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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