"Her stories are powerful, iconic stories, and very realistic gritty depictions of what it was like to be alive in a culture, the very, very racist culture of the American south during the Civil Rights Movement, during a time of enormous change," O'Donnell said.
And O'Connor's favorite description of her job as a fiction writer was to live "hotly in pursuit of the real," O'Donnell said, so her stories "do not look away from very difficult and challenging situations."
In her stories, O'Connor portrays "a complex sort of dance that black Americans and white Americans had to negotiate in order to live together in a segregated culture. And it always reflects badly on white people, because they were - most white people are - ignorant of their racism. And the few who do know it oftentimes are proud of it and think it's a badge of honor. And she just mercilessly exposes those people," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell said there are "all sorts of ways" in which Americans today experience the same or similar kinds of racism, whether personally or systemically. "And the fact that we have this writer who exposes it so knowingly, and exposes it to censure, it's a powerful way of seeing how far we have not come," she said.
As a devout Catholic, O'Connor also "thought about this in theological terms. She thought that racism was a sin. A sin against God, a sin against human beings, a sin against grace. And so in a number of her stories the people who are the most egregious racists really get their comeuppance in the course of the story," she added.
Alice Walker, an African American writer and feminist who grew up in the same area of Georgia as the O'Connors, was one of the signatories of the petition sent to Loyola University Maryland. The letter opens with a statement from Walker, who said: "We must honor Flannery for growing. Hide nothing of what she was, and use that to teach."
Walker herself is an admirer of O'Connor's work. In an essay that appeared in the Dec. 1994/Jan. 1995 edition of Sojourners magazine, Walker wrote that it was O'Connor's biting portrayal of Southern white people that initially captured her attention.
"It was for her description of Southern white women that I appreciated her work at first, because when she set her pen to them not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air (and the tree itself might never have been planted), and yes, I could say, yes, these white folks without the magnolia (who are indifferent to the tree's existence), and these black folks without melons and superior racial patience, these are like Southerners that I know," Walker wrote.
O'Donnell added that Walker has also, in her past critiques of O'Connor, "really admired the fact that O'Connor did not pretend to be able to get inside the minds of her black characters."
O'Connor admitted at one point that she did not write from the perspective of African Americans because she did not understand them.
"And so Walker saw this as a kind of a respectful distance that O'Connor kept, allowing black characters to have their own privacy, so she never pretends to know what they're thinking."
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"I think what Walker valued was that she could see in O'Connor, this development, this struggle, and was wrestling with the problem of race. And...it's foolish and shortsighted not to honor that and acknowledge that as being human."
Something else that people today can learn from O'Connor is how to face and challenge the racism that exists even within themselves, O'Donnell said.
"All of us who are born and raised in this white privileged culture, we imbibe this from the time that we're born into the world, and it's impossible for us to escape it. It's just impossible," she said.
"The best that we can do is be knowledgeable about the fact, be knowledgeable of our blindnesses, and try to work against them and do what we call now anti-racist work. And one of the forms that anti-racist work took for O'Connor was: 'Okay, I know I have this problem. I know all the people I live with and love have this problem, including my mother and including my aunt and my friends. And so I'm going to write stories that expose this problem.'"
For those who want to read some of O'Connor's most poignant fiction that treats racism, O'Donnell recommended four stories. The first, "Revelation," was one of O'Connor's "last stories and one of her most powerful stories. It is a portrait of a racist who has a wake-up call and understands very clearly what she's guilty of by the end of the story. And in some ways that person, that main character, is a portrait of O'Connor."
Another story by O'Connor about race that O'Donnell recommended is "Everything That Rises Must Converge," in which one of the characters seeks to atone for the racism of his mother, and must confront his own hypocrisy.