Flannery O’Connor:

Banned in Opelousas

Memo to Flannery O'Connor:

You're banned in Opelousas.

Opelousas Catholic High School, that is.

In May, high school English teacher Arsenio Orteza sent out his summer reading list for junior and senior English students. Orteza would be beginning his first year teaching at Opelousas (Louisiana) Catholic High School in the fall, but he was anything but inexperienced, having taught on both the college and high school level for fifteen years previously.

Orteza’s reading list makes his experience and expectations clear: Both seniors and juniors were to read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, and among the other required summer reading was Utopia by St. Thomas More, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, and for the juniors, Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find.

A peaceful summer passed, and all seemed to be going swimmingly until the Thursday before the first week of school, August 17.

Orteza was called to meet with his principal and the school’s chancellor. There he was given the rather interesting news that the previous evening, a group of African-American parents had met with their pastor, Father Malcolm O’Leary, SVD, of Holy Ghost Church.

The parents of Orteza’s students had two complaints, both about the O’Connor collection. In the title story, an old southern grandmother refers to black children as “pickaninnies.” Secondly, one of the stories is entitled “The Artificial Nigger.”

Now, before we go any farther, it’s important to fix these stories in context. Flannery O’Connor wrote about the people she knew: rural, mid-twentieth century southerners. As a writer, O’Connor was fixed on truth. Her aim was to present the world exactly as she saw it, and that included using the patterns of figures of speech her characters would, in “real life” use.

O’Connor’s fiction was also firmly rooted in a profoundly orthodox Roman Catholic moral vision. Her tales are all about grace, an often violent sort of grace, the violence made necessary by her characters’ blind, stubborn pride that is willing to fight to the death rather than see the way they were created to see: in God’s image, with the eyes of faith.

And in the story in question, that central image of a piece of lawn statuary functions, not as a symbol of white supremacy, but as a kind of crucifix: a stark reminder to its witnesses of the consequences of sin. As Flannery O’Connor wrote of the lawn jockeys and other such ornamentation: “there is nothing that screams out the tragedy of the South more….”

None of this mattered to the parents and pastor of Holy Rosary. All that mattered was the use of language they found offensive. Concerns were raised that reading the stories would give white students permission to use such language outside of class and perhaps exacerbate what they describe as an already shaky racial situation in the school.

In an interview with me, Fr. O’Leary emphasized that he would be opposed to the use of any books using such language: “Any white person who doesn’t see that this is a lack of charity to black people needs to learn about charity. If we want to eliminate charity in the Catholic Church, that’s all right, but as along as we believe in the virtue of charity, this is forbidden.”

Bishop Edward O’Donnell of the Diocese of Lafayette agreed, writing in a letter to Fr. O’Leary that “…no one can tell another person whether or not he or she should be offended. That is simply a matter of fact and should be respected in so far as is possible. For that reason, I direct that the books in question should be removed from the reading list immediately….”

(Bishop O’Donnell’s office did not respond to OSV’s request for an interview)

The fact that O’Connor was Catholic, and is widely seen as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, is irrelevant to Fr. O’Leary:

“Just because the author’s Catholic doesn’t make a difference. The Church may have owned slaves at one time, but it was still slavery, and that doesn’t make it right.”

Has he read the stories in question?

“I wouldn’t waste my time!”

It is a sticky question, and one that has bedeviled school systems for decades. As an experienced teacher, Orteza had encountered the issue before as he taught both O’Connor and To Kill a Mockingbird to African-American students in other schools.

But the experience at Opelousas has been especially disappointing to Orteza, a half-white, half-Filipino father of four, who was looking forward to being able to teach Flannery O’Connor in the setting she deserved: a Catholic school.

“I leapt at the chance to bring out the full Catholic context of her stories as I wasn’t able to do at the other schools at which I taught.”

Why is she so important?

“Because,” Orteza said, “There has not been any writer in twentieth-century American who has been so able to combine her intelligent love of the Catholic faith with her intelligent love for the craft of writing and so been able to make her convictions enfleshed in her fiction.”

But, unfortunately, Aresenio Orteza won’t get that chance, because of fears of racist reactions to the use of certain words. Fr. O’Leary maintains that if Orteza wants to talk about racism, let him deal with it directly. Orteza disagrees, coming down on the side of the power of art to express truth in particularly powerful and affective ways.

Another teacher with experience in these areas is Peter Cline, Chair of the English Department at Riverwood High School in Atlanta and, incidentally, a second cousin to Flannery O’Connor. He writes in an email to OSV:

“Ignoring language, actions, or attitudes does not make them go away or neutralize them. As an English teacher with extensive experience teaching African-American students, I know that students are rarely offended by language such as this, and that discussions of racist language or actions in the English classroom expose and dissipate racism, not nurture it.”

“Finally,” he adds, regarding the dilemma of this most Catholic of writers being banned from the reading list of a Catholic school, “I think the irony is delicious.”

We can’t help but imagine that Flannery O’Connor herself would agree.

A quote from the offending story, a story which, by the way, O'Connor believed was one of her best:

A old man and his grandson are confronted with a striking image after a day in Atlanta, a day of misery and confusion, all caused by mutual stubbornness and pride:

It was not possible to tell if artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either. He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners, but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead…..They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat.

From “The Artificial Nigger”

African American writer Alice Walker has this to say about Flannery O’Connor, in an essay called “A South Without Myths”:

But essential O’Connor is not about race at all, which is why it is so refreshing, coming, as it does, out of such a racial culture. If it can be said to be “about” anything, then it is “about” prophets and prophecy, “about” revelation, and “about” the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don’t have a chance of spiritual growth without it.

And finally, these wise words from a member of a Flannery O'Connor e-list:

It saddens me to hear that someone who chooses to commit his life to the teachings of Christ also chooses to expend such efforts perpetuating ignorance.

I am a 25 year old, black, female graduate student at Ole Miss. I have spent the last 2 years learning as much as I could about Flannery O'Connor--both her life and her works.

At one point in my academeic career, I found myself troubled not so much by her use of the "n word," but by my own failure to ascertain O'Connor's own personal feelings regarding race. Because I so admired O'Connor's literary vision, I became obsessed with reconciling her theological aims with her southern upbringing and cultural context. I asked myself how O'Connor could maintain her strong belief in the tenets of Christianity AND possess the bigoted attitudes of her contemporaries. I came to the conclusion that perhaps O'Connor did not necessarily share the racist beliefs of her characters or her contemporaries.

I would argue that a true "violation of Christian charity" would be depriving those students (black and white) of the truth--the truth about the south and its denizens during that time period, the truth of the historical snapshot a Flannery O'Connor story can provide about a particular time and place in our nation's past, and the more universal and fundamental truth we discover about ourselves and our spirituality though sincere and open dialogue about race. Would the minister support banning works by Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker also? These writers use the N word quite liberally at times in their narratives.

Do we whitewash this country's tragic racial history, as depicted in an O'Connor story, for the sake of blind political correctness? There is no denying the hurtful affects of the N word, just as there is no denying the hurtful affects of our past, but the only way we can ever move forward is to confront that past.

Let's not forget that at one point ppl were (and still are) "offended" by the words of Christ. But did that make His message any less valuable?

For more on Flannery O'Connor, click here

by Amy Welborn

Originally published in the September 10,2000 issue of Our Sunday Visitor

Background courtesy of Becky's Wildlife and Fantasy Art