GG Alma Thomas on Flannery O’Connor, 1999

“Flannery & Other Regions.” In Sarah Gordon, ed., Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius, pp 72-78, Hill Street Press, Athens, GA, 2000.  

© Guerrilla Girl Alma Thomas, 1999

This personal article by Guerrilla Girl Alma Thomas on one of O’Grady’s key authors, Flannery O’Connor—who wrote as a Catholic in the Protestant South—discusses O’Connor’s meaning for later “minority” artists in a pluralized world.

It’s frustrating to write about O’Connor in an anonymous voice: she was such a master at digging from the particular to reach the universal that it’s disconcerting to have to approach her from the opposite direction, from the outside in, and respond to a specific life and work in global terms. Fiction is a considered gift from one sensibility that shapes to another that actively receives. So who speaks here?

To say that I am a black woman artist using the name of Alma Thomas—a black woman artist who is dead—so as to “fight sexism and racism in the art world” (the official line of the Guerrilla Girls) is to tell you almost nothing, either about the me who makes art or the me who reads Flannery. It reduces me to the very thing I am fighting, a stereotype.

Flannery understood that no one is a cipher, the mere “representative” of a category. She more than most would have realized how limiting it is not to reveal the date and place of my birth, the accent in which my parents spoke (different from mine), the style of their manners (more refined), the peculiar psychic and social history they passed

on to me (if only they hadn’t); or, to peel the onion further, not to be able to tell you who I married, how I’ve earned a living, my education…. I’m convinced Flannery would have sympathized and would read these global statements remembering their missing nuance, and that gives me the courage to proceed. However, I‘ll have to restrict myself to her nonfiction; responding with less than my whole self to her fiction, even if it were possible, would be too disheartening.

The thirty-five years since Flannery died have been so critical for the culture, a period in which the magnitude of change in society has seemed even greater than that for individuals. It’s hard to avoid a “presentist” project with respect to her. Five years before she died, I had my first encounter with Flannery, in a yellow cloth book with Wise Blood in big letters on the cover that a friend had bought me from a remainder bin—a first edition I no longer have and wish I did. Looking back, I think that in most ways, I haven’t changed much since then, and perhaps in the basics not at all. Yet the culture has changed so greatly that  ( . . . )

Download full PDF