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What’s keeping me up at night?

Malcolm X and Flannery O’Connor. It was purely by accident that I happened to be reading these two people at the same time. I suppose it could also be related to my attraction to narrative from people born around the time of my parents. My mom and dad were both born in 1927 and only a week apart. Reading writers who were born around that time helps me feel a little closer to my folks because the writers are experiencing America at the same time as my folks. Of course my folks were living in rural Minnesota during that time period.

Malcolm X and Flannery O’Connor were both born in 1925. Both died too young. Ms. O’Connor died of lupus in 1964 and Malcolm X was murdered in 1965. Ms. O’Connor was a white woman born in Georgia and Malcolm X was a black man born in Omaha, Nebraska, but moved with his family to Wisconsin and then Michigan in his early years and grew up there.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley was far more effective in portraying racism in America and white privilege than the dozens of hours I have spent in anti-racism trainings as part of my day job as a social worker.

One of the things that is striking to me in reading the book and comparing it to my work in an urban social services setting is that as much as I want to believe things are better than when Malcolm X was murdered in 1965, it is only as a privileged white person that I can even begin to convince myself that this is a day of equality. Equality for all races has not been achieved. I falter every day in my words and the thoughts that come to my head unbidden. My heart is convicted to do better.

Ms. O’Connor is the virtuoso of the short story and fearless about writing about the “grotesque” as she puts it. She states, “Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” I think the reference to the grotesque and freaks is in relation to O’Connor’s stories and novels for that matter is about her use of violence in her stories. In one of her letters she wrote, “The writer has to make the corruption believable before he can make the grace meaningful.” In another letter she wrote, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.”

Today, reading her work is not shocking for me in terms of her portrayal of violent behavior. I have been duly desensitized from what I hear in my job, read in the news, and see on TV. What I stumble over is her use of the “n” word in her writing. For a moment I feel so superior in my knowledge not to use that word and my understanding to be appalled when I hear it used by other whites. O’Connor was writing and living in Georgia. Her language reflects the consciousness of a time and place I can only read about, but have never known. There are things in her stories and letters that betray her own struggles with racial bias. She acknowledges that she got tired of the subject. She wrote, “I’m sick of interviews—all they want to know about is the race business.”

In her essays she talks about manners being the mechanism to help people in the South negotiate the changing racial relations for sake of privacy for blacks and whites. I got the sense that she believed civility would help people behave themselves. I think this belief and discomfort over having to discuss “race business” is a luxury of white privilege.

May I say I like her stories and not be called racist for doing so? I do like her stories. And, I liked and learned from reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. It is my white privilege that makes me uncomfortable with the anger of his speeches. I am socialized to be unduly afraid of equality as much as I know that the fight for equality must be a fight for all people.

Race business will continue to keep me up at night and to challenge my thoughts and actions of each day.

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