Who Was Flannery O’Connor and Why Is She Being Canceled?

By the time of her death in Georgia in 1964, O’Connor had come to express strong support for the civil rights movement and applauded the gains already made in racial relations. Today she’s being accused of racism.

Flannery O'Connor courtesy of the Atlanta History Center.
Flannery O'Connor courtesy of the Atlanta History Center. (photo: Floyd Jillson Collection)

Flannery O’Connor’s name will no longer grace a dormitory at Loyola University Maryland due to charges that the author from Georgia was a racist. The controversy was ignited after Paul Elie’s article appeared in The New Yorker with the provocative title “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” An online petition declared O’Connor guilty of racist sentiments and hate speech, although some signers admitted they didn’t know who she was.

The title of Elie’s recent article assumes O’Connor was indeed racist — and the question is simply to what extent. However, tracking her attitudes expressed over the course of her life reveals she experienced a conversion of heart in her stance toward Black people, and her stories stand as an enduring warning against this insidious sin.

Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 in Savannah, but lived most of her life with her mother on Andalusia farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Stricken with lupus at age 25, she handled the suffering of her gradual physical decline with grace, finally succumbing to the disease at age 39.

She wrote two novels and two short story collections, along with essays and hundreds of letters. A faithful Catholic, she said her stories showed the “action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.” Hailed as one of the greatest fiction writers of the 20th century, she was honored posthumously with the National Book Award in 1972.

O’Connor’s attitude toward Black people was complicated, which one would expect from someone born in 1925 in Georgia. Her spiritual director and close friend was a Jesuit priest named Father James McCown, whose childhood in Alabama was steeped in racism. Still, when he met O’Connor he had already earned a reputation as an integrationist and was proud of establishing the first integrated parish in Fort Valley, Georgia.

O’Connor’s early life in the pre-civil rights South was steeped in racism, too, but like her spiritual director she sought to rise above her background.

People who accuse O’Connor of racism often point to letters she wrote to her friend Maryat Lee, a playwright living in New York City. The letters show that Lee had thrown herself into the civil rights movement with great fervor, while also revealing O’Connor’s occasional use of racist language and evolving views about integration. 

In Revelation, her short story published in 1965, a “white trash” woman sitting in a doctor’s waiting room shares aloud her proposed “solution” of sending Black people back to Africa. Another woman, Mrs. Turpin, who appears to be better educated, says this won’t work, given the numbers of African Americans in the United States.

She goes on to air her own deeply racist convictions by saying Black persons want to “improve their color” by marrying white folks. Soon after this Mary Grace, a college student, hurls a book across the room and clips Mrs. Turpin on the head. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” the student whispers.

In her letters to Lee, O’Connor sometimes assumed the persona of an ignorant Southern white woman — akin to the “white trash” woman in the waiting room — who harbors a cache of racist beliefs. But she seemed to enjoy exaggerating — even caricaturing — her own conservative, Southern views to contrast with her liberal, Northern friend’s “Yankee” ideas.

According to O’Connor’s lifelong friend Sally Fitzgerald, Lee was well aware of the good-natured sparring, and also indulged in it. In fact, Lee herself came to O’Connor’s defense on the racism charge, writing to Fitzgerald to explain that “Flannery permanently became devil’s advocate with me in matters of race, as I was to do with her in matters of religion.”

Despite the joking tone of the letters, running beneath the surface there was a serious discussion about race relations in the South. Lee was more inclined to dispense with social niceties and customs to achieve rapid social change, but O’Connor was not, because she was more aware of the social repercussions of going against the tide in small-town Georgia, where area racists burned crosses as warnings for anyone who pushed against their social norms.

In his article in The New Yorker, Elie cites an incident in 1959 where Lee mentioned that Black author James Baldwin was traveling to Georgia — and suggested O’Connor should meet him. Today, this would seem like a small matter indeed, but it was a big deal at the time. And so O’Connor set her Northern friend straight about the manners of the Deep South: “In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not.” Such a meeting, she added, would cause “the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion” in a Southern town.

Elie claims this refusal to meet Baldwin is damning proof of O’Connor’s racism. He writes, “O’Connor-lovers have been downplaying those remarks ever since. But they are not hot-mike [sic] moments or loose talk. They were written at the same desk where O’Connor wrote her fiction and are found in the same lode of correspondence that has brought about the rise in her stature.”

A crucial point overlooked by Elie is that O’Connor’s friend William Sessions, a university professor and future editor of her Prayer Journal, published in 2013, defended her against this particular charge of racism. He said Flannery expressed “considerable anguish” to him about not being able to receive Baldwin in her home. He also said that when O’Connor became close friends with a Black woman during her graduate-school days at the University of Iowa, her mother protested that interracial contacts were “dangerous.” The young O’Connor had held her ground, saying her “friendships would not be fettered by racial considerations,” but the 34-year-old O’Connor was suffering from lupus and was much more dependent on her mother, and thus more inclined to bow to her rules.

In a letter written in November 1957 to an Atlanta friend, O’Connor wrote about a transformational experience that had brought her face-to-face with the real-life suffering endured by Black people in a segregated society. Her moment of personal conversion had taken place on a bus, when the driver had told the rear occupants, who were Black, “All right, all you stove-pipe blonds, git on back there.” O’Connor wrote that she had immediately experienced a change of heart: “I became an integrationist.”

As a supporter of integration, O’Connor favored slow, rather than dramatic, social changes, largely because of her concern about backlash from local KKK members who burned crosses whenever there were sit-ins, and frightened some Black people into leaving town. She expressed admiration for the goals of Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1963, O’Connor reported that some Black people in Milledgeville had petitioned the city council to integrate the schools, restaurants and library. Unbeknownst to them, however, the library had been quietly integrated the year before. For O’Connor, the library situation exemplified change coming about quietly, without publicity — and without trouble.

The title of O’Connor’s short story The Artificial N-----, published in 1955, caused controversy in its time and still does today. However, this story reveals her sympathy for the suffering of Black people in the South perhaps better than anything else she ever wrote.

It features the backwoods Mr. Head, who wants to take Nelson, his 10-year-old grandson, to visit Atlanta, so the boy can witness the bleakness of the big city and be content to stay at home in their small town. Nelson has never seen a Black man, and Mr. Head assures him he won’t like Atlanta because it’s “full of n[******].”

After the twosome gets lost in Atlanta, the grandfather decides to demonstrate how important he is in the child’s life by pretending to leave the boy behind. When Nelson loses sight of the grandfather, he becomes so terrified that he plows into a crowd, knocking down an elderly woman. The police show up and want Mr. Head to assume responsibility for the boy’s behavior, but the old man does the unthinkable by denying the child is his kin.

It is after this terrible moment of betrayal — which in a letter O'Connor compared to Peter’s denial of Christ — that the twosome comes across the plaster figure of a Black man. The statue is unsteady, its putty cracked, its eye chipped, and the watermelon it holds is brown. They can’t tell the age of the artificial man, since it looks “too miserable” to be young or old. As they stand gazing at it, they see it as “the monument to another’s victory” and feel it “dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.”

The grandfather understands for the first time what mercy feels like, and also realizes he is a sinner. The broken-down statue awakens in Mr. Head the first feelings of sympathy for what Black people have endured in the South.

Commenting on this story, O’Connor said nothing encapsulated the tragedy of the South so much as these statues. She told Father McCown they symbolized the suffering of Black people. In 1963, eight years after the story’s publication and a year before her death, O’Connor expressed strong support for the civil rights movement, while also applauding the gains already made in racial relations. She expressed approval of “those changes in the South that have been long overdue — the whole racial picture.”

O’Connor’s stories should put to rest the notion that she was truly a racist. They are strengthened by the comment of Fitzgerald, who said, without qualification, “Her will was never in danger on the score of racism.”

It is true that O’Connor had a different take on the race situation from her friend Maryat Lee. O’Connor believed the problems in the South wouldn’t be entirely solved by passing laws, but instead required a change in behavior and culture. Interviewed in 1963, she said the South had to evolve “a way of life in which the two races [could] live together with mutual forbearance.” This would require “considerable grace” and a code of manners based on mutual charity.

She would no doubt agree that we can legislate the ways people receive education, the places they can go and the things they are allowed to do. But we can’t pass laws requiring people of different races to see each other as neighbors. We can’t require them to be charitable to each other or to love each other as Christ loves them.

This change of heart, above all else, requires God's powerful intervention in the hearts of men. As O’Connor remarked in a 1958 letter, the South “still believes that man has fallen and that he is only perfectible by God’s grace, not by his own unaided efforts.”

O’Connor was by no means perfect. She knew she was a sinner, and on matters of race she was to some degree a product of her time and place. But those who damn her as a racist because of exaggerated remarks in her letters, or because her characters use slurs common in the 1950s rural South, miss the chance to examine the full range of evidence.

They fail to see, for example, that O’Connor certainly was not a racist in the theological sense; she would never have denied that Black and white people were all God’s children and could all be redeemed by the blood of Christ. They ignore the fact that, although she was not one to favor marches, sit-ins or dramatic breaches of social convention, she did do her part, in her quiet way, to stem the tide of racism by revealing in her stories its ugly underbelly.

In her particularly Catholic approach to suffering, she recognized that no agony is ever meaningless, and thus believed that Black people had not suffered in vain, any more than Christ had, because, as she showed in her stories, out of suffering can come a change of heart — and redemption.

This is seen in Everything That Rises Must Converge, when a white man named Julian has a final awakening, realizing that his mother, despite what he sees as her embarrassing attitude towards racial matters, truly loved the Black nanny who had raised her, whereas he, a self-righteous advocate of racial equality, is incapable of loving his own mother. It is also seen in Revelation, where Mrs. Turpin, a racist in the process of conversion, has a final vision in which a crowd of souls is marching toward heaven. “White trash” and Black people head the procession with well-off whites like her husband and herself trailing behind them. It’s little wonder that in Mrs. Turpin’s vision, the faces of the respectable white people are “shocked and altered” as what they thought were virtues are being burned away.

This very process of being altered stands for the conversion that must take place in the heart before any real change can occur. It was this conversion that took place, over many years, in O’Connor’s own heart.

Lorraine Murray is the author of The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey.

A columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia Bulletin, she lives in Decatur, Georgia.