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 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 premier writers, literary scholars, theologians, professors, 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.

Sincerely,

Alice Walker, writer

Richard Rodriguez, writer

Ron Hansen, writer, Santa Clara University

Mary Gordon, writer, Millicent C. McIntosh Professor in English and Writing (Emeritus), Barnard College

Marilyn Nelson, writer; Former Poet-in-Residence of the American Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; former Poet Laureate of Connecticut, former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets

Patricia Hampl, writer; Professor of English (Emeritus), University of Minnesota

Tobias Wolff, writer; Professor emeritus, Stanford University

Catherine Wolff, writer

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Associate Director, Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, Fordham University

Ralph C. Wood, University Professor of Theology & Literature, Baylor University

Thomas F. Haddox, Lindsay Young Professor of English, University of Tennessee

Jessica Hooten Wilson, Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence, University of Dallas

Henry (Hank) T. Edmondson III, Ph.D, Georgia College

Farrell O’Gorman, Chair, Professor of English, Belmont Abbey College, NC

John Sykes, Mary and Harry Brown Professor of English and Religion, Wingate University

His Excellency, The Right Reverend Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles

Michael Garanzini, SJ, Georgetown University

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Parkman Professor of Divinity, Harvard University

Dónal Godfrey, S.J., Associate Director for Faculty and Staff Spirituality, University Ministry, University of San Francisco

Joseph A. Brown, SJ; Ph. D., Professor, Department of Africana Studies, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Joe Feeney, S.J., Saint Joseph’s University

Thomas Joseph White, OP, Angelicum, Rome, Professor of Theology, Director, Thomistic Institute

Fr. Robert Imbelli, Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus, Boston College

Fr. David Stokes, Providence College

James J. Buckley, Professor Emeritus, Department of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Maria Desmond, Former Loyola University MD faculty, Cork, Ireland

William  Desmond, Inaugural Higgins Chair (Emeritus), Loyola University MD

David Cook Chair in Philosophy, Villanova University, USA

Thomas A.F. Kelly Visiting Chair in Philosophy, Maynooth University, Ireland 
Professor  of  Philosophy  Emeritus, Institute  of  Philosophy, KU Leuven, Belgium

Paul Richard Blum, Ph.D., T.J. Higgins Chair in Philosophy, emeritus, Loyola University Maryland

Elizabeth Blum, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy former faculty, Loyola University Maryland

Peter Steinfels, Fordham University

Paul Mariani, Professor of English (Emeritus), Boston College

Anthony Esolen , Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts

Richard Giannone, Professor of English (Emeritus), Fordham University

Joseph Viscomi, James G. Kenan Distinguished Professor of English Literature, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

George Lensing, Mann Family Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Susan Srigley, Ph.D., Professor, Chair, Department of Religions and Cultures, Nipissing University, Canada

Mark Jarman, Centennial Professor of English, Emeritus, Vanderbilt University

Bruce Gentry, Professor of English, Georgia College, Editor, Flannery O’Connor Review

Sarah Gordon, Professor Emerita of English, Georgia College, Milledgeville, GA 

Louise Westling, Professor Emerita of English, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR

Margaret Whitt, Professor Emerita of English, University of Denver, Denver, CO

Angel Ruiz, Professor of Classics, University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain)

Paul Nisley, Professor emeritus of English, Messiah College

Virginia Wray, Dean Emerita, Lyon College

Dana Greene, Dean Emerita. Oxford College, Emory University

Robert Donahoo, Professor of English, Sam Houston State University

Jennifer A. Frey, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of South Carolina

Christopher Frey, Associate Professor of Philosophy,D irector of Graduate Studies, Department of Philosophy, University of South Carolina

Kimberly Rae Connor, Professor/School of Management, Faculty Chair for Mission Integration/Lane Center, University of San Francisco

John Schwenkler, Associate Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Florida State University

Scott D. Moringiello, Associate Professor of Catholic Studies, DePaul University

Paul J. Contino, Professor of Great Books, Seaver College / Pepperdine University

Michael P. Murphy, Department of Theology; Director, Catholic Studies; Director, The Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage, Loyola University Chicago

Christina Bieber Lake, Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English, Wheaton College

Amy Alznauer, Lecturer, Northwestern University

John Bailey, American Academy of Cinematographers

Jill Peleaz Baumgartner, Professor of English (Emerita), Wheaton College

Bernardo Aparicio, Publisher, Dappled Things Literary Magazine

Suzanne J. Fournier, Associate Professor of English, Associate Director of Liberal Arts Honors Program, Providence College

Robert Barry, Providence College

Paul Gondreau, Providence College

James Keating, Providence College

Sandra Keating, Providence College

Patrick Macfarlane, Providence College

Patrick Reid, Providence College

Barbara Bennett, Ph.D.

Betty Littleton, Ph.D., J.D.

Gabriel Connor, Bookseller & Collector, Heaven/Haven Books

Zena Hitz, St. John’s College

John Schwenkler, Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University

Albert Gelpi, William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature, emeritus , Stanford University

Barbara Gelpi, Emerita Professor of English, Stanford University

Jon M. Sweeney, author and publisher

Susanna Barsella, Professor of Modern Languages, Fordham University

Rebecca Steinberger, Professor of English, Misericordia University

Gary M. Ciuba, Professor of English, Kent State University

Collin Messer, Professor of English, Grove City College

Thomas Rzeznik, Seton Hall University

James Matthew Wilson, Associate Professor of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions, Villanova University and Poet-in-Residence, Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Liturgy

Bryan Giemza, Ph.D., J.D., Associate Professor of Humanities and Literature, Texas Tech University

Joshua Hren, Ph.D., Editor of Wiseblood Books & Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey

Karin Coonrod, Director of EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE, Yale School of Drama, faculty

Carlton Terrence Taylor, lead actor in EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE, Associate artist with Compagnia de’ Colombari

Sarah Marshall, Actor, Adjunct Professor of Acting at Georgetown University

Paul Vasile, Musical Director of EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE, Faculty, Eden Seminary

Dietrice Bolden, Managing Director, Impact Repertory Theatre, Actor in Compagnia de’ Colombari

MaryBeth Wise, actor, EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE, Compagnia de’ Colombari

Mary C. Sommers, Professor Emerita, Department of Philosophy, Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas

Jeffrey P. Bishop, Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Theological Studies, Tenet Chair in Bioethics, St. Louis University

Frances Howard-Snyder, Professor of Philosophy, Western Washington University

Katy Carl, Editor in Chief, Dappled Things Magazine

Karen Swallow Prior, PhD, Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Jamie Spiering, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Benedictine College, Atchison, KS

Ashleen Menchaca Bagnulo, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Texas State University

Daniel de Haan, PhD, Faculty of Theology and Religion, Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, Oxford University

Theresa Smart, PhD, Assistant Professor , School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, Arizona State University

Robert K Garcia, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Baylor University

Siobhan Nash-Marshall, Professor of Philosophy, Manhattanville College

Antonia Arslan, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Italian Literature, University of Padova

Theodore P Rebard, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of St. Thomas, Houston

Janet Lowery, Ph.D., Professor of English, University of St. Thomas, Houston

Bernadette Waterman Ward, Associate Professor of English, University of Dallas

Grant Kaplan, Steber Chair and Professor of Theology, St. Louis University

Alice M. Ramos, Professor of Philosophy, St. John’s University

Joe B. Fulton, Professor of American Literature, Baylor University

Jessica Schnepp, Catholic University of America

Mary Hathaway, B.A., William & Mary

Anne Maloney, Associate Professor of Philosophy, St. Catherine University, MN

Kori Frazier Morgan

Owene Phillips Weber Courtney, Dir. of Spirituality, St. John’s Cathedral, FL

Beverly Willett, J.D., Catholic University of America; lawyer, writer & immediate  Past President, the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation

John Paul McKinney, Professor emeritus, Departments of Psychology and Pediatrics and Human Development, Michigan State University

Dr. Mary Reichardt, Professor of Literature, University of St. Thomas, MN

Brent Little, Ph.D., Department of Catholic Studies, Sacred Heart University

Michael Cass, Professor Emeritus, Mercer University

Michael D. Torre, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of San Francisco

John Marson Dunaway, Professor Emeritus of French and Interdisciplinary Studies, Mercer University

Kavin Rowe, George Washington Ivey Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Duke University

Jeremy Begbie, Thomas A. Langford Distinguished Professor of Theology, Duke University

Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law, Duke University

Rebecca Vaccaro, Ph.D.

James K. Gilligan, Retired President and CEO, Blue Cross Life Insurance Company of Canada

Eric J. Silverman, Associate Professor of Philosophy,Christopher Newport University

Craig A. Boyd, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, St. Louis University

Daniel Qualk, Masters Student English Lit, Catholic University of America

Nathan S. Lefler, Theology/Religious Studies, University of Scranton

Mike Aquilina, Executive Vice-President, St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, Contributing Editor, Angelus News, EWTN host

Maria Poggi Johnson Ph.D., Chair, Department of Theology, University of Scranton

Joseph Sendry, Professor of English Emeritus, Catholic University of America

Maire Mullins, Professor of English, Pepperdine University

Jessica Sweeney, Managing Director of the Ars Vivendi Arts Initiative, Collegium Institute

Terence Sweeney, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Villanova University

Kirsten Hall, PhD candidate and Assistant Instructor in the Department of English, University of Texas at Austin

Stephen Miles, Ph.D, Loyola University Theology Dept, former member

Joe McElligott, Ph.D., Lehman College, NYC

Melody Bell, Baltimore, MD

Stephen Holmes, Towson University, Baltimore, MD

Rita Lawler, Lindale, GA

Sarah Stevens, Clarkston, GA

Sue Dunham Danielson, Pittsburgh, PA

Jason Walker, Tyler Junior College, Ph.D. candidate, Univ of Texas at Dallas

Deanna Witkowski, University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Richard Rankin Russell, Professor of English, Graduate Program Director,  2012 Baylor Centennial Professor, Baylor University

Fr. Claude Pavur, S.J., Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies, Boston College

Fr. Peter S. Rogers, S.J. Professor Emeritus, Loyola University New Orleans

John G. Trapani, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Walsh University

Peter C. Brown, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Mercer University

Charlotte Thomas, Professor of Philosophy, Mercer University

Daniel Nodes, Professor of Classics, Baylor University

Paul Gutaker, Department of History, Baylor University

Julia Hejduk, the Reverend Jacob Beverly Stiteler Professor of Classics, Baylor University

David Lyle Jeffrey, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities

Michael Foley, Associate Professor of Great Texts, Baylor University

Michael Parrish, Linden G. Bowers Professor of American History, Baylor University

Charles Ramsey, Lecturer, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University

Richard Russell, Graduate Program Director, Department of English, Baylor University

Andrew Wisely, Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Cultures, Baylor University

Ann Astell, Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

Jane Doering, Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame

Lawrence Cunningham, Emeritus Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

Mary M. Keys, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Philip Best, Professor of Architecture, University of Notre Dame

Ruthann Knechel Johansen, Director Emerita Teachers as Scholars Program, University of Notre Dame

The Rev. Michael Rennier,Pastor, Epiphany of Our Lord Catholic Church, St. Louis, MO, Web Editor, Dappled Things Magazine

Gregory R. Beabout, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Philosophy, Saint Louis University

Jason Baehr, Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Marymount University

A. Rothaus Moser, Assistant Professor of Theology, Honors College, Azusa Pacific University

Lee Bacchi, Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet-in-Illinois

Ryan McGonigle, Fordham University, Class of 2011