Each year Italy Reads, a festival in Rome for Italian high school students and teachers, reads a specific author from the United States as a way of exploring various themes and issues about the U.S. This year, I led a master class and gave a lecture on Flannery O’Connor, the festival’s choice author for this year and one of the best American short story writers of the 20th century.

In considering and discussing O’Connor’s work with this group, I saw how deeply classism and racism affected her community. By seeing her work in this light, we can find room to do the hard work of bettering ourselves and the lives of those around us.

O’Connor, a devout and intellectually formed Roman Catholic who lived in the Protestant South in the 1940s through 1960s, wrote parables pushing readers to look at the foibles of modern life and examine how these nuances are exacerbated when characters live under an illusion that they are the masters of their own destiny. Although O’Connor died in 1964 at the young age of 39, I am convinced her fiction is more important to us in 2018 than it was, perhaps, in her own lifetime.

As a woman of white privilege during the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South, O’Connor grappled with questions of race only in some of her later stories. Growing up in the rigid system of racial segregation and slow to grasp the magnitude of the developing civil rights movement, she nevertheless came to sense that racism was the original sin of life in the United States.

The master class at the festival devoted time to reading and discussing O’Connor’s best and last work, “Revelation,” a short story about a character named Ruby Turpin who is forced to unlearn the way she views herself and judges those around her. Ruby is not a bad person, but O’Connor reveals a hypocrisy between the righteousness of Ruby’s faith and her inability to move past the pride she feels as a white Christian woman. Her sense of moral superiority is wrapped up in her whiteness and economic class.

O’Connor builds up Ruby’s internal confusion in the first part of the story as the character sits in a doctor’s office. As Ruby discusses the importance of keeping oneself clean and working hard, she loudly comments on her own “good disposition,” even as she reveals to readers her classist and racist inner monologue.

Fed up with Ruby’s self-importance and pretension, a college student fittingly named Mary Grace, sitting in the same waiting room, violently strikes her in the eye with a book and tries to strangle her, telling her, “Go back to hell, you old wart hog!” Mary Grace is eventually sedated, and Ruby and her husband go back home, but Ruby is forever changed by this violent revelation. Ruby Turpin is returned to reality at considerable cost. The illusions of whiteness before this indictment crumble before her for the very first time.

After much discussion of the story, I suggested to the class that part of O’Connor’s greatness is that she is the best American fiction writer for “recovering racists,” both of her own historical time and of ours. She wrote stories that remind us that anyone who lives unconsciously in their privilege must constantly unlearn the ways this privilege blinds them to the reality of others not like them. She suggests recovering from white racism takes a long time.

At the end of the master class, one of the teachers stood up and said that O’Connor’s stories make her appreciate more fully the rise of the activist movement Black Lives Matter. She sensed O’Connor would be good to read in class as white supremacists and neo-Nazi organizations look for legitimacy in speeches and marches both in Europe and the United States. She concluded by saying every generation must find its own way of recovering from the effects of racism, whether you live in the United States or in Rome.  

As I write this column, my flight from Rome is beginning its descent back into Washington, D.C. I am glad to be coming back to Georgetown, happy that so many in our community — students, faculty, chaplains, staff and administrators — are working hard to unmask questions of race for the next generation of Hoyas.       

Fr. Mark Bosco, S.J., is the vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown University. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Thursday.

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