Learning to Converge
A Lesson on Fighting Bigotry from Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor was a brilliant woman. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” was the first Southern Gothic piece I ever read, and it got me hooked on the genre. Later when I was a sophomore in college, one of my roommates was taking a class on Southern literature and fell in love with Flannery O’Connor’s writing as well. He loved her writing so much he bought an anthology of her short stories, asking his professor to mark his favorite stories in the table of contents. I borrowed his book and heeded his professor’s recommendations first. The first story I flipped to was “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” (If you haven’t read the story yet, you can read it online here. It should take you about fifteen minutes, but it’s well worth your time, I promise. The rest of this post won’t make sense if you haven’t read it). My frustration with racists and people I would otherwise deem “narrow-minded” would forever be held to a higher standard after reading this short story.
Growing up in northern Metro Atlanta (the wealthier part of Metro Atlanta), I connect strongly to this short story, as it is presumably set in Atlanta, though O’Connor never makes specific mention of the Southern city Julian and his mother live in. This was perhaps what initially drew me in to the story, but after reading through it several times in an attempt to get rid of the strange sense of familiarity I had with it, I realized I connected to the story for another, albeit, disturbing, reason — I was Julian.
(Spoiler alert) Julian is a fresh college grad who wants to be a writer one day, but right now he’s selling typewriters until he gets his big break. Being a college grad, he thinks himself to be intellectually superior to other, less cultured people — people like his mother. Julian’s mother is the type of person who’s responsible in part for institutional racism. That is, she comes from an old Southern aristocratic family whose glory days are gone with the Civil War resulting in Confederate loss and the Civil Rights Movement making progress. Now Julian’s mother lives in a squalid apartment with her son who has to join her on her weekly bus ride to the YMCA for her weight loss class. Despite her seemingly humble circumstances, Julian’s mother still takes great pride in her family once owning plantations with hundreds of slaves, telling Julian she must never forget who she is.
I identify with Julian because, like me, he is also extremely frustrated with the racism displayed by many Southern white people who refuse to stop living in a world that no longer exists. Even though I grew up some fifty to sixty years after this story takes place, these sentiments are still very real in many parts of the South, though perhaps people aren’t as overtly opinionated about them (in public). Julian longed for something other than his current circumstances which, for as much as he could tell, was a hopeless situation of oppression, willing ignorance, and false pride from white people against black people. Julian was enlightened to this issue, and everybody else was an idiot, especially his mother. Julian would tell his mother she was wrong, mostly out of spite, finally letting her have it after a black woman yells at Julian’s mother for trying to give the black woman’s son a shiny penny. Many times I’ve also wanted to light into racists and bigots of all varieties, though I’m not sure I’m as fiery as Julian.
Of course, this diatribe did nothing for Julian’s mother but make her feel as if she were being attacked, causing her to act defensively and offended at times. Even though Julian’s mother is clearly not what many would consider the most moral person, it’s interesting to note how Flannery O’Connor describes her; unlike many modern liberals or progressive thinkers, O’Connor notes the innocence and naïveté in Julian’s mother’s eyes, suggesting that she simply knows no other way and that she is just as much a victim of circumstance as the black people she is prejudiced towards. O’Connor makes the same distinction in other stories, exposing the system that perpetuates racism and being careful to explain that in many cases racists are victims of the way they were raised to act and think and of a lack of real life knowledge. In many cases, racist or bigoted people have lived in bubbles their whole lives and don’t know anything else other than the way things have seemingly always been. This isn’t a justification for being racist or bigoted (any research into O’Connor’s life will reveal she was quite the opposite), but it does help the rest of us understand racists better and learn how to reach them effectively.
Though I might not have ranted to people quite like Julian did, I’m guilty of his mentality on a recurring, daily basis. I catch myself thinking of racist and bigoted people as imbeciles– people too stupid to rise above their subhuman ways and to change their thoughts and actions. At the end of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Julian’s mother dies in the street from what seems to be a complication of her high blood pressure, just after Julian finishes viciously and condescendingly explaining to her why she is a fool. It’s not until it’s too late that Julian realizes what’s happening to his mother and begins to feel desperate panic and remorse for his final interactions with her. Julian was a hypocrite and even more condescending than his racist, holier-than-thou mother, and he will have to live with his smug mistake for the rest of his life.
Based off Julian’s story, it would seem that this type of condescending rhetoric only shuts down conversation between the bigot and the progressive, strengthening bitterness and breeding animosity. In order to create real change from the inside out, we need to remember that we weren’t always as educated as we would like to think we are. Real change requires that we meet people where they’re at and engage in thoughtful, respectful, and humble conversations with them. This may sound easy, but it can be the most difficult thing in the world when you’re used to thinking the opposite way. If we aren’t careful, we can very easily find ourselves talking down to people from our pedestal– a behavior that is maybe even more destructive than outright bigotry.