.” She is a thorough-going racist but also tries earnestly to be a good Christian. After being called “a wart-hog from hell” by a prophetic stranger on account of her racist views, Ruby interrogates God as to why he would send her such a terrible, dehumanizing message: “How am I a hog and me both?” she asks. We might reframe Mrs. Turpin’s question, “How can I be a racist and a Christ-loving human being at the same time?” Clearly, it is possible. The world is full of such people. And O’Connor would count herself among them.
You use the analysis of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison to explain what O’Connor seemed to have gotten right—she did not appropriate or try to represent Black consciousness but let her characters have their own privacy and agency separate from or in resistance to the white characters. Why is this independence of the characters—their perspective and actions—important? In conjunction with this, could you talk about the idea of “manners” and the social code that governed the relationships between Black people and white people that O’Connor both preferred and reflects in her work?
First, it’s important to note that O’Connor’s stories don’t include many Black characters. Her focus is on what she knows—the ways of white people. When asked why “Negroes” don’t figure more prominently in her stories, O’Connor once explained, “I don’t understand them the way I do white people. I don’t feel capable of entering the mind of a Negro. In my stories they’re seen from the outside. The Negro in the South is quite isolated; he has to exist by himself. In the South segregation is segregation.”
O’Connor wisely reminds us of the limited perspective most white people in the South have. Because of Jim Crow laws, they live in a world governed by white norms —they don’t go to school with Black people, they don’t go to church with Black people, they would not be able to sit down to a meal with a Black person. African Americans occupied their own separate sphere, one that white people rarely, if ever, entered.
Black people, on the other hand, did enter the white world in the segregated South. They worked as domestics in white people’s homes, served as nannies for white children, and worked as laborers on white-owned farms. African Americans were avid observers of white peoples’ lives. They knew things—often intimate, personal things—about white people that white people would never know about them. Black people understood their own privacy to be a form of protection. Their survival depended upon it. In a culture of segregation and enforced inequality, in a country where white privilege is upheld and defended by the local police and the KKK, to let a white person know what you think is to take a great risk.
Accordingly, O’Connor’s Black characters are always inscrutable, characters whose motivations and histories are impossible for white people to know because we aren’t privy to them. O’Connor doesn’t presume to depict an interior life she has no access to. Instead, Black people keep their own counsel and behave according to the rules of the society they live in. Those rules are part of an elaborate code—a code that, as one might imagine, would be seen differently from a white and a Black perspective.
In a culture of segregation and enforced inequality, in a country where white privilege is upheld and defended by the local police and the KKK, to let a white person know what you think is to take a great risk.
James Baldwin once commented on the strange and terrifying rules that Black people had to live by in the South. The code consists of “a system of signs and nuances [that] covers the mined terrain of the unspoken—the forever unspeakable—and everyone in the region knows his way across this field. This knowledge that a gesture can blow up a town is what the South refers to when it speaks of its “folkways.” O’Connor lived by these “folkways,” which she refers to as “manners” in her letters and essays. From her limited white perspective, “manners” enabled Black and white people to live amicably together. From the African American perspective, as Baldwin clearly points out, “manners” was a prescriptive set of performative expectations upheld by the threat of violence, a form of enforced structural racism, and the price Black people paid for living in a racialized society in which they constituted the subordinate caste.
This knowledge that a gesture can blow up a town is what the South refers to when it speaks of its “folkways.” O’Connor lived by these “folkways…”
Could you say a bit about how you see the work of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin in O’Connor’s project? It seems almost contradictory how she uses his line “everything that rises must converge” as the title of her most overt and well recognized story about race (where the convergence is violent and not rooted in communion).
Teilhard’s vision is particularly consequential in terms of O’Connor’s ideas about race and politics. In his signature work, The Divine Milieu, Teilhard describes the process of human and natural evolution as a process of “divinization,” a gradual, perpetual movement of the creation toward cosmic convergence into a single, perfect whole. This process of divinization is happening without conscious human agency. Human activity cannot bring about the Parousia—only God’s work in the world can accomplish this grand end. Given this theological vision, we can better understand why O’Connor would find the efforts of Civil Rights activists to be a form of folly, at best, and a collective act of overweening pride, at worst. The puny efforts of human beings cannot bring about unity and equality, the victory of good over evil, and to witness people trying to achieve this constitutes both a sad and comic enterprise.
In choosing to title her story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” O’Connor invokes Teilhard’s work and this overarching vision. The reader is invited to watch the events that take place in the course of a fateful bus ride in the light of eternity. Everyone behaves badly in that story—the racist mother, her seemingly liberal son, Julian (who is actually a closet racist), the people on the bus (both white and Black), and the African American woman who violently strikes Julian’s mother at the story’s climax in response to her well-meant but racist gesture of giving a penny to the Black woman’s young son. O’Connor once wrote in a letter that she did not like to write about current events: “The topical is poison,” she said. She goes on in that letter, however, to qualify that blanket statement: “I got away with it in ‘Everything That Rises’ but only because I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.” No one escapes in O’Connor’s tale. All are equally benighted and sinful.
The puny efforts of human beings cannot bring about unity and equality, the victory of good over evil, and to witness people trying to achieve this constitutes [for O’Connor] both a sad and comic enterprise.
In O’Connor’s view, despite the fact that the Black woman on the bus has been wronged by 400 years of racism and white privilege enacted upon African Americans in the most violent and demeaning ways, she is as culpable as the racist White woman who pines for slavery days when everyone “knew their place”—as culpable as Julian who poses as an advocate for Black people but really is motivated by his own pride and by his desire to humiliate his mother. Sin is sin is sin—something these foolish mortals don’t perceive but O’Connor does from her detached, elevated perspective, as evidenced by her title.
This long theological view is a problem for 21st-century, post-Civil Rights, secular-minded Americans living in the era of Black Lives Matter. And this is, frankly, one of the reasons I felt compelled to write this book. I have been teaching O’Connor’s stories for decades, and during that time, my conversations with my students and colleagues about this story—and others like it—have become more challenging and more fraught. As a person socialized as white in a racist culture, O’Connor does not intuitively grasp the psychic damage done by slavery, the urgency of the Civil Rights movement, or the degradation and terror of living in the Jim Crow South for African Americans, and this lack of understanding and experience shows up in the stories as well as in the letters.