…in O’Connor’s fictional universe, the whites in power are the only ones who can afford to be innocent of their surroundings. O’Connor’s most profound gift was her ability to describe impartially the bourgeoisie she was born into, to depict with humor and without judgment her rapidly crumbling social order.
Hilton Als, “The Lonely Place” on Flannery O’Connor on Race and Religion in the South
The New Yorker, January 29, 2001
(Note: Hilton Als is an African-American writer and essayist)
She raised and enjoyed peacocks, wrote even when she was rapidly losing her ability to walk, cast a coldly brilliant eye on life and on Southern lives in particular, both black and white, and she was dead at 39.
And now Rayber, the purblind school teacher and intellectual pretender in Flannery O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away — joined by the contemporary and contemptuous mob of cancel–culture warriors — is finally getting retribution for O’Connor’s portrait of him in all his atheistic ludicrousness. Sadly, this is playing out on a contemporary Catholic college campus and, as such, it is being invested with a sanctified theistic, ambiguously Catholic veneer which doesn’t make it any less pathetic.
Flannery’s sin: “racist” remarks she allegedly made and bigoted attitudes she seemed to have earlier in her short life. For this, her name will be taken off a college building.
It is all dripping with ignorance. Word has it that some of the young BLM -aligned stooges at the Jesuit institution Loyola University of Maryland thought Flannery was a guy. I wonder if they’d have cut her any slack if they’d known she was a woman? A momentary reprieve, maybe, but that’s about it. It’s likely her name will still, if better heads don’t prevail, be taken off a Loyola residence hall because the school’s craven Jesuit President, Rev. Brian Linnane, quickly – and I mean with lightening speed — bowed to pressure created by a thousand-signature on-line petition calling for the un-naming. The building in question is a campus residence hall to which Flannery’s name was assigned only thirteen short years ago.
The petitioners, I’ll wager, come heavily from the elite liberal ranks of readers of the New Yorker magazine. It’s in the pages of that magazine that, half-cocked, they would have gotten the idea that Flannery was racist. Too bad they didn’t stop to measure that evaluation against the considered judgement of Hilton Als from nineteen years ago — in the same magazine.
But it’s all hopelessly in keeping with the superficial, of group-think and mob mentality currently raging on the streets of our cities and in the corridors of woke opinion.
Father Linnane told Catholic media that it was a difficult decision and that the issue of O’Connor and race is “very nuanced.”
Yes, father, so why weren’t your actions “nuanced”?
“I am not a scholar of Flannery O’Connor, but I have studied her fiction and non-fiction writings,” he told The Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan news outlet. “Particularly in her fiction, the dignity of African American persons and their worth is consistently upheld, with the bigots being the object of ridicule.”
Good point, father. He also noted that some of the new disclosures about O’Connor’s use of racist language date to the 1940s when she was a teenager.
“They don’t take into account any evolution in her thinking,” he said.
No, and you didn’t, either, Father.
If the re-naming goes forward, the structure will be re-named for Sister Thea Bowman, the first African American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. That’s fine and dandy; most commendable. A building absolutely should be named for her. But no building should be unnamed for Flannery O’Connor. I and many others blame, along with Father Linnane, Paul Elie, a writer I had heretofore admired who, some years ago, wrote a book intertwining the Catholic spiritual journeys of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy – and Flannery O’Connor. But in a recent issue of The New Yorker saturated with coverage and commentary on our most recent national crisis over race – i.e., the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police — Elie, unfortunately, had an article entitled, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” The timing and the placement of the article were perfect for bringing about instant denigration of its subject in the turbid culture wars.
If you read the article, you’ll see that it’s hardly clear that Flannery could be characterized as a racist. But Elie quoted one previously unpublished personal correspondence of hers in which she said she didn’t like black people. I was frankly surprised to see that, based on what I know and have read by and about Flannery. But, it comes down to scattered sentences in some previously unpublished letters. I’ve read an entire volume of her published correspondences, her two novels and all her short stories and all her essays and I could not conclude from them that Flannery O’Connor was a racist. Quite the contrary. Hard-headed, given to quick appraisal, not easily pinned down on social matters, snide at times, a bit of a contrarian — yes. But not racist. Jesse Jackson called New York “hymie town.” I don’t believe he’s anti-Semitic. It’s just too bad he said that. Same goes for Flannery and blacks with whom she lived at close quarters and depicted in all their humanity.
It is good that a building will be named for Sister Thea, a Mississippi native, who was a tireless advocate for greater leadership roles for Black people in the Catholic Church and for incorporating African American culture and spiritual traditions in Catholic worship in the latter half of the 20th century. Her sainthood cause is under consideration in Rome.
Good, good, all good.
But I am not the only one who thinks the Jesuit college president folded like a cheap suitcase in the face of minimal pressure. At the risk of repeating it too often, these are the times we are in. As Yeats wrote of another time in a similar context, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
There is another assessment that needs correcting. An account of the un-naming in the National Catholic Reporter wrongly identifies O’Connor as a Southern Gothic writer. While her settings are pretty much exclusively her native Georgia and her characters often primitive and humble people in bizarre, often violent circumstances, I don’t believe you can call the works “gothic” in the strict sense, and Flannery often points this out in her letters and essays. She died, by the way in August, 1964 when the Civil Rights Movement was just gathering a full head of steam and, as I sadly recall, the murdered and brutalized bodies of three civil rights workers were found that month in Mississippi.
Flannery was fiercely Catholic in a most unsentimental way and is recognized, as Linnane says, as one of the greatest short-story writers of our era, one whose work often examined complex moral questions.
Father Linnane does some handwringing in written accounts of the controversy, saying it was a difficult decision (i.e., the call to rename the building). But he insists that he still felt the need “to be sensitive to concerns, especially from students, about O’Connor’s use of racist language and an admission in her correspondence that she did not like people of color.” One comment in private correspondence out of a sea of “nuanced” words – and she’s gone. The mob, however uniformed, rules. Wasn’t that always the way in witch trials, lynchings and stonings? Okay – overstating the case. But still….
“A residence hall is supposed to be the students’ home,” Linnane said. “If some of the students who live in that building find it to be unwelcoming and unsettling, that has to be taken seriously.”
Keeping kids in their comfort zone. That’s the priority. I thought education was about enlarging our knowledge and, as a consequence, our understanding of the broader world and those we see across cultural and religious — and racial — borders, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Hilton Als points to Flannery’s genius at work in this regard in his article.
Linnane said he hoped the decision is not viewed as a wholesale repudiation of O’Connor’s legacy and noted that professors will continue to assign the study of her writings.
Well, Father, name somebody who has completely survived being only a little repudiated. Currently, I’d have to say, that includes George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. My hope and surmise is that, in time, the cancel-culture warriors will be repudiated and George, Thomas and Flannery will bob back up to the surface, triumphant. Those will be better times.
“We were looking to name the building for someone who reflects the values of Loyola and its students at the present time,” said Father Linnane,” and (someone) whose commitment to the fight for racial equality — from an intellectual point of view and from a faith perspective — would be more appropriate for the residence hall.”
Swell idea. I can’t, in honesty, denied that I sympathize to a degree with the cleric’s “political” dilemma. But only to a degree. There comes a time to show some brass — and I choose not to get any cruder than that — politics be damned.
And I don’t believe any of the current cultural assaults, be they statue destruction or calls for renaming, have a whole lot to do with achieving “equality.” This is about cultural dominance and bullying by a radical alliance of activists who’ve hijacked the latest eruption of outrage, hoping to neutralize or completely dismantle defining societal institutions, especially churches. Some ill-considered private comments about race by any professed Christian is enough, in this climate, to negate their entire life or body of work or life’s achievement. I just told you, elsewhere in this blog, about Kate Smith.
We read in the NCR that Loyola is undergoing a larger review of all the names of its buildings and a university committee advised Linnane on the renaming proposal. Another American campus – no less a Catholic one – thrown into a tizzy by the mob.
I was gratified to read the following in a National Catholic Reporter story.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a former Loyola professor who currently serves as the associate director of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York, is spearheading an effort for the university to reconsider its decision.
O’Donnell, an expert on O’Connor’s life and writings, who recently wrote the book, “Racial Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor,” agrees that one of Loyola’s buildings should be named in honor of Sister Thea, but that O’Connor’s name should not be banished.
She said O’Connor grew up in the virulently racist culture of the American South and could not help but be influenced by that culture. She also said the writer should be celebrated for opposing that culture and racism in her writings.
Over the course of her career, O’Connor became more bold and more outspoken in her opposition to the “inburnt beliefs” of her fellow Southerners and Americans, O’Donnell said.
“I find it ironic that her name would be removed from a Catholic, Jesuit university,” added O’Donnell, saying the author portrayed America and the human soul as deeply divided, broken and flawed, and “much in need of conversion and repentance.”
O’Connor held herself, her racist white characters and all white people up for judgment, O’Donnell said.
“She lays claim to America’s original sin of racism, seeks atonement, and she atones,” O’Donnell added, noting that even on her deathbed, O’Connor was working on a story about white racists who arrive at the difficult knowledge of their sin.
The Fordham professor wrote a letter to Linnane signed by more than 80 authors, scholars and other leaders, urging the priest to keep O’Connor’s name on the building. Among the signatories are leading American authors, including Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez and Mary Gordon. Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, also signed it (emphasis added.)
A July 27 statement from Alice Walker is included in the letter saying that “we must honor Flannery for growing.”
“Hide nothing of what she was, and use that to teach,” the well-known African American novelist said.
The letter asserts that very few, if any, of the great writers of the past can survive the “purity test” to which they are currently being subjected.
“If a university (Catholic or otherwise) effectively banishes Flannery O’Connor, why keep Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky and other writers who were marked by the racist, misogynist, and/or anti-Semitic cultures and eras they lived in the midst of? No one will be left standing,” it said.
O’Donnell took issue with a recent article in The New Yorker magazine about O’Connor and race ( the Paul Elie article) , which she believes provided a “very incomplete” portrayal of the writer’s stance on race and which has fanned much of the outrage against the Southern author.
The Fordham professor also was critical of the online petition to rename the building, which asserts that “recent letters and postcards written by Flannery O’Connor express strong racist sentiments and hate speech.” (Emphasis added – and deplored.)
“How could O’Connor have written ‘recent’ post cards and letters when she’s been dead for 56 years?” O’Donnell said.
(Oh, how very true. We had rampant ignorance at work here, Father Lennane. Take note.
“I wonder how many of the people who signed the petition have studied O’Connor’s work or have read any of her writings? How many of them have any connection to Loyola?”
Linnane said most people in the Loyola community have responded “very positively” to the name change. He also praised Sister Thea’s efforts to eliminate racism and her work for justice.
“She lived a life of great holiness,” he said.
And I say again, good for Sister Thea. Name something for her. Name three things for her. But leave Flannery alone. Father Linnane, you are such a typically wimpish, careerist fool for allowing this.
Even Paul Elie, at the conclusion of that fraught and, as noted above, questionable New Yorker article, concedes that, as he puts it, “there is a way forward” (nice of him to say so – and, I’d add, a way around this flat-footed, black-and-white, black VERSUS white characterization of O’Connor as a racist. It is, Elie says, “rooted in (her) work.
That’s right, dummy. He goes on….
For twenty years, the director Karin Coonrod has staged dramatic adaptations of O’Connor’s stories. Following a stipulation of the author’s estate, she uses every word, narration, description, dialogue, imagery and racial epithet. Members of the multiracial cast circulate the full text fluidly from actor to actor, character to character, so that the author’s words, all of them, ring out in her own voice and in other voices, too.
Would any simple racist be worth that much thought, time and consideration by a multi-racial cast? No. Flannery O’Connor was an artist like all those folks Alice Walker enumerates (thank you, Alice. You gave us The Color Purple and you give us common sense here.)
By the way – that building they want to un-named for Flannery? It’s ugly. This whole thing is ugly.