Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 6: "The Artificial Nigger"

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lawnjockey

Happy Wednesday, FOC summer reading clubbers, and forgive my tardiness in posting this week. I haven't relished the thought of having the "n-word" prominently displayed on my blog for all search engines to find. But it probably is time we addressed the question of race in O'Connor's fiction. By way of entry into the question of race, I will tell you a story about the editorial process for my forthcoming O'Connor biography, The Terrible Speed of Mercy (which, I recently learned, has a new publication date of August 22, six weeks from today). The book had gone through a few rounds of edits when somebody at Thomas Nelson said, "Wait just a minute...we don't use the 'n-word' in books published by Thomas Nelson." A perfectly legitimate concern.

Indeed, the n-word appears thirteen times in my manuscript, and twice before you even make it out of the introduction. One solution would have been to "bleep out" the word, substituting "n-----" for the offending word. But eight of those thirteen instances appear in the title "The Artificial Nigger." Which is a problem insofar as you can't very well bleep out part of a story title. Somebody raised the possibility of keeping the title intact, bleeping out the other five instances of the n-word, and writing a Publisher's Note explaining that, as far as that particular word goes, things were different in O'Connor's time. I didn't much like that solution, largely on the grounds that the word--especially among O'Connor's readership--was as offensive then as it is now.

Lest you think this is a story of a publisher being overly cautious and politically correct, let me say that Thomas Nelson was correct to think long and hard before putting out a book that includes thirteen instances of a word as inflammatory as that. In the end the publishing team decided to leave the manuscript as it was in and include the following note at the beginning:

A Note About Diction
A highly offensive racial slur occurs some thirteen times throughout this book, in each case quoted from Flannery O'Connor's fiction or correspondence. The publishing team discussed at some length how best to handle this word in light of the sensibilities of twenty-first century readers. In the end, we decided to let the word stand in its full offensiveness, on the grounds that the repugnance the reader feels at the word is a key reason O'Connor used it in the first place. It may be true that there was more open racism in the 1950s and 1960s than in the twenty-first century, but that hardly explains why O'Connor used the "n-word" in the thirteen instances quoted in this book. A reader of literary fiction in the 1950s would be no less offended by the word than a reader of literary fiction in 2012. To expurgate O'Connor's language would be to suggest that we understand its offensiveness better than she does, or perhaps to suggest that the readers of this book are more easily offended than O'Connor's original audience. We have no reason to believe that either is true. So we leave O'Connor's language intact, and we leave you with this warning: you may find some of the language in this book offensive; that is as it should be.

This article by Rachel D. Held gives a sense of how much courage it has taken on the publisher's part to let such offensive language stand.

So then, race in "The Artificial Nigger." It is common in O'Connor's fiction to see white characters express racist attitudes. I can't think of a single instance of O'Connor endorsing those attitudes in any of her stories or novels. From a race perspective, the troubling thing about "The Artificial Nigger" isn't that a couple of hillbillies turn out to be racist. More troublesome is the fact that this is one of the few O'Connor stories in which a character clearly sees the error in his ways and appears to receive the offer of grace. And yet Mr. Head's racism doesn't get fixed.

Consider this remarkable moment at the end of the story, when Mr. Head realizes what an awful thing he has done in denying his grandson:

He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time. . . . He saw that no sin was too monstrous to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.

This moment of self-awareness immediately follows a moment of reconciliation between Nelson and Mr. Head. And that moment of reconciliation is signaled by their sharing of a joke--an unmistakably racist joke!

What I'm suggesting is that if you or I were were writing a story about a racist coming face-to-face with his own sin, you or I would probably show him becoming less of a racist. Not Flannery O'Connor.

What do you make of that?

Bonus reading recommendation: The best discussion of O'Connor and race and sin and redemption can be found in Ralph C. Wood's book, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Chapter 3.