I reckon you think you been redeemed.
—from Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
As deeply-felt agonies over sustained racial injustice are stirred with revolutionary ideologies that make a national conversation apparently impossible, given the cost of racism both outright and convoluted—particularly the uncountable abuses wielded through the “N-word”—the mere title of Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” would seem sufficient cause for the story’s consignment to the dustbin of history. On account of the titular statue, O’Connor’s own stature would seem to merit immediate removal.
An argument in favor of the story’s depth, a thoughtful voice drawing out the “honesty” and “profound perception” of O’Connor’s vision, comes from the late Toni Morrison, whose appreciation of the story should halt the superficial, reactionary righteousness that would commit such fiction to the bonfire of white vanities.
In her book The Origin of Others, Morrison takes “The Artificial Nigger” as “representative of [a] deliberate education in escaping rather than becoming the stranger.” In this controversial conversion narrative, “the word ‘nigger’ is used constantly, even when and especially when it is unnecessary,” which is precisely the point: O’Connor demonstrates the importance of excessive racial expletives for the “self-regard” of the poor white protagonist Mr. Head.
Head’s self-assigned mission in the story is to pass onto his grandson Nelson this inheritance of white supremacy. For Nelson to fully learn his lesson grandfather must take him to the city, because the last black resident of their county had been “run out” twelve years earlier. The racial character of their field trip to Atlanta sharpens when a palpably prosperous black character passes them. Mr. Head quizzes Nelson: “‘What was that?’ he asked,” substituting what for who, framing the question with a dehumanization that invites disgust. Nelson, oblivious to Head’s heavy-handed misdirection, answers “A man,” and when this is insufficient he adds other accidentals such as “fat” and “old” before Head intervenes with the authoritative answer: “That was a nigger,” he huffs, slouching back into his seat.
Morrison hones in on another crucial scene, when grandfather and son wander, alarmed, through a neighborhood marked by “black eyes in black faces . . . watching them from every direction.” Lost, the two pause to ask directions from a “large colored woman.” Interacting with an incarnate black woman for the first time, Nelson is stirred by “a feeling” he “had never had” before: “He suddenly wanted her to reach down and pick him up and draw him against her and then he wanted to feel her breath on his face.” Head sees Nelson’s attraction as pernicious. As the black stranger loses her thatness, Morrison explains, “without the glue of racial superiority there seems to be no possibility of forgiveness or re-union” between Nelson and his grandfather, who continue to grope their way helplessly through the city’s foreign core.
Mr. Head lets his grandson Nelson get lost in order to teach him a lesson—to, it would seem, recover the mock grace of racial glue. When the frantic Nelson literally runs into an elderly lady, scattering her groceries and possibly causing an injury, Mr. Head denies Nelson in front of the crowd, imitating St. Peter in an act so gross that “[t]he women dropped back, staring at him with horror, as if they were so repulsed by a man who could deny his own image and likeness that they could not bear to lay hands on him.” Here, as O’Connor’s Catholic imagination reads small particulars in light of the Great Particularity of Christ, we grasp that Head’s racist disposition is an insidious species that is part of a deeper problem: his solipsism, his ruthless penchant for resisting all reality that differs from himself, even to the point of a masochistic trick played on a grandson whose physical similarity is supposedly undermined by his failure to pass the prejudice test.
At last Mr. Head and his protégé enter an all-white neighborhood, where, Morrison argues, “their fear of not belonging, of becoming, themselves, the stranger, destabilizes them.” Head’s educative aspirations are frustrated by these “safe” streets until they are (to use Morrison’s phrasing) “calmed and rescued” by a black jockey lawn ornament who, O’Connor writes, “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.” Grandfather and grandson experience what William Lynch calls “insight.”
O’Connor does not make plain the why, but as Mr. Head and Nelson gaze upon the plaster figure (which is about the same size as the grandson) it is “as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat,” to the point that they “could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.” O’Connor’s attention to the singularities and ironies of the statue is superb: the chipped eye and the stretched mouth meant to smile but miserable. Still, her work evinces how hard it is to obtain the right proportionality between what William Lynch calls “the definite” (concrete particulars) and the “insights” that we can gain by passing through them, for the Christic imaginer must be led not into the temptation of trying “to get as much as possible of heaven out of as little as possible of earth.”
Her invocation of the similarity between racial Othering and divine mercy is especially unsettling. Morrison contends that the manufactured “mercy” is Nelson’s salvation from the city’s racial heteronomy and his acquisition of racism, which bestows on the young student “the illusion of power through the process of inventing an Other.” And Morrison’s argument—that the boy “has been successfully and artfully taught racism”—is compelling so far as it goes. But the story does not end with this mock mercy: it concludes with a conversion wherein Head’s self-justification is (at least seemingly) interrupted by actual grace.
The end of O’Connor’s story exemplifies the difficulties that plague the artist’s efforts to artfully render the action of grace—to capture conversion—in fiction; in a letter, she argues that her protagonist Mr. Head is “not the same man at the end of the story.” Though “stable in the sense that he bears his same physical contours and peculiarities . . . they are all ordered to a new vision.” When O’Connor narrates Head’s purgation, she violates the unspoken oath taken by all contemporary fictionists: show, don’t tell. “Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now.” And, a little later, he “stood very still and let the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it”?
Here the piece pulses with the heart of the problem: there are no words in the world that can name it, but O’Connor does so still: mercy, it is called. On the other hand, her outright mention of mercy could be a counterpoint and corrective to that which only felt “like an action of mercy”—the racially-tinged bond experienced by the two white men as they stand before the statue. Crucially, Head had “never known before what mercy felt like” and in part because of this he may have sought to manufacture it. If she were to stop there, at this explicit explanation that he is experiencing mercy, the story would be considerably weakened. But then we witness the effects of the mercy on Mr. Head’s thoughts (which is of course apropos, given his name):
He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it.
The effect of mercy is to give him a vision of his own rebellion: “He had never thought of himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him to despair.” O’Connor considers Mr. Head as “ordered to a new vision,” a vision that includes his and humankind’s history of depravity but finishes in forgiveness: “He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson.”
W. F. Monroe contends that the prospect of actual “conversion” is undermined by Mr. Head’s “overconfidence in the rational mind,” arguing that Head’s reliance on his own knowledge at the conclusion of the story is “static, pat, and even hackneyed.” The story’s final lines lend some credence to this misgiving. While his grandfather’s neat conversion leaves the old man “ready at that instant to enter Paradise,” Nelson watches him “with a mixture of fatigue and suspicion.” Just before this point the pair’s fear, their anxiety that they may again get lost, is so great that they “stood ready to jump off” if the train did not stop at their desired suburban station. As the same train “disappeared like a frightened serpent into the woods,” Nelson’s face “lightened” and he vows never to go to the city again. Why? Has the serpentine train been a vehicle of his grandfather’s fearful bigotry? Is he here refusing to find faux reconciliation through grotesque racist statuary?
“There is nothing that screams out the tragedy of the South,” O’Connor wrote, “like what my uncle calls ‘nigger statuary.’” Here, says Jeanne Perreault, “she makes one of the few comments that demonstrate that she sees the South as tragic, and that the tragedy is specifically based in racial injustice.” Before the story was published, when her editor John Crowe Ransom objected to its title, O’Connor countered that “to have sanitized the title would have robbed the story of its real power, the power to invert racist intention into anti-racist redemption.” Toni Morrison applauds O’Connor for exhibiting “with honesty and profound perception her understanding of the stranger, the outcast, the Other”—the “construction of the stranger and its benefits.” At first glance, though, these “benefits” seem to include Mr. Head’s purported redemption. But if the statue can be read as both a disfigured representation of blackness and disfiguring those who gaze upon it, this freakish “figure for our essential displacement” obtains two levels of meanings. As they gazed upon the statue, Head scrounged for something to say to the child to “show that he was still wise,” and Nelson, too, is “hungry” for that “reassurance.” When he opens his mouth to “make a lofty statement,” all he can say is “They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one,” accentuating whites’ “need” for the Otherness of blackness for the construction of their own identity.
Head’s conversion, for all of its religious explicitness, occupies an indeterminate space: is it, too “an artificial one”—or is it real? Wrestling with this question, we register the ramifications of redemption. The end of eternal salvation is larger than the purgation of racism, but prejudice—a species of deadly pride—must be rooted out of the soul who undertakes the way of the Cross. The only specific sin Head names is his denial of “poor Nelson.” And yet, if the just severity of mercy’s true action has only now touched him, if he here—for the first time—recognizes his capacity for depravity and “monstrous” sins, only a ruthless, reductive reading would deny the possibility he might return home to reckon with his racist bent, even if this prospect remains wholly in potency as the curtains close. O’Connor argues that insofar as a literary symbol succeeds, it should “transcend any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make.” “The Artificial Nigger,” frustrating all attempts at oversimplified “epiphanies” in the face of such saturated racism and such deep-seated superbia, instantiates her fiction’s necessary thickness—its innate invitation to reckon profoundly, simultaneously, with our nation’s “original sin” and with our own descent from Adam.