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.