South Gotta Change: Reading Flannery O’Connor in the Age of COVID
South Gotta Change: Reading Flannery O’Connor in the Age of COVID

Kiese Laymon

At the onset of quarantine, I found myself seeking comfort in the familiar. I surrounded myself in the safety of childhood snacks and my favorite records, and I spent time with the authors whose work provided me community when I needed it most.

Flannery O’Connor’s work, with its themes on the sacred, the outrageous and the grotesque, would prove to be the art that spoke truth to this moment of heightened absurdity. Last month, I spoke to Mississippi-based writer, essayist, educator and cultural critic Kiese Laymon about O’Connor’s short story “Judgement Day” and the South — both its past and reimagining its future. Laymon is the author of the critically acclaimed Heavy: An American Memoir. 

Adia Victoria: Kiese, how are you?

Kiese Laymon: I’m good. I’m in Mississippi. I’m glad you reached out to me to talk about Flannery and “Judgement Day.” Out of all the white Southern artists my friends and I talk about, we talk about O’Connor the most, because, I mean, she’s complicated. I think she’s wonderfully complicated and fucked-up. But a lot of my Northern folks — they just don’t mess with her, you know what I’m saying? They’re just like “she’s racist and hopeless.” [Laughs]

AV: You know, to me, I don’t see her as complicated. I see her as thoroughly and completely Southern. I had a conversation with a friend from Ohio recently about people grappling with her legacy, and my response was like, “She grew up in the Jim Crow South in Georgia, like, she was supposed to be racist.” [Laughs] And to expect her to be anything other than that kind of minimizes the potency of white supremacy and its ability to shape hearts and minds. What else could she have been?

KL: I think it’s interesting to bring up Northern folks when discussing “Judgement Day” — the way she has the main character, this white man from Georgia, leaving the South for New York City and bringing with him the ideology of the South and his expectations out of both the races.

AV: Exactly. [Tanner, the lead character] is used to the boundaries and the manners of the Jim Crow South. He understands Blackness solely as serviceable to whiteness, and Flannery was very aware of that. At one point she was supposed to appear alongside James Baldwin in her hometown of Milledgeville, Ga., but she declined. She said it would have been rude to so flagrantly disrespect the system upon which she fed.

KL: Yeah, in “Judgement Day” you see her grappling with these rules and what happens when the social boundaries are removed.

AV: I think you’re seeing that now, as well, during COVID. All of our normal boundaries and expectations of behavior have been taken from us. We don’t know how to act! [Laughs] I’ve been curious — especially in America, where does this leave the power dynamic between white folks and the rest of us?

KL: That’s a heavy question! [Laughs] Do you mean, do I think white folks will be able to relinquish the emotional hold on [these boundaries]? I think enough of them can. It’s a weird question, because I hate talking about electoral politics, because I don’t feel like that is where shit really happens. I don’t know if enough white folks can be pushed to do that work. Enough of us can, socially and politically, come together and push and defeat those who won’t. But, like, the hard part of the question makes me think about the failure of beautiful and fucking wonderful artists, writers, songwriters. … These white folks who gave their last hope that white people would do exactly what you’re saying, release these emotional holds, and they just didn’t. They didn’t.

AV: That’s been something I’ve been meditating on during this pause in my life. The building of the world that Flannery writes. I think about the emotional ties Flannery and white Southerners feel for white supremacy. She has one quote where she says in a letter to a friend: “I’m an integrationist by principle and a segregationist by taste.” And I think about Faulkner’s infamous quote where he talks about if it came down to fighting for Mississippi against the government he’d go out into the street with arms and shoot Negroes. And I think of the propaganda that created this strong desire for dominance in white people in the South. I look at the role that literature and the creation of the Lost Cause and Dixie, moonlight and magnolias played in creating these boundaries and manners between the races.

KL: I look at our Southern writers who were dealing with that complex divorce between the emotional and the biological and how to implicate themselves. How to question whiteness in a way that makes it stick, so it’s not just an intellectual exercise or debate that white folks can engage in and then continue to benefit from this system.

AV: I think this is the first time that dealing with whiteness has become urgent for white people. Just like Tanner in “Judgement Day” is forced to reckon with the removal of the boundaries provided by the Jim Crow South, I think that during COVID, white folks are having to deal with the removal of their comforts by an avowed white supremacist in the Oval Office. They are having to contend with the wages of whiteness in a way they’ve never had to before. That’s why reading O’Connor right now hits differently. We’re seeing white folks, like Tanner, connect emotionally with the detrimental loss that white supremacy causes.

KL: I feel that connection with O’Connor. She was able to step outside of the system in Georgia and really examine whiteness. A lot of her people down there were blind to what whiteness really was. She was able to investigate and dig a little deeper.

AV: What does hope for the South look like to you?

KL: There’s a part of me that believes in radical sharing and radical acceptance. And I think if radical sharing is done with the expectations that we’re gonna fuck up, but we’re also gonna own our fuck-ups, this will cause as little harm as possible. It will also cause as much joy as possible, and not just for the most vulnerable people in the world at large, but for the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. So I do believe. This is where Morrison and Baldwin and them get me. Like, I do believe that human beings caused this fucked-up shit. And I think human beings can unmake it.

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