Letter in Protest of the Cancelling of Flannery O’Connor

In mid-July 2020, in partnership with a small group of Flannery O’Connor scholars, I conceived and composed the following letter to oppose the removal of Flannery O’Connor’s name from one of the buildings on the campus of Loyola University Maryland.

The letter, along with the campaign, was endorsed by novelist Alice Walker, and garnered some 200 signatures from some of America’s premiere writers, revered literary scholars, renowned theologians, dedicated teachers and professors, concerned religious leaders (including a number of Jesuits), and devoted readers whose lives, minds, and hearts have been shaped by their encounter with Flannery O’Connor.

The letter was presented to the president of Loyola, Rev. Brian Linnane, S.J., on July 31st, 2020, the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola.

–Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

Dear Fr. Linnane,

We must honor Flannery for growing. Hide nothing of what she was, and use that to teach.—Alice Walker, statement issued to Loyola University Maryland, July 27, 2020

It has come to the attention of the Flannery O’Connor scholarly community, professors who teach O’Connor in university classes, distinguished writers, and many readers and admirers of her work, that Loyola University Maryland has decided to remove Flannery O’Connor’s name from one of your buildings on campus. We believe this gesture is a mistake.

Flannery O’Connor is among the finest writers America has produced. More to the point, she was an observant Catholic whose work is deeply informed by the tenets of her faith. O’Connor believes in the Imago Dei, the fact that every human being is beloved of God and made in God’s image. Her stories champion the despised, the outcast, and the other, demonstrating their humanity, and call to account people who try to deny their God-given sacred nature. Among the despised in her stories are African Americans, and the primary objects of her satire are most often racist whites. 

It is also a fact that Flannery O’Connor grew up in the mid-20th century, virulently racist culture of the American South. She was marked by that culture, as surely as whites growing up in the current racist culture of America are marked. Living in a toxic, racially unjust environment inevitably shapes us all. What makes O’Connor extraordinary is her conscious choice to use her God-given gifts as an artist to oppose her culture and create anti-racist work. In the course of O’Connor’s career as a fiction writer, we see her becoming bolder, more nuanced, and more outspoken in her opposition to the “inburnt beliefs” of her fellow Southerners and fellow Americans. This was her way of wrestling with and struggling against the racist legacy she inherited. O’Connor “grew,” as Alice Walker observes in the statement that appears in the epigraph to this letter, and she grew in remarkable ways.

Given this, it is deeply ironic that of all writers, Flannery O’Connor, the radical Roman Catholic, should be “cancelled” at a Roman Catholic university.  From an unapologetically Catholic angle of vision, she portrayed America and the human soul as it was and as it is–deeply divided, broken and flawed, and much in need of conversion and repentance.

O’Connor’s work and example offer contemporary readers and students a great source of hope and encouragement, especially in the historic moment we find ourselves in. The heartbreaking and very public killing of Ahmaud Arbery & George Floyd (as well as the brutal lynching and murder of so many black men and women before them, both those we can name and those we cannot) have forced white Americans to look closely at the ugly face of racism in our history, in our institutions, in our population, and in ourselves.  O’Connor may—and does—make some racially insensitive statements in her private correspondence. There is no excusing this. But in her stories her better angel rules. She holds herself—all of her racist white characters—and all white people—up for judgment.  She lays claim to America’s original sin of racism, seeks atonement, and she atones. Given the deeply Catholic, deeply theological character of her work, the name of Flannery O’Connor—perhaps above that of any other American writer—belongs on a building at a Jesuit university such as Loyola Maryland.

In many ways, we are poised at a crisis point as a nation and a culture. As you are surely aware, cancelling Confederate generals and dismantling Civil War monuments is a very different matter from cancelling writers, thinkers, and artists, none of whom were ever presumed to be saints or paragons of conventional virtue. This is antithetical to university culture and intellectual life. Few, if any, of the great writers of the past can survive the purity test they are currently being subject to. If a university (Catholic or otherwise) effectively banishes Flannery O’Connor, why keep Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky and other writers who were marked by the racist, misogynist, and/or anti-Semitic cultures and eras they lived in the midst of?  No one will be left standing.

We urge you to reconsider this unfortunate decision and to keep O’Connor’s name among those honored names that grace your buildings. We also applaud your decision to add Sister Thea Bowman’s name to your named buildings, as well. What could be more fitting than to see these two Southern Catholic women’s names appear side by side, one white, one black, both pioneers of the faith who employed their talents and imaginations in the service of God, their Church, and the greater good? 

We must honor Flannery for growing. Hide nothing of what she was, and use that to teach.—Alice Walker, statement issued to Loyola University Maryland, July 27, 2020

This statement made by novelist Alice Walker in response to this decision and quoted at the opening of this letter seems a fitting place to close. It is brief and eloquent in its truth and power. We must “honor” O’Connor for who and what she was, not hide her from view because she was not perfect, not pretend that she never existed, not erase her from the daily experience of students, faculty, and members of the university and the human community.  Walker praises O’Connor “for growing,” for having the courage and humility to confront, through her writings, her own shortcomings and prejudices and to critique them, via the characters she invented in her stories. Finally, Walker, consummate teacher that she is, urges us to use this as a teachable moment. We are all desperately in need of conversion and transformation. O’Connor died young, 39 years old, in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights movement. As she lay on her death bed, she was writing story after story about white racists who arrive at the difficult knowledge of their sin. Reading these stories, we watch her coming to a painful but necessary understanding of herself. O’Connor once wrote that conversion is not something that happens in a minute. It is like a continuous blast of “annihilating light, a blast that will last a lifetime.”  Reading her work, as all students and all people of our moment in history should and must, we see her standing in that light. And she does not flinch.

It is no small thing to remove Flannery O’Connor from the pantheon of Catholic writers and intellectuals honored on your campus. We urge you to reconsider this decision.

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2 Responses to Letter in Protest of the Cancelling of Flannery O’Connor

  1. OC Garza says:

    Hi Angela,

    I wish you the best in your quest to prevent the “unnaming” of the Flannery O’Connor Buildling on the Loyola campus. We are living in the strangest of times; the political foxes are running the country’s hen house disguised as a protest!

    Good luck,

    OC Garza Victoria, Texas

    >

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