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Friday, February 26, 2010

Southern Bigots

I'm re-reading Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."  I thought O'Connonr had long since lost her ability to make me squirm.  I was wrong.  I had forgotten that even the children in this story are little pests.  I remembered the grandmother as obnoxious, childish, and manipulative, but I had forgotten she was also a bigot.  I flinched when I came to the words, "pickaninny" and "nigger," realizing I had asked a room full of good church-going Episcopaleans to read this - what would they think of me?
Naturally, the granny's bigotry is just another symptom of her fallen nature, but still, in this day and age, this is the particular button I am most sensitive to having pushed.  I just finished playing Mr Linder in "Raisin in the Sun," after all.
O'Connor creates a very believable portrait of a certain kind of Southern bigot, a type I have known all my life, and one I'm not sure exists north of Maryland.  The granny is - and this is going to sound like the purest oxymoron to anyone unfamiliar with the type - an affectionate bigot.  Granny is honestly and sincerely fond of the black race as she imagines them.  Her view is twisted, ignorant, and narrow as any potbellied racist sheriff from one of our moralizing movies about racism, but rather than infused with hatred, she is filled with sentimental love.  Really a bizarre combination but quite common in the south.  She would never imagine herself a racist and would speak of "our coloreds."
Alice Walker, who grew up pretty much down the street from O'Connor's farm, was incensed at O'Connor's insensitive handling of race.  But why?  Surely the grandmother isn't held up as a paragon; we should expect her attitude on race to be as benighted as everything else in her narrow little mind.  The problem is that unlike the potbellied sheriff, we are forced to recognize - and this is really creepy - that O'Connor sees something positive in the granny's misguided love.  No matter how prejudiced or ignorant, it is love.  And God is love.
O'Connor, famous for her use of the grotesque, writes that we are used to thinking of evil as grotesque, but good is also grotesque; in the human race, flawed and broken as we are, goodness is always something emerging from evil - it is never perfected, it always shares something of our own weakness.  If granny's love for blacks is warped and perverse - and yet still love - O'Connor is telling us that the purest and finest love we hold is also warped and perverse.  But it is still love.

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