Guest post by Tacy Williams Beck.
Flannery O’Connor exhibits a humorous conception of racism in her classic story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and for me, her comic strips come to mind. We all know about her ability to reveal the truths of human nature by emphasizing the absurd and grotesque.
The snarky tone is a beguiling clue to the nature of her stories. We should go at them as we read a comic strip: ready to laugh. Her command of the sound of the South, her self-deprecating tone, and her self-awareness (so early and ahead of her time!) mixed with grace can all lead us to laugh and also to love, across races, sincerely.
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” one can see many examples of her command of the sound of the South and its effect on the listener. You can almost envision her comic strips as she uses words like “recernized” “prechate” “yes’m” and “terrectly.” You can hear her hearing it; this can also be seen in O’Connor’s story, “The Displaced Person.” In that story, the main character Mrs. Shortly states of the immigrants, “You reckon they knows what colors even is?” The title of said story comes from The Displaced Person Act, which was originally condemned (although later approved) by Truman as discriminatory and racist.
As a Southerner, I believe her self-deprecating tone will awaken even the most deaf ears, in particular as regards racism on the part of Christians. From the “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?”
What could this condescension be? Her use of a now passe term displays that the layers of pre-judgment that all black children are diminutive and would make a sentimental portrait and it goes deeper than skin tone. Christian prejudice that precocious children come from a certain upbringing, or the pre-judgment that all Islamic people are criminals because they are displaced, is of huge concern in contemporary times. How can this token displaced “Misfit,” the story’s famous villain, apply? He is a self-aware bad guy. So we could say this about many Christians in the South with an unspoken pecking order. Materialism and greed are excused for the sake of giving a child every opportunity.
Her symbolism makes the story shimmer in this dark night of the soul. Certainly the monkey-like description—“he was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy”—is a symbol of the culture of looking at black people and their children a dehumanizing way. It is as if they are saying: A black person could never be a clean person.
Assumption is oozing from each comment in the conversation between the grandmother and Red Sam, at the moment Red Sam claims he is a good person because of the way he does business.
“Two fellers come in here last week,” Red Sammy said, “driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?”
“Because you’re a good man!” the grandmother said at once.
“Yes’m, I suppose so,” Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer.
Her comic device is this punchline, which reinforces Red Sam’s inflated opinion of himself.
O’Connor becomes a star in this story, no doubt, and if not before, she must have known that her own greatness, mixed with just the right amount of gracious humor would stun every onlooker. Her future work is a greatness that remains to be seen.
In conclusion, O’Connor can can make us laugh and love sincerely, both at the same time. In her prayer journal, O’Connor prays: “Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace,” which is a perfect expression of wit and faith in action. Looking to her comic strips and as well to her fierce loyalty to Christ over classism or any kind of racism, we see a refreshing picture of humanity. She can cause us to chuckle even at harmful situations, making us see the irony of the Southern depths of darkness. She is willing to go there and ultimately it makes her shine.
Tacy Williams Beck is a wife and mother to three girls and one boy. She likes to read, bake, sew, and, of course, write. Read more of her articles at her blog and Catholic Mom. Follow her on Pinterest here.