The Semiotics of Racial Différance in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger”

In American literature, as in American culture more generally, race has played a central role not only in the sense that a great deal of literature is directed at the problems of race, racism, and race relations, but in the means by which racial differences and similarities are used as signs. Many of the tropes, commonplaces, symbols, and values used and reflected by the great American literary works written by white authors, as Toni Morrison writes, are “in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence” (5). The white American literary tradition—like the idea of whiteness itself, as James Baldwin (169) and others have pointed out—has in important aspects relied upon a reference to blackness and to the experience of black people in America to arrive at its self-definition (Gates, 12). The content of the idea of whiteness as a racial concept, then, is derived from blackness both as it differs and defers, and vice versa. Borrowing Jacques Derrida’s (78) French neologism différance to describe the simultaneous differing and deferring of signs, scholars such as Ellen T. Armour (62), Ryan Simmons (84), and others have used the term racial différance to describe this mutual derivation of meaning through juxtaposition in the black/white binary. It is this binary and the racial différance it feeds from and creates anew that informs the use of African Americans and of blackness as signifiers for white characters as well as white and black readers in the works of Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s 1955 short story “The Artificial Nigger” serves as an illuminating example of her use of racial différance in its use of African Americans as a sign by which white characters attain greater self-understanding, a common theme in O’Connor’s stories. O’Connor’s identity as a white Southern woman and a practicing Catholic produced in her a complex relationship with her region’s history and legal and cultural dictates on the relationship of the races to each other. On the one hand, as she wrote in a letter to a close friend in 1957, she “became an integrationist” after witnessing African American bus riders insulted by the driver as they made their way to the back of a segregated Georgia bus (1988, 253). On the other hand, however, she refused the request of a more militantly integrationist friend, Maryat Lee, to meet with the African American author James Baldwin, fearing that “it would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion” (329). While expressing admiration for Baldwin’s work and admitting that “it would be nice to meet him” in New York, O’Connor explained that she would not violate Southern custom by meeting with a black man in Georgia. In another letter to Lee five years later, O’Connor expresses a more sour opinion of Baldwin, writing, “about the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind” (580). In the same letter, however, she expresses admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr. (“King I don’t think is the age’s great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do”) and Muhammad Ali (“Cassius is too good for the Moslems”). As Sally Fitzgerald, O’Connor’s friend and the compiler of her letters, explains in her preface to O’Connor’s collected letters in The Habit of Being, O’Connor “never thought” in terms of “large social issues” like the Civil Rights movement, choosing instead to focus both her work and her thought more generally upon what she saw as the higher and eternal issues of salvation and damnation (O’Connor 1988, xviii–xiv).

O’Connor subsumed her own complex relationship with racial différance under the more central, spiritual concerns of her fiction, often introducing black characters as a sign which will become the means of grace for the white central characters. As Nicholas Crawford (3) observes, “these characters wear masks, and their unreadability actually corresponds to a failure of self-recognition on the part of the white principals.” This unreadability also reflects O’Connor’s inability to, as she put it, “get inside their heads,” in her interactions with African Americans (O’Connor 1988, xix). O’Connor’s characters’ (and O’Connor’s) inability to understand the internal worlds of the African Americans with whom they interact allows the black characters to function as signs for greater self-illumination on the part of the white characters. The black characters, then, become a means of grace for the white characters, though this does not in any of O’Connor’s stories lead to a greater understanding between members of the two races (Crawford, 3–4).

The jocko figure encountered by Mr. Head and Nelson at the conclusion of “The Artificial Nigger,” which O’Connor described as her favorite of her own works and “probably the best thing I’ll ever write” (1988, 209), is an especially illuminating example of this motif as it appears in O’Connor’s works. In this case, the black “person” who acts as a means of grace and who is also the eponymous character in fact has no head to “get inside” of, given that it is a statuette. Mr. Head’s off-color joke about the statue, offered even as the grace given through the statue acts upon his soul, highlights his unchanged racial attitudes. “They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one,” he jests in lieu of “a lofty statement” of explanation to his grandson (O’Connor 1971, 296). As Anthony Di Renzo (9) insightfully comments on this passage, through O’Connor’s juxtaposition of religious awe and low humor, “we are asked to seriously consider the possibility that a plaster lawn jockey is also a crucifix.” Like a real crucifix, it must be remembered that the plaster lawn jockey, to be meaningful both within the story and without, is a symbol of the real suffering of real human beings. O’Connor (1988, 78) wrote in a letter just after the initial publication of “The Artificial Nigger,” “What I had in mind to suggest with the artificial nigger was the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all.”

Mr. Head had himself taken part in causing this suffering. Before their trip to the city, he tells Nelson that “there hasn’t been a nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago” (O’Connor 1971, 252). In a reversal of W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of double-consciousness, Mr. Head and Nelson find themselves lost in a black neighborhood in the city, observed with curiosity by its residents: “Black eyes in black faces were watching them from every direction” (260). Du Bois (1986, 364) describes the double-consciousness of African Americans in The Souls of Black Folk as “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This mark of the African-American experience becomes the experience of the white grandfather and grandchild. Seeing himself through the contempt and pity of his black observers, “Nelson was afraid of the colored men and he didn’t want to be laughed at by the colored children” (O’Connor 1971, 261). Having forgotten their lunch on the train, they are tired, thirsty, and hungry strangers in the city, linking them symbolically to the hungry, thirsty, and tired strangers with whom Christ identifies in Matthew 25:44–45. Their situation also links them to the experiences of African Americans in the segregated South, like the black man whom Mr. Head participated in excluding from his rural county. In a passage of his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which may consciously draw upon the description of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31–46, Martin Luther King, Jr. (69–70) describes the hardships and indignities endured by African Americans in the segregated South. Included in his list are those hardships and indignities endured by Mr. Head and Nelson: the inability to find a place that will serve them food and drinks and the inability to find a place to rest. King’s conclusion to his list of the sufferings of African Americans is particularly illuminating when applied to the situation in which O’Connor’s characters find themselves; King writes, “When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stances, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair” (70). Their temporary endurance of the sufferings of African Americans, while mitigated by the certainty that they are still, within the larger social context, members of the dominant racial group, acts as a means of purification before the moment of conversion. To share in the sufferings which he has caused is a form of asceticism, a penance—perhaps even a “dark night of the soul”—which Mr. Head must undergo before grace is given to him (Tropman, 97).

This motif of the suffering African American as Christ-figure recurs throughout the story. On the train, Mr. Head and Nelson encounter a black man followed by two women—a figure which calls up medieval depictions of the crucifixion of Christ featuring Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary at the foot of his cross.[1] In the dining car, Mr. Head comments approvingly that “they rope them off” from the rest of the diners (O’Connor 1971, 256). Later, Mr. Head and Nelson encounter an image of the Virgin Mary in the form of “a large colored woman” (261). Nelson, a child, correctly senses her maternal symbolism and “would have collapsed at her feet if Mr. Head had not pulled him roughly away” (262). While she attempts to point the way for the lost pair of visitors like the Virgin Mary motioning toward the Christ-child in church paintings, Mr. Head once again participates in the exclusion and suffering of those who will bring about his redemption and salvation.

The title of the work itself works to implicate the (ostensibly, white) reader in this suffering. Joyce Carol Oates (2009) has noted that “The Artificial Nigger,” in spite of being one of O’Connor’s best short stories, is “virtually unteachable as a consequence of its blunt pseudo-racist title.” The controversy over the story’s title began, as Tison Pugh (584) explains, even before its publication. “John Crowe Ransom, the editor of the Kenyon Review, suggested that she change the title to avoid ‘insult[ing] the black folk’s sensibilities,’” Pugh explains, citing Sally Fitzgerald’s account of the exchange. Far from being an example of racial insensitivity, however, O’Connor’s refusal of Ransom’s suggestion to change the title of “The Artificial Nigger” preserved and reinforced both the spiritual and social messages of the story. “To have sanitized the title would have robbed the story of its real power,” writes Ralph C. Wood (2005, 144), “the power to invert racist intention into antiracist redemption.” As she does with African American suffering and racial différance throughout the story, O’Connor uses the grotesquery of the racially charged title as a means to her spiritual end. By identifying the eponymous “artificial nigger” within the story with Christ, she revivifies the “scandal of the cross” described by St. Paul (Gal 5:11). This scandalousness—a shock registered on the part of both the ancient Jews and Romans at the notion of the God of the universe submitting to what the Roman orator Cicero described as “that most cruel and disgusting penalty” of crucifixion—is hardly registered by moderns as a result of a superficial familiarity with the image of the crucified Christ (Sheckler and Leith, 74). By revivifying the scandal of the cross and implicating the white reader in Mr. Head’s racism, she invites the reader to share in the end in Mr. Head’s conversion—a conversion which may not lead to reformed racial attitudes, but which strikes at the root of racism in the sinfulness of man (Monroe, 65).

[1] All four gospels mention women disciples who gather at the site of the crucifixion. See Mt 27:55–56, Mk 15:40, Lk 23:49, and Jn 19:25. Matthew and Mark mention Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary by name while implying that there were others. John mentions Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, and another Mary by name. Luke does not list any of their names. All three synoptic gospels also claim that the women disciples accompany Jesus’s body to the tomb. Matthew and Mark again identify Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary specifically while Luke offers no names. See Mt 27:61, Mk 15:47, and Lk 23:55. All four gospels also claim that Jesus’s woman disciples were the first to see him risen when they came to his tomb early on Sunday morning. Matthew names the women at the tomb as Mary Magdalene and what may be Jesus’s mother the Virgin Mary; Mark identifies Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary; Luke identifies Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the Virgin Mary; and John mentions only Mary Magdalene by name. See Mt 28:1, Mk 16:1, Lk 24:10, and Jn 20:1. It is common for medieval and later Catholic depictions of the crucifixion to feature only two women, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. Depictions of the crucifixion with only the Virgin Mary and the apostle John at Jesus’s side are also common. See Roberts 2014, 194.

 

References

Armour, Ellen T. Deconstruction, Feminist Theology, and the Problem of Difference: Subverting the Race/Gender Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Baldwin, James. “On Being White . . . And Other Lies.” First published 1984. In The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by Randall Kenan, 166–70. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.

Crawford, Nicholas. “An Africanist Impasse: Race, Return, and Revelation in the Short Fiction of Flannery O’Connor.” South Atlantic Review 68, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 1–25. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Print.

Di Renzo, Anthony. American Gargoyles: Flannery O’Connor and the Medieval Grotesque. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995. Print.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. First published 1903. In W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings, edited by Nathan Huggins, 357–547. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1986. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis. “Race”, Writing, and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Why We Can’t Wait.” First Published 1963. In Why We Can’t Wait, 64-84. New York: New American Library, 2000. Print.

Monroe, W. F. “Flannery O’Connor’s Sacramental Icon: ‘The Artificial Nigger.’” South Central Review 1, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 64–81. Print.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Parables of Flannery O’Connor.” The New York Review of Books, April 9, 2009. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/04/09/the-parables-of-flannery-oconnor/. Web. March 28, 2017.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988. Print.

———. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. Print.

Pugh, Tison. “Chaucer’s Rape, Southern Racism, and the Pedagogical Ethics of Authorial Malfeasance.” College English 67, no. 6 (July 2005): 569–86. Print.

Roberts, Helene E. Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Sheckler, Allyson Everingham, and Mary Joan Winn Leith. “The Crucifixion Conundrum and the Santa Sabina Doors.” Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 1 (January 2010): 67–88. Print.

Simmons, Ryan. Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. Print.

Tropman, John E. The Catholic Ethic in American Society: An Exploration of Values. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. Print.

Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005. Print.

 

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