Sunday, 20 September 2020 17:07

Remembering those who helped us confirm our issues with racism

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In my senior English class at Decatur St. Teresa High School (1974-1975), we read A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. It did not go over well. For one thing, there is some really shocking violence. For another, there did not seem to be any sympathetic characters.

As I reflected on the story, I found the lack of sympathetic characters to be quite interesting, because the writer was subtle in implying the unattractiveness of every one of them. I also found a good deal of humor in the story. And what was with “the grandmother” referring mentally to her daughter-in-law as “the children’s mother”?

In this space in 2014, I noted the 50th anniversary of O’Connor’s death; she had lived to be only 39 years old. But she had enough time to produce two novels and numerous short stories about the American South (she was from Milledgeville, Ga.) and the region’s struggles with race and religion. Her writing tended to be thoroughly unsentimental, as she considered the sinful state of humanity — hence the hard edges on her stories.

I was shocked to learn that a Catholic university, Loyola Maryland, was removing Flannery O’Connor’s name from a dormitory. I wrote a parish bulletin column about this. But I am now following up, having been more fully informed about the decision.

This month’s issue of Commonweal provides two perspectives. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, the author of four books on O’Connor, deplores the removal of her name, supposing that an oversimplified interpretation of some writings has led to the conclusion that she was a racist. O’Donnell stresses that O’Connor produced many “powerful anti-racist parables” and that these particular stories sprang from a genuine struggle with matters of race — a struggle in which we all need to engage.

Cathleen Kaveny counters that the decision was well thought out. A dormitory is a residence, and the feelings of the residents must be considered. Loyola University Maryland is in Baltimore, “a city long riven by inequality and violence,” and the university is taking seriously the need for sensitivity in its specific location. As a matter of fact, the dormitory in question is being renamed for Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA (1937-1990), a native of Yazoo City, Miss., who became a Catholic at age 9 and spent herself in acquainting African Americans with Catholic Christianity. She wrote Families, Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black, which was published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and was involved in the production of the Catholic hymnal Lead Me, Guide Me. Sister Thea is at the “Servant of God” stage of the Catholic process for causes of saints.

As I did six years ago, I recommend now that we become more familiar with O’Connor’s work, noting the availability, from the Library of America, of a volume of “collected works” which includes her two novels, many short stories, and over 300 pages of letters.

I close as I mourn the death, on Saturday, Sept. 5, of Leroy Jordan, who for many years was very active among Springfield Catholics in helping many of us to confront our own issues with racism. As I think about O’Connor, Bowman, and Jordan, I perceive a common effort to find sense in the midst of nonsense; to shine a powerful light upon the dignity of all human beings; to help us remember that the Son of God, in his Incarnation, joined himself with all of humanity.