The Artificial Niggers

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Author: Claire Kahane
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 173)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,994 words

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[(essay date 1978) In the following essay, Kahane analyzes O’Connor’s use of the “nigger” figure in her fiction, arguing that the author’s portrayal of Black characters is complex. While O’Connor often portrays Black characters stereotypically, beneath the stereotype is the suggestion of a simple dignity and desire for privacy acquired by role acting for whites and masking “intricate patterns of rage, guilt, and dependency.” O’Connor’s South, Kahane contends, is “a metaphor for our disturbed national race relations” characterized by fear and psychological deviousness.]

In one of Flannery O’Connor’s finest short stories, “The Artificial Nigger”, both the young boy Nelson and his grandfather Mr. Head find through their identification with a chipped plaster figure of a Negro an acceptance of their helplessness and mutual dependency. By forcing them through a series of humiliating experiences and then identifying them with the artificial nigger, O’Connor implies that they themselves are “artificial niggers,” powerless and afraid before the contingencies of a threatening world, sharing the human fate which elsewhere she described as “clownishness and captivity.”1 At the conclusion of “A Circle in the Fire”, the overly confident Mrs. Cope is reduced to utter abjection by a teenager, Powell, who sets fire to her precious land. Focusing on the expression of the “new misery” on Mrs. Cope’s face, O’Connor writes, “It might have belonged to anybody, a Negro or a European or to Powell himself.” As with Mr. Head and Nelson, only when the dispossessed Mrs. Cope is compelled to live out the metaphor of Negro experience, here made analogous to the experience of a refugee or an unwanted child, does the angel clear a circle for her. Like the humiliation of Christ, her misery leads to a reticence which is the first step to redemption.

Anyone familiar with the fiction of O’Connor will recognize in these resolutions an insistent O’Connor theme: we are all impotent and dependent, and can be saved only through a submissive reconciliation with divine power. Recurrently in her fiction some act of violence destroys a smug confidence in the supremacy of self and returns a character to dependence on God. But O’Connor was very much a Southerner as well as a Catholic, and her choice of the Negro as emblem of this reconciliation is especially suggestive, both in the light of her private concerns and of Southern culture generally. Leslie Fiedler pointed to the persistent longing in the pages of Southern literature for a prelapsarian fraternity between blacks and whites, a longing behind which often lies “the threat of black rebellion and the sense of guilt which secretly demands it as penance and purge.”2 The legacy of white guilt and black rage—a legacy tenuously upheld by Southern manners—has led typically to a sentimentalized and stereotypical portrayal of “the Negro” as a passive, long-suffering figure, whose patient humility in the face of his victimization appears like a wish-fulfilling denial of the threat of rebellion. Concerned throughout her fiction with the consequences of psychological rebellion, which inevitably leads to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420111577