Slavery, the Slave Trade and Flannery O’Connor

I know I said I wouldn’t write about slavery or the slave trade because I’m aware of its complexities, but this morning two events conspired to set me thinking. The first was the reminder that on this day in 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force, abolishing slavery throughout most of the British Empire over a period of six years. The second was reading that Loyola University in the USA is thinking of re-naming one of its dormitories currently named after Flannery O’Connor.

Slavery and the Black Lives Matter campaign have become intertwined, and I’m not sure it is to the advantage of either. For instance, one of the things I find most difficult about the current debate is the narrowness of its perspective and its almost total focus on Black Slavery in the modern era as the source of racism. No one in their right mind could defend any form of slavery nowadays, nor could anyone deny that there has been an enormous amount of suffering and injustice flowing from slavery that continues to the present; but I’m not sure that the history of Black Slavery explains racism. Ask any Jew, ask any older Irishman, anyone whose skin colour differs from that of the majority of those around them, whether they have encountered the kind of prejudice we could label racist, and the answer will probably be ‘yes’. When I was growing up, being a Catholic wasn’t de bon ton either, unless one belonged to a certain social class. My father refused to join a golf club which excluded Catholics and Jews and I daresay there were other little prejudices he encountered that he didn’t bother to mention.

We cannot ignore the fact that slavery still exists today, here in the UK and other parts of the world, wherever human beings are trafficked, exploited, or denied their essential dignity and freedom. I know I am not alone in thinking that we should be working to end modern slavery, as well as rooting out the prejudice we call ‘racist’, but I think it helps to know a little history when considering the memorials we have inherited from the past. I found quite a useful timeline for the abolition of slavery and serfdom on Wikipedia that some of you may be interested to read. Where I could test it, e.g. on the medieval Church’s attempts to end slavery and the slave trade, it proved accurate. It just isn’t possible to divide the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, especially not those who lived before us and were subject to different ideas and experiences. Which brings me to Flannery O’Connor.

In the rush to topple statues and distance institutions from any taint of association with slavery, we seem to have become a little confused. Cecil Rhodes, as far as I am concerned, was deeply unpleasant and the statue at Oriel is not one of the nation’s finest, so I don’t much care what happens to it, but the Rhodes Scholarships are another matter. I think we have to find a way of living with our past, not trying to do away with it or glorifying it but learning from it. Difficult, but not beyond the wit of men and women to resolve. But now, Flannery O’Connor a racist? She who identified the sufferings of what were then called negroes* with the sufferings of Christ, a racist? I can’t think of anything I’ve read of hers that would justify such a claim, which makes me wonder what the real motivation for the name-change is. She was a witty, spunky woman, with a strong Catholic faith, as well as as superb writer. Is the fact that she lived in the South to be counted against her or taken as evidence of views I certainly did not know she held (enlighten me, please, if you know more than I do).

The problem for me is that when we become a little silly about serious matters, when we overstate the case for a necessary change in attitude or practice, we can weaken our argument. Neither racism nor slavery has any place in civilized society, but perhaps we need to think more deeply about how to counter them. This is one of those areas where the religious and social intersect most clearly. We cannot be indifferent, but we should not be foolish, either.

* not a term we would use today but commonly used by both black and white citizens of the USA at the time she wrote.

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16 thoughts on “Slavery, the Slave Trade and Flannery O’Connor”

  1. Thank you, Sister. Such wise words that need to be shared widely with friends. Many years ago I worked in an organisation where a sizeable part of those working in it were Catholics and an equally sizeable part were Freemasons. The suspicion and distrust that existed between the two groups affected the performance of the organisation and also affected the work of the staff who, like myself, were in neither of the two groups (e.g. constantly balancing whether decisions would sit comfortably with one group or the other).
    Thank you for your very wise, sensible and much needed observations.

  2. Dear Sister Catherine
    Thank God for your skill in expressing serious issues which permit sensible discussion and focus on the core injustice. Such careful wording which gives hope for improvement, as opposed to frustrations, fear and misunderstanding that much of media’s commentary generate on this subject .

  3. Good morning – if it’s true that Flannery O’Connor wrote as quoted by Wikipedia (in “Characteristics section of their article on her), I can see why there is a difficulty here: “Nevertheless, she wrote in a letter to Maryat Lee 3rd May, 1964, “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.”” ( Elie, Paul (June 15, 2020). “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”. The New Yorker.)

    • I’ll have to check the letter and the context. Was she being provocative (see some of the things she wrote about Catholicism!) or was she simply and honestly stating her opinion, which makes her more compassionate stance at other times more of a mystery. Thank you for the link.

  4. Dear Sister,
    I don’t think Flannery O’Connor was a racist and I don’t think her stories and fiction are racist either.
    Her letters collected under the title The Habit of Being, however, could be used to make a case against her. It is a wonderful book and I loved it, but I was occasionally brought up short by her language and her defence of her language which one of her correspondents argued about with her.
    I have been hunting through my copy of the letters to see if I could find the exchange but I haven’t been able to find it.
    I recommend the book to you – not for that but for all its riches.

    • Thank you. I’ve read The Habit of Being quite closely a number of times and don’t recall anything of that nature. She knew how to tease, how to make her reader think, and she was definitely better at irony than many American writers, I’d say, but I may have missed something and would be glad to be alerted to anything I’ve missed.

      • Thank you – I should have realised that you would, of course, have read The Habit of Being. I have been searching for but can’t find the letter exchange I thought I remembered and which I thought were in letters to either Maryat Lee or ‘A’.

        It was wonderful re-reading many of her letters.

        Finally, I am pasting a link to an article by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative on ‘Cancelling Flannery O’Connor’ – which you may not have seen.
        https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/cancelling-flannery-oconnor/

        • Thank you. It could be in one of the more recently-published letters I haven’t read. I think my problem is one we all experience: does saying x at one time negate saying y at another, and how do they fit into the context of a life that is mainly z? In other words, how much racism does an individual have to express to be considered a racist? Does the fact that in my childhood to call someone ‘Black’ was considered rude, so we used different words which are now unacceptable, mean that my generation is to be condemned as racist? It is difficult.

  5. Apparently some of her letters not collected in The Habit of Being have been made public that contain some fairly egregious racist statements. What (if anything) should be done about it is another matter. Everybody sins. If Flannery O’Connor was a racist, I think there is evidence in the stories that she knew it was a sin. We can’t expect someone who was a great writer (or great in any other field) to be sinless. “Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.”

    • Thank you for that information. I think we have a real problem when applying the moral standards of the present to the past — and we are highly selective. For example, Martin Luther King was allegedly a serial adulterer. If true, does that mean he can no longer be regarded as a great man? Winston Churchill had a dark side and is now being condemned as a racist but does that mean that his role as a wartime leader is diminished? Would the language I used as a child and young woman (gendered, et al) now pass muster? Difficult.

  6. Sadly, there seem to be too many layers of ideological bias, fallacies, and cultural memes which prevent any coherent discussion about any of these ‘ISMs’ today.

    This is a useful article by Greg Koukl (co-author of ‘Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air’ with the ‘revert’ Catholic Philosopher, Frank Beckwith) is on what’s called the ‘Intolerance of Tolerance’, and highlights the problem in these (often angry) discussions which just go round and round…:
    https://www.str.org/w/the-intolerance-of-tolerance

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