As the country continues to reel from racial injustice and police brutality, many Americans find themselves once again questioning their legacy of white privilege and their own complicity in structural racism. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s new book, Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, is a welcome opportunity for readers to grapple with this legacy in the life and work of one of the most talented writers of the 20th century.
Radical Ambivalence brings together critical voices that enable readers to examine the portrayal of race in O’Connor’s fiction, from contemporary to historical perspectives, political as well as theological, so as to better understand the forces that shaped O’Connor’s complex attitudes regarding race. O’Connor was, O’Donnell notes, like many people of her time, “a walking contradiction when it came to matters of race.”
Flannery O’Connor was, like many people of her time, “a walking contradiction when it came to matters of race.”
O’Connor’s personal letters to close friends illustrate the conflicting nature of her views on race. To William Sessions in 1963 she writes, “I feel very good about those changes in the South that have been long overdue—the whole racial picture. I think it is improving by the minute, particularly in Georgia, and I don’t see how anybody could feel otherwise than good about that.”
But then she writes to Maryat Lee in 1964 with her usual transgressive humor, playing the country bumpkin to Lee’s Yankee liberal: “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.”
O’Donnell is at her best in her many close readings of O’Connor’s stories. Her comparative analysis of O’Connor’s reworking of her first and last published stories—“The Geranium” (1946) and “Judgment Day” (1965)—frame the dramatic confrontation with the “color line” and the racial codes observed between Blacks and whites throughout her writing career.
O’Donnell argues that as O’Connor lived through the dismantling of the Jim Crow South during the 1950s and 60s, her stories deconstruct race and the concept of whiteness not only in her characters, but in her own persona. Her stories, if not her letters, show that struggle, as she exposed the hypocrisy of her characters in parable-like ways. She writes for what we might call recovering racists—those who always need reminding of their white privilege—and O’Donnell shows that O’Connor would include herself in that group, as could many white people today.