It has been 56 years since Flannery O’Connor passed from the earth at the all-too-young age of 39. Her legacy as an outstanding writer and extraordinary human being seemed firmly established. However, two precipitating factors have led to her previously untarnished legacy being questioned and the removal of her name from a residence hall at Loyola University Maryland.
The first factor is the George Floyd incident, which ignited an acute hypersensitivity to racism in America. People began seeing racism virtually everywhere. No one was immune from the charge. The second is an article that appeared in a mid-June issue of The New Yorker and was written by Paul Elie, entitled “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” Elie’s title stirs controversy, but it also poisons the well. It does not question whether O’Connor was racist. It simply assumes that she is, the question being to what degree?
Of particular concern to Elie, in marshalling “evidence” about her alleged racism, is a 1964 letter in which O’Connor states: “About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing, prophesying, pontificating kind, like the James Baldwin kind… My question is usually would this person be endurable if white.”
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“A pox on both your houses,” she once said.
Writing for the The Catholic World Report, Marc Guerra remarks that Elie’s “essay does not reveal anything substantially new—either in terms of factual information or moral and spiritual truth—about O’Connor.” Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a former Loyola professor, summarily rejects Elie’s claims. She argues that “Elie mines the book for what he refers to as ‘nasty’ passages, removes them from the historical and personal context necessary for understanding them, and presents them to The New Yorker readership with little explanation, all as evidence of O’Connor’s American sin of racism.”
O’Donnell is well qualified to defend Flannery. She is the author of Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, in which she carefully examined Flannery’s literary works and personal letters to make a more thorough judgment of her alleged racism. Her verdict is that Flannery O’Connor was most assuredly not a racist. Professor O’Donnell, who currently teaches a course in American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, sent a letter to the president of Loyola Maryland signed by 200 writers, urging him not to remove O’Connor’s name from the residence hall. She stated that “Flannery O’Connor is among the finest writers America has produced. More to the point, she was an observant Catholic whose work is deeply informed by the tenets of her faith. O’Connor believes in the Imago Dei, the fact that every human being is beloved of God and made in the image of God.”
Among the co-signers of O’Donnell’s letter is Alice Walker, a distinguished African American novelist who won the National Book award for The Color Purple. She testifies that the “essential O’Connor is not about racism at all, which is so refreshing, coming, as it does, out of such a racial culture. If it can be said to be ‘about’ anything, then it is ‘about’ prophets and prophecy, ‘about’ revelation. And ‘about’ the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don’t have a chance of spiritual growth without it.”
The Flannery O’Connor issue may have a greater negative impact on Catholic education in America than in tarnishing O’Connor’s legacy. As Marc Guerra writes, “Taken as a whole, it is difficult not to see Loyola’s choice as a choice not to teach its students about the greatest 20th-century, American Catholic writer of fiction and the Church’s understanding of the mysterious relation of sin, grace, and redemption.”
Flannery O’Connor was an unswerving Catholic in the sense that she made no concessions to political correctness. She consistently saw people in the light of Christ’s vision of them. “For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose,” she averred. “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means for me the meaning of life is centered in our redemption in Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.”
Will Catholic educators shy away from the likes of Flannery O’Connor in the future because they will seem to be unbending? Will they deem that today’s Marxist utopian vision will supplant the traditional view that all human beings are stained by original sin? Will they interpret the Catholic view as too negative?
The president of Loyola Maryland is sending the wrong message to all Catholic educators. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell laments the effacing of Flannery’s name: “The cancelling of a writer who possesses the wisdom and the power of Flannery O’Connor demonstrates our impoverished imaginations, our narrowness, and our inability to embrace complexity.” These are strong words. But they need to be stated and reiterated. The Catholic vision is one that our society cannot do without. If O’Connor’s name is removed from the residence hall at Loyola Maryland, may it be restored where it has been forgotten, renewed where it has lain dormant, and revitalized where it has been underappreciated.
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