The Moment in Race Relations That Keeps Repeating Itself

The following excerpt from my forthcoming book, Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, appears at a moment that makes it tragically relevant. The chapter, which addresses the themes of violence against black people in American culture and literature and the estrangement between black and white Americans that is the result of our tortured history, seems to both predict and lament the horrific killing of Ahmaud Arbery that took place in O’Connor’s native state of Georgia this past February 23rd.

The news of Arbery’s death, an African American profiled on account of his race and gunned down by two white men while he was out jogging, has been overshadowed by the constant coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and went largely unnoticed until a video of the shooting was recently released. The video records the callous killing of an innocent man: Arbery was ambushed by the two men in their pickup truck, one of whom is retired from a career in law enforcement—and probably by a third man, who took the video from another vehicle following behind—and was shot dead on the roadway. Arbery was unarmed. The two men claimed they were searching for a suspect in a string of burglaries and he fit the description. Arbery, who had not committed any crime, refused to stop when they tried to apprehend him, so they chased him and shot him. They were not arrested—not until the video emerged and public outcry demanded it.

Ahmaud Arbery’s death is a singular tragedy, and it is also part of our national tragedy—one that has been unfolding for the past 400 years since the first ship transporting slaves arrived on America’s shores in 1619. The violence of slavery killed millions of African Americans, and thousands more died in post-Civil War racial violence. This legacy of socially-sanctioned violence committed against black Americans continues today as we add Arbery’s name to the long litany of black men and boys who have been unjustly killed by law enforcement over the past decade: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray are just a few of the names of the lost. Very few of their killers have been brought to justice.

This sad legacy of violence is essential to understanding our history. It is impossible to begin to understand present-day America without coming to terms with our grim past, and in trying to come to terms with that past there is no better place to look than to America’s writers. This is one of the reasons I embarked upon a study focused on the portrayal of the complex and desperately difficult subject of race in the work of one of America’s signature fiction writers: Flannery O’Connor.

I have been reading, writing about, and teaching Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, essays, and correspondence for many years. With this deepening of my acquaintance with O’Connor and her work, my understanding of her stories has evolved in a number of ways. One constant preoccupation throughout this process of evolution has been a growing discomfort with O’Connor’s treatment of race.

For a long time, I adopted the position that many O’Connor scholars held and hold to—that she was somehow immune from the racism of her culture and era and that she consciously challenged racist views of African Americans in her stories. However, even as I laid claim to these convictions, I felt dissatisfaction with that critical consensus.

Her portrayal of African American characters in stories such as “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” “The Artificial Nigger,” and “Judgement Day” troubled me in ways I did not think they were intended to. I could not quite put my finger on what disturbed me about them, but I felt it when I read the stories, when I taught them to my students, and when I discussed them in the context of faculty seminars with scholars from other disciplines who were less unfamiliar with O’Connor’s work. These readers, young and old, spoke of an unsettling element in O’Connor’s vision, a blind spot when it came to race, that I myself sensed but could not articulate in a satisfying way.

Writing Radical Ambivalence has given me the opportunity to do that—to pursue the questions that have nagged me (and others) and discover ways to talk about O’Connor’s treatment of race that illuminates the stories, the writer, and the expectations of our own era of writers who deal with this topic that is so essential to us as Americans living in the current post-Civil Rights, Black Lives Matter historical moment.

As the title of my book is meant to suggest, O’Connor was radically ambivalent when it came to matters of race. Her letters reveal her resistance to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, her deep distrust of liberal northern whites, and her personal distaste for black people. In this regard, she was, in many ways, like most white Southerners of the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet, they also reveal that she wanted to be on the right side of history with regard to the great question of her era. What set O’Connor apart from her Southern brethren was her genius as a writer, her Catholic belief, and her commitment to living her imaginative and moral life “hotly in pursuit of the real” (Mystery & Manners, 117). Radical Ambivalence demonstrates that in her stories her better angel often ruled, as she worked hard at representing the relationship between the races justly, trying not to let her personal feelings and antipathies intervene. It also demonstrates the ways in which her whiteness sometimes prevented her from doing so.

The following excerpt showcases O’Connor at her best with regard to this depiction. It is taken from the last chapter of the book, “The Failure and Promise of Communion,” wherein I trace the treatment of race by some of O’Connor’s literary forbears and connect those treatments with her own portrayal of the relationship between black and white Americans in her fiction.

Here we see O’Connor fully aware of the historical, social, and personal limitations that prevent genuine communication between white and black people in her own contemporary context, despite the efforts on the part of flawed and sinful human beings to achieve it. As Toni Morrison points out in her study of race in American literature Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, black lives have always mattered to American writers. It is inevitable and necessary that they begin to matter to the rest of us as well.

The Failure and Promise of Communion

It would be inaccurate to suggest that Flannery O’Connor’s handling of race in her stories is universally disruptive and constrained by the blindness of whiteness. It is my hope that the preceding chapters recognize her accomplishment in addressing this difficult subject in her fiction with courage and honesty, despite her radical ambivalence and the limitations she herself is aware of. This is true of many of her predecessors, as well—great writers whose whiteness prevented them from understanding and engaging blackness with the same authoritative vision with which they could see and present the white world. O’Connor’s challenge is the same one faced by white American writers of every era, each of whom meets it in his or her unique way, creating fiction that engages the social realities of the time and responds to the dictates of the individual imagination.

Given the history of African Americans in the United States, no writer who seeks to capture the reality of American culture can afford not to address the question of race. According to Ralph Ellison, American writers “who stereotype or ignore the Negro or other minorities in the final analysis stereotype and ignore their own humanity” (Shadow and Act 60). White Americans must attempt to understand black Americans in order to understand themselves. To know “the Negro” (in Ellison’s terms) is to know oneself, difficult and partial as that knowing may be. This principle is implicit in O’Connor’s fiction, and it manifests primarily in the ways in which white and black people succeed and fail at communication and communion.

One of those white literary predecessors who addressed his attention to matters of race is Herman Melville, who famously coined the phrase the “power of blackness” to describe the dark knowledge of Original Sin that lent Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories such penetrating insight (“Hawthorne and His Mosses” 243). O’Connor also admired Hawthorne’s fiction, acknowledged him as “a very great writer” (HB 70), and channeled his work and disposition, as did Melville, in a number of ways. Indeed, in a letter to William Sessions, she refers to their shared tendency to write stories that portray the coalescence of the natural and the supernatural in everyday human life and demonstrate a preoccupation with mystery, acknowledging, “Hawthorne said he didn’t write novels, he wrote romances; I am one of his descendants” (HB 407).

All three writers share a fascination with the darker aspects of the human soul and the compelling need to probe it. For Melville in particular, “blackness” became a symbol for the presence of mystery, while whiteness (as expressed in the celebrated chapter of Moby Dick titled “The Whiteness of the Whale”) is a symbol, in the apt summation of Toni Morrison, of all that is “mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable” (Playing in the Dark 59).

The fact that the idea of blackness was instantiated in a race of human beings provided Melville with a metaphorical means of exploring our common mystery, possessed by both black and white people, as one might come to know oneself through knowledge of The Other. This is not unlike the pattern we have seen in O’Connor’s stories wherein white characters arrive at a fuller self-knowledge through an encounter with a black double. This encounter is nearly always one of tension and opposition rather than communion, though it will become evident later in the chapter that communion sometimes, if rarely, actually takes place.

In his brilliant novella Benito Cereno, Melville portrays a version of black/white communion as it conveys the tale of the eponymous Spanish captain whose ship has been taken over by the slaves it carries. The ship is boarded by an American, Captain Delano, who is blissfully unaware that the insurrection has taken place—for the slaves are engaged in an elaborate pantomime, pretending to be the subject creatures the white man expects them to be, whereas in reality, the Spanish crew is being held in check by the threat of violence. This pantomime constitutes an ingenious flipping of the performative roles the racial code demands of blacks and whites, even as the Africans on board pretend to their subservient status. In a powerful metaphor for the situation, the leader of the insurrection, Babo, is depicted as shaving Benito Cereno, holding a blade against his master’s throat, only instead of performing an act of servitude, he wields the power of life and death, effectively reversing the master-slave relationship and making Babo a black version of Benito.

Later in the novella, when the dense Delano—whose typically American naiveté is outstripped only by his white blindness, never really seeing black people for who and what they truly are—discovers and quells the insurrection, he asks the sick and dying Benito Cereno what has so darkened his vision and drained him of the desire to live: “‘You are saved,’ cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; ‘you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?’” Cereno’s response consists of only two words: “The negro” (116). In terms of the story, Cereno is undone by the realization of the humanity of the creatures he has been trafficking in and of his own inhumanity in laboring under the delusion that they aren’t human at all. His is a rude awakening to the fact of having been blinded by his whiteness. His words, then, also serve as a warning to Delano—and to all Americans—of the beam that is still in the collective eye of a country that has enslaved black people for hundreds of years and believed, somehow, that their souls would not be sickened by this practice.

Melville wrote his novella in 1855, six years ahead of the bloody war that would be fought in defense of this brutal institution. Eight years before the Emancipation Proclamation, the nation Melville’s story challenges still officially regards African Americans as chattel and nonpersons. Cereno’s last words are thus prophetic as well as descriptive of America’s current condition. “Negro,” of course, is Spanish for “black.” He dies as he cryptically warns the wondering Delano of the darkness that will soon engulf the collective soul of his country, a darkness specifically associated with the black man and America’s treatment of him.

It is worth noting that Ralph Ellison, a contemporary of O’Connor, chose to invoke Melville’s novella and his uncanny encapsulation of America’s racial dilemma in his signature novel Invisible Man, echoing Captain Delano’s question in an epigraph. In fact, the book effectively begins with the benighted white man’s words, posing a question that is answered not by Cereno’s cryptic and multivalent response (which the author omits) but by Ellison’s own tale of a black man who is never properly seen, let alone understood, by whites. In the world of Ellison’s novel, the shadow of “the Negro” that haunts Captain Delano haunts everyone—the African American narrator and protagonist of the story, whose blackness both defines him and estranges him from himself, as well as the characters he encounters, both white people and black, on account of the fearful history between the races in America.

That history is defined by violence, beginning with the original violence inflicted by whites on slaves and continuing to the present moment, wherein the narrator sits, holed up in his Harlem apartment, listening to Louis Armstrong singing “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” and living the legacy of that original violence (7). America’s violent racial past is very much evident in its violent racial present, in Ellison’s world and in our own, though few white people acknowledge this continuum, choosing, instead, to remain (like Captain Delano) ignorant of our shared darkness.

O’Connor, however, like Melville and Ellison, at once perceived this darkness and harnessed its power to fuel her fiction. Unlike many of her southern counterparts and some of her fellow southern writers—including, most famously, fellow Georgian Margaret Mitchell, whose blockbuster Gone with the Wind occasionally serves as the butt of O’Connor’s jokes—she had no nostalgia for the racial dispensation of the past or for the faux heroism of the Civil War and did not imaginatively participate in its mighty mythos. In one of her letters, she writes ironically,

We have been undergoing big doings here on account of Secession was passed in M’ville 100 years ago. A pageant for 3 days and a big parade in 20 degree weather with young ladies on floats freezing in their drafty dresses, etc, etc. Long live the Wah Between the States (HB 428).

O’Connor was as unromantic in her attitude about the war as it is possible to be, despite the participation of her famed and locally celebrated ancestors and the fact that she was named for one of them, Confederate officer Captain John Flannery (Gooch 15). As with contemporary politics, O’Connor does not often choose the South’s troubled history as the focus for her fiction, but on the occasions when she does address it, she subverts nostalgia.

In the story that most directly engages the subject of the Civil War, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” O’Connor mercilessly skewers the generation of old soldiers who are hailed as “Glorious upright old [men] standing for the old traditions! Dignity! Honor! Courage!” but who are, in reality, imposters (Collected Stories 135). The protagonist, 104-year-old General Sash, is so old he has forgotten his own true past and has substituted the fictional cultural narrative that has supplanted it. Though he was likely a foot soldier—if, indeed, he ever participated in the war at all—Sash imagines himself to be an officer ever since he was given a general’s uniform twelve years before to wear at the premiere of a Civil War film (clearly Gone with the Wind, though O’Connor leaves the movie unnamed): “I was in that preemie they had in Atlanta,” he habitually brags, “It was nothing local about it” (CS 136). Sash is ultimately relieved of his amnesia, however, at the climax of the story as he suffers a stroke while seated onstage at his granddaughter’s graduation. As the darkness of death descends upon him, he is beset by glimpses of his inglorious past, and “a succession of places—Chickamauga, Shiloh, Marthasville—rushed at him as if the past were the only future now and he had to endure it” (CS 142).

Forced to face the violence he inflicted and suffered—and has suppressed for nearly a century—the “general” gives up the false version of the war he has been deluded by for so long and collapses beneath the weight of the real one. The final glimpse of Sash O’Connor gives the reader is of the uniformed old man slumped in his wheelchair, accompanied by John Wesley, the fat Boy Scout assigned to the duty of escorting him: “The crafty scout had bumped him out the back way and rolled him at high speed down a flagstone path and was waiting now, with the corpse, in the long line at the Coca-Cola machine” (CS 144). O’Connor’s satire at the expense of her native Southland, and of her state in particular, is palpable in this absurd pairing of final images as one southern institution—the mythos of the Civil War, as aggrandized by Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the subsequent film, both set largely in Atlanta—gives way to another—Coca-Cola, a product invented and produced in Georgia.

Though the two symbols of the South may seem to be associated with different eras—the Old South, whose passing is represented by the dead general, and the New South, whose identity as a thriving capitalist/manufacturing hub is represented by the Coke machine—it’s a noteworthy fact of history that the inventor of Coca-Cola was Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist from Columbus, Georgia, who concocted the first incarnation of the drink in his quest to find a substitute for the morphine he habitually took to relieve the pain of the wounds he had suffered in the war (Blanding 13–14). The present is inevitably shadowed by the past, and in the South, everything is shadowed by the war, even the seemingly innocent and progressive image of Coca-Cola.

O’Connor understood not only the darkness cast by the war itself but also the darkness cast by what made it necessary in the first place—the sin of slavery. In a speech O’Connor gave upon receiving the Georgia Writers’ Association Award for The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor alludes to this darkness as a source of power for her own fiction and for southern writers in general:

When Walker Percy won the National Book Award, newsmen asked him why there were so many good Southern writers and he said, “Because we lost the War.” He didn’t mean by that simply that a lost war makes good subject matter. What he was saying is that we have had our Fall. We have gone into the world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence—as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country (MM 59).

O’Connor’s claiming of the Civil War is akin to Benito Cereno’s claiming of “The negro”—once the dark knowledge of one’s complicity in evil becomes evident, one cannot return to a state of innocence. The South is defined by its past, just as surely as humankind, according to the Judeo-Christian mythos O’Connor subscribes to, is defined by Original Sin, the fall from grace, and the constant need for redemption. O’Connor and Percy, both of whom are devoted Catholics, see the war in theological terms and lay claim to the collective guilt they and their fellow southerners have incurred. In fact, O’Connor refers to the South as “the land of sin and guilt” in one of her letters to Maryat Lee (albeit half-jokingly), a phrase related to another of her formulations along these lines that she uses with some frequency, referring to the region of her birth as “the dear old dirty Southland” (HB 475, 266, 461, 537).

However, it should be noted that even this claim bespeaks a white perspective. As John D. Sykes Jr. notes in his study of O’Connor’s relationship to the Agrarians, “The ‘we’ Percy had in mind was white, and in approvingly quoting his answer in ‘The Regional Writer,’ O’Connor registers her own unrecognized racial orientation” (38). The outcome of the Civil War was surely a loss for white people in the South, but it constituted a victory for black people.

For the freed slaves, the war was not a tragedy but a cause for celebration, not a sign of bondage to one’s irrevocable past but the freedom from bondage and the promise of a better future. (At least this is what the abolition of slavery meant theoretically. As history unfolded, however, it would take many decades for the fullness of that promised freedom to come to into being.) Indeed, to put this in terms of Melville’s story, had the slave who led the insurrection aboard Benito Cereno’s ship survived and been asked the question Delano poses to Cereno, surely Babo would have responded, “The White Man.” Perspective determines how one sees the world, a basic truth that is essential to keep in mind when reading O’Connor’s—or any—fiction.

As we have seen, O’Connor’s art is informed by her unique and particular view of history, theology, politics, race, and local culture. In order to enter into the world of any artist, it is necessary to grant the artist her vision, even and perhaps especially when it does not conform to our own. Some of the many questions that a study like this one raises might be posed as follows: Where do we find truth in this vision? How does it challenge our own contemporary beliefs? Can a work still speak to us, even if and when it is inflected by racial biases that have been exposed and that we are consciously trying to eradicate?

Clearly, these are questions that can be asked—and have been asked—of every writer in every age, from Homer to Shakespeare (whose Othello and Merchant of Venice continue to speak to us in fraught and complex ways) to Melville and O’Connor, and down to the writers of our own present moment. As my analyses of her stories in Radical Ambivalence suggest, O’Connor has much to offer the reader in terms of an understanding of race relations in America, especially as seen from a white perspective. This is enlightening for all readers, white and black, and constitutes one of the reasons O’Connor’s fiction continues to appeal to us.

The Failure of Communion: “The Enduring Chill”

As was suggested earlier, one of the most persistent themes that emerges from O’Connor’s stories with regard to race relations is the repeated failure of communion between black people and white. Time and time again, moments of potential communication open up in the stories but are then closed down, usually through a willful action on the part of the human beings involved. This pattern became evident in the earlier discussion of “Revelation,” wherein Mrs. Turpin reveals the terrible message she received in the doctor’s office to the field hands she is offering water to, a secret that is greeted with the black pantomime of outrage rather than genuine compassion. One might see the interactions of Old Dudley and T. C. Tanner in “The Geranium” and “Judgement Day” with the black men in the hallway as instances of miscommunication, moments of potential communion lost to them, largely due to their own prejudices and insufficiencies.

In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Julian attempts to ingratiate himself with a black man on the bus reading a newspaper, but the man rebuffs his attempts, choosing to remain safely ensconced behind the paper wall he has erected. It is as if he knows the white man’s self-serving reasons for seeking him out (as do we, being privy to Julian’s thoughts), that the communion he thinks he desires is not genuine. Julian simply wants to use the man to demonstrate his supposed racial tolerance and to irritate his racist mother.

In “The Barber,” Rayber wants to hear what “the boy” George’s politics are and is frustrated by the black man’s predictable response as George claims he would vote for the conservative (and racist) candidate, a statement made solely to appease his white employer. In each of these stories, black people are guarded, aware that their power (insofar as they possess any) lies in protecting their inviolable privacy.

We are reminded of O’Connor’s characterization of the “Southern Negro” as “a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection” (MM 234). The unspoken conviction behind the actions of black people is that white people are not to be trusted. This pattern plays itself out perhaps most visibly in “The Enduring Chill,” the story of a young man, Asbury Fox, who returns to his mother’s farm after living in New York, afflicted with a mysterious disease and convinced that he is dying. While up North, Asbury has absorbed liberal views on race and brings them with him when he returns home, only to find that they have no place in the segregated South. On a previous visit home, Asbury had been working on a play about “the Negro,” and in an effort “to see how they really felt about their condition,” he tries to ingratiate himself with the two black dairymen, Morgan and Randall, who work for his mother (CS 368). Clearly suspicious of the white man, they regard him warily. O’Connor captures deftly the quiet refusal of the black men to engage in any genuine communication with Asbury, depicting the subtle dynamics of their conversation: “When they said anything to him, it was as if they were speaking to an invisible body located to the right or left of where he actually was” (CS 368).

The image here is instructive in that the two black men conduct themselves according to the southern racial code, addressing a mental construct of their white employer’s son rather than the man himself. They are playing at communication—and playing Asbury, the would-be playwright—rather than actually engaging in it. This also allows them to avoid eye contact with him. Both men are acculturated in the ways of the South. As Matthew Day points out in his study of the southern code of manners in O’Connor’s work, “With an economy of expression that the genre of the short story demands, O’Connor reveals a world where black men receive death sentences simply for looking white men in the eyes.” In addition to danger, eye contact invites intimacy, and intimacy with this young man who is trying to use them to achieve his own ends is the last thing Morgan and Randall wish to cultivate.

Asbury finally bribes them into acknowledging him when he offers each of them a cigarette, and as the three of them stand smoking in the dairy (an activity strictly forbidden by Asbury’s exacting mother, whose authority he challenges at every turn) he internally celebrates his success: “It was one of those moments of communion when the difference between black and white is absorbed into nothing” (CS 368). As with Julian on the bus, the humor of the moment is palpable as this supposed liberal imagines a scenario that could not be further from reality. Morgan and Randall, who have to put up with Asbury and his ineptitude in the dairy on account of the fact that he is the boss’s son, do not forget for a moment the difference between black and white—and neither does Asbury, who considers himself a rather fine fellow as he condescends to work with and now smoke with African Americans.

By inserting himself into the work lives of the two black men and trespassing into their space, Asbury is, in fact, enacting his white privilege, as surely as is the white person who chooses to move into a black neighborhood in order to demonstrate his or her racial tolerance or color blindness (Sullivan 10). He is no more welcome or wanted than Mr. Head or Nelson are in the African-American neighborhood in downtown Atlanta or than Julian is by the black businessman on the bus. It is only by virtue of their whiteness that they have the freedom to trespass—a freedom black people do not have. Asbury, of course, is blind to the racial dynamics of the scenario and in his ignorance savors this faux communion. One can practically imagine the scene that he will write when he sits down to work the moment into his play.

O’Connor, of course, is having a good deal of fun with the character, as he is, once again, a version of herself. Having returned to the South suffering from a mysterious disease (only in her case, the affliction is real), having been exposed to northern values that do not translate into southern culture, and living as a writer who takes her material from the people around her, O’Connor knows Asbury’s predicament intimately. The difference between them is that she knows that the relationship between blacks and whites is intractable. Any kind of “communion” established is going to be an illusion, a pathetic pantomime on both sides. Asbury’s crossing of the color line does not end with violence—as it almost assuredly would have had the black men in question done the crossing—but it does make him sick. In trying to repeat their brief moment of communion, Asbury invites the two dairymen to drink raw milk with him from the same cup he drinks from. Both men refuse, ostensibly because Asbury’s mother forbids it. He persists in urging them to drink, believing that their reluctance is race-based: “Listen . . . the world is changing. There’s no reason I shouldn’t drink after you or you after me!” (CS 369), Asbury says, heroically (to his mind) rejecting the Jim Crow rules Morgan and Randall are bound by.

The true situation, however, emerges later. As dairymen they know that the milk is tainted, and, in fact, it is Asbury’s partaking of it that eventually causes his mysterious illness (ultimately diagnosed as undulant fever, the result of drinking unpasteurized milk) and precipitates his return from New York. But Asbury does not quit. Before the diagnosis is announced, in one more desperate bid for their attention, he asks to have them present at his bedside as he endures what he believes are his final hours of suffering. The two men arrive, clearly embarrassed, forced into a condition of intimacy with this white man they neither know nor trust. They stand awkwardly, grinning, shuffling, and assuring him that he looks well—donning their conciliatory masks—a source of irritation to a man who thinks he is dying. In attempt to replicate their moment of communion, he holds out a package of cigarettes. However, he forgets to shake them out, and the comic result of his solemn gesture ensues: “The Negro took the package and put it in his pocket. ‘I thank you,’ he said. ‘I certainly do prechate it’” (CS 379).

Randall has no desire to smoke with Asbury, but he will happily accept the seeming gift he offers and smoke alone. Asbury realizes this when he sees Morgan’s face turn sullen, and then responds by giving him, too, a package of cigarettes. The men stand around, miserable for the next few minutes, enduring their purgatorial visit, doing everything they can to avoid meaningful communication: “Neither of them seemed to find a suitable place to rest his gaze” (CS 380). Finally, Asbury calls to his mother, who had left him alone, at his request, but is now annoyed at her neglect: “It was apparent she had no intention of getting rid of them for him” (CS 380).

Asbury’s attempts at communion fail, in part, because he is not sincere in his interest in them, and the black men know this. The dynamic O’Connor portrays here is part of an age-old pattern of racial miscommunication in America. James Baldwin, with whom O’Connor disagreed so fervently on matters having to do with civil rights, captures this same dynamic powerfully and poignantly in The Fire Next Time:

The Negro came to the white man for a roof or for five dollars or for a letter to the judge: the white man came to the Negro for love. But he was not often able to give what he came seeking. The price was too high; he had too much to lose. And the Negro knew this, too. When one knows this about a man, it is impossible for one to hate him, but unless he becomes a man—becomes equal—it is also impossible for one to love him (102).

It is surprising, perhaps, as well as strangely true that the object O’Connor’s white characters desire when they seek out communion with blacks, from Old Dudley through to T. C. Tanner, is love. They want to be admired, to be valued, to be affirmed in their superior role, and perhaps even to be understood by black people. In their white blindness, they do not understand why this is not possible. Their self-love prevents them from seeing how utterly unlovable they are. Black people, by contrast, see this very clearly—both as they are characterized in O’Connor’s stories and in Baldwin’s essay.

Here we witness O’Connor and Baldwin—white person and black person, conservative and liberal, woman and man, southerner and northerner—looking at black-white relations from their different perspectives and seeing the same thing. Both also perceive that the black man is too wise—and too conditioned by experience—to seek out or expect love from whites. As Baldwin asserts, until there is genuine equality, an equality that is understood and consciously embraced by whites, communion cannot happen. That human beings had not arrived at such a place in 1958, when O’Connor’s story was written, or in 1963, when Baldwin’s essay was written, is a source of concern to both writers, as evidenced by their preoccupation with this theme.

That we still have not arrived at this place now, at this present moment, after being governed for eight years by America’s first black president, after living in an era wherein violence toward blacks by America’s police departments spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, and after witnessing the resurgence of white supremacist organizations around the country is more than a source of concern. American culture in the early 21st century is still poised at the same impasse that O’Connor and Baldwin portray and describe. The “manners” may have changed, to use O’Connor’s word—the particular ways of conducting our miscommunication—but the failure to communicate and the failure of communion still haunts relationships between whites and blacks in America at this present moment. Slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, white supremacy, the civil rights movement, and Black Lives Matter—all of which might be summed up in Benito Cereno’s words, “The negro”—continue to figure largely in our cultural memory and our society. As long as they do, O’Connor’s stories will be relevant and telling.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt is adapted from the forthcoming Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O'Connor. It is reprinted by permission of the author and Fordham University Press.


Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a writer, poet, and professor at Fordham University where she teaches English, Creative Writing, and American Catholic Studies. She also serves as Associate Director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.

Read more by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell