Blessed are the Merciful 1
The Beginning of the End for One Man's Bigotry in Flannery O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger."
© August 2006, Stephen Sparrow
"There is nothing that screams out the tragedy of the South like what my uncle calls 'nigger statuary'," 2 wrote Flannery O'Connor in 1955. Prior to 1960, the "N-word" was not regarded as particularly offensive, being found commonly on the lips of both Negroes and Caucasians throughout the South, and as for Negro statuary, that had its origin in a quaint attachment to the pre Civil War past; the archetype "house hand" was a cherished subject for yard ornaments. The story's title "The Artificial Nigger" came from directions given by a countryman to O'Connor's mother Regina who was trying to find the address of a man selling cattle. She was told the place couldn't be missed, "'cause it's the only house in town with an artificial nigger in front of it." 3
By the early 18th century, the dominant religious influence in America was Calvinist style Christianity. John Calvin was one of the architects of the 16th century Protestant reformation. His theology flowed from a narrow and literal interpretation of mainly Old Testament texts. Calvinism ended up promoting the idea of a stern, vengeful God who from the beginning had created human beings in two implacably unalterable divisions – the Elect and the Damned. Being healthy and materially well off was considered evidence of being a member of God's Elect. Conversely, the primitive conditions (by European standards) in which native people lived testified to their being numbered among the Damned, and although Calvin never preached Racism, extrapolation made it easy for landowners (especially cotton growers in the American South) to rationalize enslaving a race whom God had already marked out for eternal damnation.
Slavery in America ended officially with the surrender of the Confederate army at the Civil War's end in 1865. However, despite their defeat, there was no way white southerners were ever going to submit meekly to being told what to do by outsiders, and let's not forget that anti-Negro sentiment in America was not just confined to the South. Nevertheless, it was in the South that racial bigotry assumed its most virulent and malevolent form. Aided by white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the vast majority of white southerners were determined to keep former slaves and their descendents tightly corralled inside an informal second class status, and it was nearly one hundred years before that status was challenged by the black Civil Rights Movement. In the meantime white southerners continued to cling to a long gone past by publicly displaying items such as Confederate flags and yard ornaments depicting Negroes.
However, not all southerners were segregationists, and Flannery O'Connor related the incident that dramatically shaped her own attitude on race--she was on a bus and was affronted to hear the driver say to a group of Negroes, "all right all you stove-pipe blonds, git on back ther," and in that one instant she became an integrationist. 4 O'Connor wrote "The Artificial Nigger" more than a year 5 before Rosa Parks, a black woman, sparked the birth of the Civil Rights movement by refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery Alabama. 6
"The Artificial Nigger" is a sort of Dantean 7 minor epic with its chief protagonist Mr. Head taking it upon himself to escort his grandson Nelson on a day trip to Atlanta. The pair lives by themselves in a shack in a backwoods clearing not far from the railway leading to Atlanta. Part of Nelson's upbringing consisted of being carefully taught how necessary it was to fear black people and yet, until the day trip to Atlanta, Nelson had never met a Negro. There is always an element of competition between Mr. Head and Nelson and early in the story we find the two quarreling over whether Nelson has ever seen a black man.
"You ain't ever seen a nigger." Mr. Head repeated. "There hasn't been a nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago and that was before you were born." He looked at the boy as if daring him to say he had ever seen a Negro.
"How you know I never saw a nigger when I lived there before?" Nelson asked. "I probably saw a lot of niggers."
"If you seen one you didn't know what he was," Mr. Head said, completely exasperated. "A six month old child don't know a nigger from anybody else."
That piece of dialogue is classic O'Connor style anti racist irony--a device she used with devastating effect particularly in "The Displaced Person" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge". But, in admitting to O'Connor's use of irony it has to be said that invariably it was either put in the mouths of her characters or used in particular situations to illustrate how these same characters had, in the moral sense, sawed through the branch they were sitting on.
The day of Nelson's excursion to Atlanta can be divided into five separate incidents. On arrival in Atlanta the shops and general busyness of the city excite Nelson, who, in a pleased manner, reminds Mr. Head that this is where he was born; a statement that dismays the older man who decides it is now time to show the boy some of the seedier aspects of big city life, starting with an explanation of how the sewage system operates. Looking down the street manhole provides the boy with an imaginative glimpse of the entry to Hell--an image parallel to Virgil guiding Dante through the gates of "The Inferno" in The Divine Comedy. After dealing with the bowels of the city, Mr. Head and Nelson start walking again. Finding themselves among increasing numbers of Negroes, O'Connor's irony surfaces once more with Mr. Head growling, "anybody wants to be from this nigger heaven can be from it."
The irony grows when the pair realizes they are lost--lost in a Negro quarter! Nelson challenges his guide, suggesting that since Mr. Head got them lost he should ask directions. The old man refuses to speak to any Negroes and tells the boy that since this was where Nelson was born he should do the asking. Nelson plucks up enough courage to ask the way back to "town" from a large, barefoot black woman standing in a doorway. The woman's soft deep voice and playful reply, "you in town now," have a profound effect on the boy, "as if a cool spray had been turned on him." We get the impression that Nelson, whose experience of women is obviously very limited, is feeling the first stirrings of sexuality. The woman calls him "Sugarpie" and in the heat of the moment Nelson almost collapses at her feet. But, just in time, Mr. Head grabs him and jerks him out of his reverie, telling him to stop acting as if he, "don't have any sense!"
Some time later and "safely" away from the Negro quarter Nelson accidentally knocks down an elderly white lady and scatters her shopping over the sidewalk. The old lady claims her ankle is broken and demands a policeman be called to resolve matters. Mr. Head is embarrassed, frightened at mention of the police, and he just wants to flee the scene. To bystanders he denies any connection to Nelson, an action that plainly shocks the women who have gathered to help the old lady. This creates in Nelson an unforgiving, burning resentment against his grandfather, and he refuses to walk alongside of him. Mr. Head's denial has all the trappings of St Peter's denial of Christ during the Passion--a comparison O'Connor herself made in a letter to "A" 8.
Near the end of the day they find themselves lost again but this time in a smart, up-market part of town with not a Negro in sight. Mr. Head appeals for help from a complete stranger who willingly tells them how they can make it to the nearest station in time to catch the train back home. Mr. Head turns to Nelson and says, "we're going to get home!"' The day, which was to have been a triumphant return to and tour of a city Mr. Head regarded as not fit to be called home, has become a psychological shambles and all he wants now is to escape this hell of his own making and return to his shack. For Nelson, however, home no longer means sanctuary in the shack they share. Where Mr. Head was once a vessel of wisdom, betrayal has left that vessel empty. Nelson stands there feeling nothing, his eyes "triumphantly cold," and home meaning nothing to him. Mr. Head is so filled with disgust at himself that he feels, "what heat would be like without light," and nothing seems important anymore, not even making the train home.
The fifth encounter waits for them not five hundred yards further down the road--the object of Mr. Head's redemption--a shabby plaster statue of a Negro complete with a slice of brown plaster watermelon. The statue, intended to portray a happy Negro about to eat, instead conveys an impression of total misery with its age and shabbiness. The boy looking at his grandfather silently begs an explanation, and Mr. Head realizes that the statue has given him the opportunity to show the child that he is still wise. All Mr. Head can say is, "An Artificial Nigger…They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one." The very idea that the Negro they habitually mocked and ridiculed (but never knew) should be in such short supply in this part of the city--that sentiment demanded people treasure them as yard ornaments--stuns them both.
The moment, like contemplating a crucifix, brings Mr. Head and Nelson back together. The Negro situation summed up in one shabby plaster statue brings home, especially to Mr. Head, the state of misery common to all defeated people. The encounter suddenly rams home the knowledge that all humanity was defeated during the rebellion in the Garden of Eden--the continuing guilt of which is now joined to the memory of his earlier denial of Nelson. By contrast, Nelson--a vulnerable child--receives that wisdom in reverse. Looking at the statue he discovers his kinship with Negroes--adversity in the form of betrayal inflicted by, of all people, his own grandfather! O'Connor described the moment as, "some great mystery…that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy. Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now."
The incident enables Mr. Head to see the world in a totally new light. Just before the two step off the train, "the moon, restored to its full splendor, sprang from a cloud and flooded the clearing with light… the sky which was hung with gigantic white clouds illuminated like lanterns," reflecting the jolt to Mr. Head's conscience, leading to burgeoning enlightenment. Alighting from the train Mr. Head finally sees, "that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair."
For Mr. Head the encounter with the statue is the seminal moment that at some stage comes to all of us--the moment of grace. Ever since his denial of Nelson, a blanket of shame and suffering hung over Mr. Head and just looking into the boy's eyes is enough to confirm his own agony. It is this universal agony that afflicts everyone; provoking the countless appeals to a de facto God that somebody explain the cause of all suffering. The grace Mr. Head finally accepts is the divine help made freely available at such times. In Christian theology, suffering, grace and the Mercy of God are intertwined like a three strand rope. God's grace is always there for us to cooperate with but invariably most of us reject it, preferring instead to tough it out on our own. In doing so, paradoxically, we refuse to face up to things, we refuse to accept the challenge of the world, and we reject any involvement in the Divine plan.
It has taken nearly a lifetime for Mr. Head to learn this lesson but at long last he realizes how his pride blinded him from seeing just how much he depended on God's mercy. His acceptance of suffering leads to a slight knowledge of how it may be used for spiritual growth. God, like any good parent, gives us what we need, not just what we might want; affliction, exposure to catastrophe, and our reaction to such trials are the usual means by which we attain spiritual maturity and secure eternal salvation. The story's last act sees the departing train as a symbol of the Devil--vanquished, defeated and disappearing, "like a frightened serpent into the woods," unable to remain in the presence of grace as Mr. Head takes those early tentative steps toward the shelter of God's Mercy.
In several published letters written in the mid-to-late 1950s, O'Connor said "The Artificial Nigger" was her favorite story and probably the best thing she had ever written. 9 It certainly repays reading more than once, being a superb allegory of entrapment inside fear and prejudice that inhibits freedom by blocking awareness of our duty to seek knowledge and wisdom. Today an analogy might be drawn with the mainstream media's loathing of all things Christian--just substitute the MSM for the Ku Klux Klan and Christianity for the pre-Civil Rights era Negro situation. Some day, like Mr. Head and the artificial nigger, the media may stumble over this artificial church they have made--this "Church Without Christ" that O'Connor satirized in her first novel Wise Blood—and, as in that novel, the revelation that God is our Father and we are His children will be banished from this artificial church; a revelation that, ironically for Western Civilization, has always been the strongest guarantee of individual liberty, but liberty guaranteed only if it is tempered with the knowledge that complacency is not a virtue. The bottom line scripted by O'Connor is (and always was), "we are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success [in human terms] means nothing to the Lord." 10
1 Blessed are the Merciful: From The Sermon on The Mount. Gospel of St Matthew 5:7. Sir Winston Churchill, leader of Britain in World War II once described The Sermon on The Mount as the greatest speech in history.
2 The Habit of Being - Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Page 101 Letter to A. 6 Sep 1955.
3 Ibid. Page 140 Letter to Fr John McCown . 20 Feb 1956.
4 Ibid. Page 253 Letter to "A". 16 November 1957.
5 The Artificial Nigger was completed by O'Connor in 1954 and published by the Kenyon Review in its Spring 1955 edition.
6 Rosa Parks made her historic stand December 1st 1955.
7 Dante Alighieri: 1265-1321: Italian Poet; author of The Divine Comedy. And other writings. The Divine Comedy is often considered the greatest poem of Western Civilization.
8 The Habit of Being - Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Page 101 Letter to A, 6 Sep 1955, and Page 209 letter to Maryat Lee 10 Mar 1957.
9 Ibid. Page 101 Letter to A, 6 Sep 1955.
10 Ibid. Page 306 Letter to A. 22 Nov 1958.