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March 8, 2006

O'Connor "The Artificial Nigger"

O'Connor, ''The Artificial Nigger'' -- Jerz: American Lit II (EL 267)

Story starts by Mr. Head wanting to keep Nelson the child at home with himself and not to leave him. Being that his wife and daughter died. I guess he was afraid of losing him as well. However, Mr.Head tells Nelson where to put his ticket."You put that in your pocket and don't lose it or you'll have to stay in the city." Nelson is thinking about staying in the city. Until the woman fell over him and wanted Mr.Head to pay the medical bills. Nelson then realizes that he did not want to stay in the city and never wanted to go back again. That would be scary for a boy his age since Mr.head claimed "I don't know who he is" and walks away. All along Mr. Head was trying to show Nelson why he didn't want to live in the city, not explaining to him that he was afraid that Nelson would leave him too. Thought this was disturbing and not only that but O'Connor uses "Coffee-colored", "Tan","The N word" "Black" and then Mr.Head on the train points out the older man and the two girls and says who are they and Nelson got mad at the "black" man for passing by him and making a fool out of him. The black man did not know what Mr.Head told Nelson and Nelson immediately picked up his grandfathers biased. I personally did not care for the way O'Connor portrays black people with the different descriptions used for black people. Also as Mr.Head and Nelson were walking to catch the trian they saw an "Artificial Nigger" and Mr.Head again says "we have enough around don't need aritifical ones". If he is trying to teach a child something then he should have kept his opinion out of it. I am aware that during this time period that was acceptable however, I still do not feel that Mr.Head had the right motives and because of fear of losing Nelson, Mr.Head acted like a fool. At the end he did apolized to Nelson and Nelson did forgive him and then stated "I've went once,but I will never go back again." Obviously Mr.Head accomplished his mission to keep Nelson all to himself and probably would remind Nelson of the day in the city if he ever thought of leaving him. Personally, I think he is a sick and deceiving man.

Posted by LisaRandolph at March 8, 2006 10:56 AM


I could not believe how Mr.Head was so against poeple of other race. And why did he make the little boy go if he did not want to go. No matter where you go you will always run into people of different races, no of us are the same that what makes the world go round. And what manners he has using such a word in front of that little boy.

Posted by: Melissa Lupari at March 23, 2006 1:45 PM

We were recently discussing David Hume in my "Philosophy of Art" class, and the question came up as to whether the artist can be seperated from the art. What if, for example, you were a Holocaust survivor whose entire family and friends were killed by the Nazis. Many years later, there was an exhibition of artwork, say paintings, which you thoroughly enjoyed, but you later find out that the artist is some sort of Neo-Nazi whose whole belief system is the same kind that led to the demise of your life so long ago. Can you still enjoy the paintings, or are they forever tainted? Hume says that we must forget our prejudices and have a perfect serenity of mind to judge the artwork before us. Although this may be good in theory, GOOD LUCK in real life!
My point here is, by using the racially charged language that she does, is O'Connor criticizing its use, or is she, by the fact that she employs it, keeping it alive? I can't imagine that she wasn't aware of the perverse power of her racial slurs, yet she has used them in every single story so far. I am by no means calling her a racist-I have no way of knowing what her beleifs were, but the fact that she uses such language is DISTRACTING. Our classmate "The Gentle Giant" beleives that we must view and dismiss the use of this language by reason that it was accepted at the time . Sorry, Mr. Hume, I just can't. I also can't see how O'Connor felt it so necessary to use this language so often. She was such a strong, insightful and conherent writer in so many other ways, why did she feel it so necessary to use this language?

Posted by: Brenda Christeleit at March 25, 2006 6:17 PM

Naturally, O’Connor could not have predicted the way we Yankees would react in 2006 to a story written about 50 years ago (at least). You’re right, the persistent racism is repugnant, but who was her audience anyway, fellow southerners? Were that the case, they’d surely understand, perhaps even know people like Mr. Head and Nelson.

On the other hand, they use the N-word a lot, but I don’t sense it is said with anything out of sheer habit, perhaps with the connotation we’d use the word “redneck” today, for example - a mild putdown that carries with it some unsavory qualities, but suitable in casual conversation given certain circumstances. Mr. Head uses the word in speaking to the other passenger on the train and that passenger, who appears to be a business traveler, isn’t repulsed by it. Mr. Head obviously doesn’t say it aloud while they’re walking in the black section of town, for obvious reasons, so he seems to realize it’s insulting.

However, maybe O’Connor’s regular use of the word is for a purpose. Had Mr. Head only used the word once or twice, we wouldn’t have the same feelings about him. His regular use of the N-word tells us a lot about who he is and the circumstances in which he was raised.

Not all of O’Connor’s characters mention that word as much, so it appears the author herself wasn’t an avowed racist. So maybe she’s adding a great deal of color to Mr. Head with the use of a volatile word in his vocabulary. It certainly gave me a clearer mental picture of what I think he might look like.

These days, it’s a very exclusionary word. The use of it normally shocks the people around you and persistent use of the word would probably isolate you from others. I don’t use the word in my speech or my writing, but I have to admit I don’t like the politically-correct crowd dictating what words I can and cannot use. I don’t like feeling that the mere utterance of the N-word brings on some sort of unforeseen yet immediate punishment. We’ve all been conditioned to be hyperactively on guard NOT to use the dreaded, feared (you get the sarcasm) N-word.

Merely saying it seems to automatically brand the person a racist even thought the exact opposite may be true. It is a word that some people use as a tool of intimidation. For example, don’t say it in a public school EVER or you give someone ammunition to fire you without a second thought. Child molesters get more consideration than that. Isn’t that laughably unfair, yet we read about it frequently in newspapers.

I even dislike calling it the “N-word.” We all know what the word means, so there’s some ridiculous rationale that by eliminating a syllable or two we somehow make it acceptable. So on principle alone, I dislike the whole situation and I can’t think of one other word around which we make such an effort to tap-dance.

Really, except for the use of that word, would Tom Sawyer, an otherwise pretty good book, be banned from high school reading lists across the country? By giving that word such shock value, we propagate this culture of avoidance and political correctness. That, to me, is repugnant and I choose not to place control of my actions in the hands of people I deem so unworthy.

Posted by: Matt Hampton at March 26, 2006 12:03 PM

Mr. Head actually says, "They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one." This is in response to Nelson's need for an explanation for the "mystery of existence" so I think that the meaning is much deeper than we might first realize. This line is what allows Nelson to find mercy for his grandfather's betrayal. I could not get the thought of the disciple Peter's betrayal of Jesus out of my head, as it seems O'Connor is trying to convey a message about forgiveness. Perhaps the alignment of the two characters against "niggers" allows Nelson to feel connected to his grandfather again. This just doesn't make enough sense to me though, so I need to think about this some more.

Posted by: Jennifer DiFulvio at March 26, 2006 7:46 PM

This is in response to Brenda Christeleit's comment. You state that the author could not have possibly known how Yankees would react to her story 50 years later, yet you assume that the "N-Word" was used mainly out of sheer habit. I would have to disagree with you. I do not know your ethnic background, nor what you may or may not have experienced in your lifetime, but I can tell you as an African-American woman raised in Connecticut, the word is as insulting and alive as ever. Since the Civil Rights movement the word is no longer a part of "everyday" vocabulary when referring to an African-American, but those who choose to use it know exactly what they are doing, and the reaction they will get. I don't use the word, I don't approve of African-Americans who feel that removing a few letters and giving it a "gga" instead of a "gger" will somehow take the power of the word away from "the white man". The problem with the word is that it is all-inclusive. I could be the most intelligent, articulate, attractive, successful, and god-fearing person. But as long as my skin is brown I will always be a ni**%r. I feel as if using the word gives it more ugliness, not less. It should be a taboo word, it was born out of ugliness and will remain ugly no matter how many rappers use it. When it is used by someone of another race referring to a person of "color" the tone is usually disdainful, disgusted, or full of hatred. And I can't believe that you have actually experienced something like this, because had you, you would not have all the answers. You should take a look at a book called "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" by James Allen, and see people persecuted for their color, or for sympathizing with those persecuted for their ethnicity. We don't question the Holocaust and its impact, why do we so often question this?

Posted by: Tamara Geyer at April 19, 2006 6:27 PM

Tamara, thanks for your comments.

I should point out, however, that I don't see any comments on this blog assuming the word was used out of habit. In fact, Matt notes that the author is very aware that people will respond to characters differenlty based on how they use language, and how they respond when the people around them say offensive things. Brenda says she "can't see how O'Connor felt it so necessary to use this language so often."

I'm the teacher who assigned the stories that use the word, and we have had several class discussions in which students reported feeling very uncomfortable reading stories about charcters who use this word, while we have also discussed the prevalence of that word in some subcultures.

Language is power, and this word has power, no matter how many people wish it didn't.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at April 19, 2006 7:45 PM

Thank you for responding. My comments were sort of spurred on by a story we read in my Lit class by O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to FInd". In that story there are two instances of the word used, and I spoke afterwards to my professor about it, because I saw no relevant means for the use of the word within the text. If the author is painting a character for us, or this is some type of progressive novel, or even if we know the authorial intention in the use of the word, then it makes it understandable and to a large degree (for myself anyhow), acceptable. I researched O'Connor as best I could and could not find an answer to the question of why she used it so consistently in most of her works. Perhaps it is a research project I will undertake. You state that language has power and I agree wholeheartedly with you, but with that knowledge comes responsibility for the language that we use no matter how much we think we are being "censored". Again, I thank you for your response, and I hope my previous comments did not appear to be confrontational for that was not my intention.

Posted by: Tamara Geyer at May 1, 2006 10:57 AM

No problem, Tamara. Something you'll learn about Flannery O'Connor is that she doesn't create a sigle charater who's completely good and admirable. And the grandmother is annoying and manipulative throughout the whole story. She's an old woman in the deep south, and her character formed long before the Civil Rights movement, so when O'Connor relates her thoughts and words, O'Connor (who incidentally wrote this story before the civil rights movement) used the words that such a character would have used, just as if you were writing a story set in Shakespeare's time you couldn't have the characters saying "A light bulb went on over my head" or "His elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor."

And be careful of the intentional fallacy -- the belief that the "right" way to interpret a work of literature is to find out what the author "intended." We can never prove the author's original intent. Even if you find a letter in which Flannery O'Connor lists the pros and cons of using "the n word" in this story and explains why she chose to use it, that doesn't change the fact that the story is read and interpreted by you and me in the here and now. Some stories (and movies and cartoons and such) that are simply too offensive don't get reprinted and studied.

Ask your professor why Flannery O'Connor is still worth studying despite the inclusion of politcally incorrect language, and consider what would happen if throughout history professors only taught those works that perfectly fit the policial and moral culture of the times.

What would have happened to all works that featured alcohol, when the prohibition era started?

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at May 1, 2006 11:26 AM

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