The White Working Class and Flannery O’Connor’s  “The Artificial Nigger”

Nobody talks much about Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger” anymore, which is a shame. I understand why a story with a title like has fallen from favor. It’s a difficult story to recommend. It’s awkward for an English teacher to say to her students, “Read ‘The Artificial Nigger’ for class tomorrow.” O’Connor surely knew when she titled “The Artificial Nigger” that she was taking risks and forcing readers to deal with the specter of racism. She couldn’t have known in 1955 that the title would evolve from confrontational to repulsive, and it would doom the story to obscurity while her lesser works rose to prominence.

The story itself is a brilliant investigation into the fears that create racism and the ways in which racism is learned. It demonstrates subtly and clearly how traditional racism—the belief that races are real biological constructs and that the white race is superior to the black one—is devastating for poor white people. These are ideas that have been relevant for about four hundred years, but our current political climate has made “The Artificial Nigger” particularly significant. Reading the story introduces a pathway to understanding Donald Trump’s supporters that hasn’t really been explored.

“The Artificial Nigger” tells the story of a poor, white, rural Georgian named Mr. Head. He is in his early sixties and the death of his wife and daughter have left him the sole charge of his ten-year-old grandson, Nelson. The two live in a one-room shack with no plumbing or electricity. Despite this low status, Nelson feels superior because he was born in the city. So Mr. Head decides to take Nelson to Atlanta and show him what he’s so proud of. “You may not like it a bit,” Mr. Head warns Nelson. “It’ll be full of niggers.”

The two live in a county where African Americans have been forced out. Prior to the train ride into Atlanta, Nelson had never seen an African American. This changes when an African American conductor takes their tickets. After the conductor leaves, Mr. Head quizzes Nelson as to what kind of man the conductor is. Nelson notes that the conductor is big, fat, and bald. He doesn’t recognize race, however. Mr. Head makes fun of Nelson for not knowing a “nigger” when he sees one. This makes Nelson furious. O’Connor writes. “[Nelson] felt that the Negro had deliberately walked down the aisle in order to make a fool of him and he hated him with a fierce raw fresh hate; and also, he understood now why his grandfather disliked them.”

Of course, Mr. Head is the one who humiliated Nelson, not the conductor. Even if it had been the conductor, he’s just a man, not a race. Nelson’s reaction shows so much about the roots of racism. Nelson knows he’s poor, and he’s learning just how poor he is. Soon, he’ll see his first toilet that flushes and sink that has running water (keep in mind the story is set in the early 1950s, when even most rural farmhouses had installed indoor plumbing long before Nelson was born). If Nelson is like most of the other poor white people in the collection, he knows that the people in his community view him as “white trash.”

White trash is an interesting term because it is racist in the traditional sense. To believe someone is white trash is to be a white supremacist. To say someone is white trash is to imply that this person is part of the chosen, the superior, race and they’ve blown it. Through their stupidity, ignorance, flawed genes, rural upbringing, whatever, they have started out a chosen one, failed, and ended up in the trash like all the other non-white races. And through this term, Nelson has learned racism before he sees anyone but a white person.

Nelson’s one defense is his intelligence. He’s a bright kid. This is what separates him from the other “trash.” It’s not a lack of intelligence that leads to his failure to identify the race of the conductor. Races are social constructs. As Kwame Anthony Appiah famously said, “Races are like witches: however unreal witches are, belief in witches, like belief in races has had—and in many communities continues to have—profound consequences for human social life.” So, if someone hasn’t been taught what to look for in a witch or a race, he won’t see it. Nelson hasn’t yet been socialized to identify this construct. Still, when he fails the test, his one redeeming quality has been stripped. He feels hate. He can direct that hate toward his grandfather—upon whom Nelson’s entire life depends—or he can direct it toward an outlet that feels safe: the conductor and the idea of race.

If the title doesn’t repel the reader, this moment typically does. A contemporary reader can’t help seeing a racist old man teaching racism to a kid, and the kid absorbing it unquestionably. These are the only two realized characters in the story. It’s easy to dismiss them both and stop reading.

I can’t stop reading because I can’t help seeing my father in Nelson. They were both born around 1940. They both lived the first several years of their lives without indoor plumbing. Like Nelson’s, my father’s parents died when he was very young. Like Nelson, my father was raised by an insecure, scared white man who channeled his fears, anxieties, and weaknesses into a racist world view. In Nelson’s case, it was his grandfather; in my father’s, it was his older brother. My father is still around, still healthy, still very intelligent, just as I imagine a real-life Nelson would be. Last November, my father voted for Donald Trump, just as I imagine a real-life Nelson would have.

Much was made during the election season about the white working class voters who make up the bulk of Trump’s support. Most reporters writing these articles implicitly asked the question, “How can these white working class voters be so stupid?” Yet, most of these articles omit any honest inquiry into this question. Like Nelson projecting his hatred and frustration onto the conductor and the race he represents, many of these reporters channeled their frustrations into the seemingly safe outlet of “white trash.” Like Nelson, they didn’t wish to bite the hand that fed them. Because the honest answer to, “How can these white working class voters be so stupid?” is this: like everyone, white working class voters are victims of social media algorithms and a spectacle-driven corporate media that forces us all into echo chambers of dubious information. It wasn’t until after the election when reporters begrudging acknowledged that, more than race or class, Donald Trump is the product of our new, manipulative, and vacuous media paradigm.

When I see white working class voters, particularly those in the swing state of Florida, I see my family. My parents are in their mid-seventies. They still run a small construction company. They lost most of their savings and retirement money when the housing industry crashed in 2007, so they’ll will work in that construction office until the day they die. My brother is a site supervisor who’s perpetually squeezed between workers who need more money and an industry that will bankrupt him if he pays more. My sister works for a big, corporate construction company. She was once a salaried, but her position—like most of the jobs at that corporation—has been shifted to an at-will one. They’re all doing better than they were when Obama was elected, but worse than they were when Bush won his second term.

During the election, neither candidate spent much time on programs that would genuinely help them, like more robust Social Security and Medicare programs, an abolition of so-called “Right to Work” laws, or any real program to slow or reverse the trend of a job market that increasingly swings toward precarious, at-will, and temporary positions. When politicians talk about the job market at all, it’s to brag that the total number of jobs is growing. Or politicians and journalists talk about the new “gig economy,” as if workers were rock stars and not temps with low pay and no benefits. There’s very little acknowledgement that the quantity of jobs isn’t really the problem, the quality of jobs is. You can find work, if you want it. The problem is that most work available is humiliating and doesn’t pay a living wage.

I’m pretty sure my sister didn’t vote for Trump, but my mother and father did. And so did my brother, his wife, their three daughters, and their daughters’ three husbands. I disagree with them, but I see where they’re coming from. They felt like no candidate would help them, and at least Trump was a “fuck you” vote.

I don’t know how they overlooked the fact that one of the things they were saying “fuck you” to was my sister’s and my niece’s healthcare. I wish they would’ve thought that part through.

***

As Nelson and Mr. Head travel through Atlanta, they get lost, they panic, they treat each other horribly, and they descend into their own personal hells. The day wears on, and they run the risk of missing their train back to rural Georgia. Missing the train would have dire consequences. They have no money, no food, and no way back. If they miss that train, they’ll be homeless and almost out of options. Luckily, they get directions from someone who points them to the Emory station, where they’ll be able to catch the train. A few blocks from the station, they encounter a minstrelsy statue of a kid with a big smile and a slice of watermelon. O’Connor writes, “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.”

Prior to seeing the statue, Mr. Head and Nelson were hyperaware of their situation: two pieces of white trash in a wealthy white neighborhood. They know they don’t belong and that the fences surrounding these mansions exist to keep poor people like them out. They know they’ve traveled to the end of their rope. They may be able to climb back somewhat, but it’ll always be a short rope. In this statue that they see as an “artificial nigger,” they finally find something lower than them. Previously, they passed through a black neighborhood where the residents were better off socioeconomically than Mr. Head and Nelson. The residents of that neighborhood had interior walls and toilets in their houses. Unlike Mr. Head and Nelson, the African Americans they encounter will be able to eat lunch and dinner that day. But in this statue, this social construct of race, this fiction elevated to ideology, Mr. Head and Nelson recapture their sense of self-worth.

Immediately following the first Clinton-Trump debate, major media outlets like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Guardian all ran opinion pieces expressing confusion over Trump supporters’ continued support of Trump. They observed that most of what Trump had said about trade was bluster. NAFTA hasn’t had that big of an impact on the US economy, and, while manufacturing has moved to China, renegotiating with China won’t bring those jobs back. There’s always another part of the world with enough poor people to warrant moving a factory there and exploiting the labor. The toothpaste is out of that tube. Besides, most manufacturing jobs have been taken by robots, not Mexicans or Asians. What these journalists missed is the fact that Trump, like the wealthy Atlantan in O’Connor’s story, placed a minstrelsy statue on the front lawn of his campaign. All the Mr. Heads and Nelsons of the US get to bond in the presence of Donald Trump’s Artificial Mexican or Artificial Asian: his racist social construct that isn’t tied to reality. Trump’s anger is the only thing being offered to America’s white working class after three decades of pillaging by both parties. Like Mr. Head and Nelson, they can recapture their self-worth there.

So it’s no wonder, now that he’s president, he’s keeping all of his racist promises by pushing to build a wall and maybe even starting a war in Southeast Asia. Incompetent as he is, he has no other choice. Without that statue on the lawn, all the Mr. Heads and Nelsons might start wondering why the house behind it is so big and why those bastards need a tax cut.

O’Connor’s story ends with Nelson triumphantly swearing that he’ll never return to Atlanta. He’ll stay in his one-room shack in rural Georgia, where opportunities for an education or improvement in his socioeconomic state are minimal. His ideology will never be challenged. He’ll find a livable level of misery and remain there. This becomes poignant when keeping in mind that the statue was a “monument to another’s victory” that highlighted Mr. Head and Nelson’s “common defeat.” The victors in this situation are clear. They’re the wealthy whites living in mansions surrounded by expansive lawns and fences and lawn jockeys. They’re the Donald Trumps of the world, his cabinet, the people who really put him in power, the white one-percenters.

Who or what subjugates Mr. Head and Nelson is a little more complex, but still clear. More than anything, it’s their racist society orchestrating their common defeat. Their white supremacist worldview keeps them poor and tied to land that has never equated to wealth for whites like them. They’ll never join the white community that lives in the mansions near the Emory train station. They’d be better off moving to the black neighborhood adjacent to Atlanta, where manufacturing jobs are plentiful. At least there they would no longer be one bad day away from starving and homeless. In short, they’re victims of the myth that racism benefits white people.

In his recent history of racism in America, Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi dispels this myth. He concludes, “It has been true that racist policies have benefited White people in general at the expense of Black people (and others) in general… But it is also true that a society of equal opportunity, without a top 1 percent hoarding the wealth and power, would actually benefit the vast majority of White people much more than racism does.” As if he’s speaking of Mr. Head and Nelson specifically, Kendi observes, “It is not coincidental that slavery kept the vast majority of southern Whites poor.” Indeed, throughout O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, she gives examples of white tenant farmers who, like Mr. Head, struggle under a racist system that pays African American so little that white tenant farmers have to compete with them for slightly higher wages. O’Connor doesn’t advocate for any social policies, but it’s clear in most of these stories that the white tenant farmers would make more money if they organized with the African Americans instead of perpetuating the racist social hierarchy. The tenant farmers (as well as Mr. Head) all exemplify Kendi’s point that whites don’t have to be antiracist out of some altruistic sacrifice. In fact, it’s in the self-interest of most Americans to be antiracist.

It is not in Donald Trump’s self-interest to oppose racism. Racist policies have allowed him to profit in multiple land deals. Racist rhetoric has propelled him to the presidency. As long as he can keep voters standing on the other side of his fence, bonding over the minstrelsy statue he has placed there, he gets to keep all the spoils of a racist culture.


Featured image by Robert Thivierge via Flickr.