It is little secret to anyone that the American South has had a long, troubled history regarding racial relations. If anything, it likely is viewed as the epitome of racism, with its chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. If ever the doctrine of Original Sin could be applied so thoroughly to a region and to a whole class of people, doubtless it would be the South in regards to racism, even though a closer look would reveal some discrepancies. Today, it is hard to look at a story written in the 1950s by a white Southerner entitled “The Artificial Nigger” (1955) and wonder how there isn’t at least the decent asterisk-marking of the offending racial epithet, if not an outright condemnation of a story that almost certainly has to contain objectionable language, if not repulsive, outdated views regarding a minority group. Yet such knee-jerk reactions would rob the reader of the chance of reading a work that makes a profound statement about the ridiculous societal views through the image of an “artificial nigger.”
The story opens with a sixty year-old grandfather, Mr. Head, awakening during a moonlit light on the eve of his trip with his ten year-old grandson, Nelson, to Atlanta. O’Connor has imbued this story with several symbolic metaphors and the passage describing Mr. Head’s view of himself and the reason for their travel to the city foreshadows later events:
Sixty years had not dulled his responses; his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong character, and these could be seen plainly in his features. He had a long tube-like face with a long rounded open jaw and a long depressed nose. His eyes were alert but quiet, and in the miraculous moonlight they had a look of composure and of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the great guides of men. He might have been Vergil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante, or better, Raphael, awakened by a blast of God’s light to fly to the side of Tobias. The only dark spot in the room was Nelson’s pallet, underneath the shadow of the window. (p. 210)
It is fairly obvious that Mr. Head’s view of himself as a sort of “guide” for his young grandson is going to be upended by the narrative. But within this passage is a wealth of images: the raw, drawn-out features of a rural inhabitant; the “miraculous moonlight” that mirrors the light of the day (and of the divine); the references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy and to the biblical book of Tobit; the “darkness” of the boy’s sleeping spot, presaging the grandfather’s view of the boy’s insubordinate pride. As discussed in my earlier review of “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1954), pride is one of the seven capital sins that O’Connor addresses frequently in her fiction. But instead of the hurt pride of one who perceives herself to be “lost” to the charity of others, pride here in “The Artificial Nigger” takes different forms. There is the pride of the white Southerner who does not want to “lower” himself to address the downtrodden African Americans; the pride of a grandfather wanting to demonstrate his worthiness and world-traveler qualities to his young grandson; and the fear that the young boy has too much pride in a city (Atlanta) in which he was born but from which he was taken at the age of one to the countryside. Over the course of twenty-two pages, O’Connor explodes these prideful elements in a story that mixes dark comedy with a sharp, keen critique of mid-20th century racial prejudices.
The plot of the story revolves around the grandfather’s pride (of which he is blissfully unaware until several calamities befall him) getting in the way of both him and his grandson making their way through Atlanta. From his refusal to admit that he (only a three-time visitor to the city) does not know the way around the city (exacerbated by the circles they make before the boy points out the obvious to him) to his reluctance to seek help (forcing the young boy to be his proxy and see help from a matronly black woman; a key moment in the story) to the trick he pulls on the boy that backfires, the grandfather’s pride in recognizing that the “guide” is perhaps the one who is in most need of guidance occupies center stage. This pride is not limited to the grandfather; in him, we can see traces of it in our own self-views and in how we choose to treat others. It is no accident that the true “guides” of this story are from the social/ethnic group that the grandfather dismisses so readily. And certainly it is the image of the “artificial nigger” that simultaneously reveals the limits of human pride and which brings the grandfather and grandson back together after the series of calamitous events had threatened to sunder their relationship:
He had not walked five hundred yards down the road when he saw, within reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro sitting bent over on a low yellow brick fence that curved around a wide lawn. The Negro was about Nelson’s size and he was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the putty that held him to the wall had cracked. One of his eyes was entirely white and he held a piece of brown watermelon.
Mr. Head stood looking at him silently until Nelson stopped at a little distance. Then as the two of them stood there, Mr. Head breathed, “An artificial nigger!”
It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either. He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead.
“An artificial nigger!” Nelson repeated in Mr. Head’s exact tone.
The two of them stood there with their necks forward at almost the same angle and their shoulders curved in almost exactly the same way and their hands trembling identically in their pockets. Mr. Head looked like an ancient child and Nelson like a miniature old man. They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy. Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now. (pp. 229-230)
Mercy. It is a strange thing to encounter in a tale that starts off with an old pompous fool and which journeys through a maze of self-deceit and undeserving contempt for a downtrodden race of people, but mercy certainly lies at the heart of this tale. O’Connor is rather explicit about this in the concluding paragraphs, as Mr. Head elaborates upon this feeling that he first recognizes in the passage quoted above: mercy is not ever something that humans merit, but which is instead a fountain that springs from God’s love and which can envelop even the most inveterate sinner. Although today using an entire race of people to serve mostly as a backdrop for a singular person’s realization of his faults likely would be considered to be at least in poor taste, in the 1950s South, doubtless it was a sobering, blistering message regarding the sin of pride and the resultant degradation of the African American communities at the hands of white Southerners who could not bring themselves to admit that their pride had led to horrific treatment of a whole race of people. Yet limits must be placed on interpreting O’Connor’s story as being part of a greater civil rights struggle. She certainly was no social progressive, merely one who did not like the excesses of segregation. Several of her letters during this time period bear this out quite clearly. Yet nearly sixty years after this story was published, “The Artificial Nigger” is relevant today not for its views regarding African Americans but in its carefully constructed series of metaphors for sin and mercy. Such religious imagery may not be for everyone’s tastes, but it certainly does capture a Catholic view of the matter very well.