Last post, I wrote about “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” in Richard Wright’s “Long Black Song.” Today, I want to look at another song in a short story, this time in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation.” The bluegrass, gospel song “You Go to Your Church and I’ll Go to Mine” appears in “Revelation” while Ruby Turpin and her husband Claud sit in the doctor’s waiting room. The appearance of the song’s lyrics work in a subversive manner to undercut the facade that Ruby Turpin puts on for the world to see.
Immediately after Claud makes a racist joke about intermarriage between blacks and whites, the “pleasant” people in the waiting all laugh while the “white-trash” woman and “the ugly girl” sit there essentially judging the participants who laugh at Claud’s off-color joke. After the laughter dies down, the thing that can be heard in the waiting room is the radio and the lyrics to “You Go to Your Church and I’ll Go to Mine.”
“You go to blank blank
And I’ll go to mine
But we’ll all blank along
And all along the blank
We’ll hep each other out
Smile-ling in any kind of
Sitting in her seat, Ruby does not hear every lyric, “but she [catches] enough to agree with the sentiment of the song” of helping out people in need (920). Ruby sits in her seat and thinks about her virtuous love of her neighbor, “whether they were white or black, trash or decent” (920). Of course, the irony is that Ruby does not truly love her neighbor as herself; instead, it could be said that she merely tolerates those that she deems as lower on the social ladder. “Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman” views herself as superior to those around here; however, Ruby Turpin exists as the most hateful person in the room.
While Ruby agrees with the song, we need to think about what the song actually says. Note that the word “blank” appears four times in the story’s version of lyrics, and these spaces cover up “your church,” “walk,” and what appears to be “road.” Taken independent of the story, Phillips H. Lord’s song appears to convey the message of unity amongst denominations and churches, espousing the thought that even though there be some items where churches disagree “Christians” will all make it to heaven together. However, within the context o f”Revelation,” these lyrics take on a subversive message that works to reinforce the hypocrisy of Ruby Turpin.
Throughout the story, Ruby thanks God that He did not make “her nigger or white-trash or ugly” even though she claims to want to help those who are not like her (520). In reality, she fails to do this, and this is what Mary Grace, the “ugly girl” shows her when she hits Ruby above the left eye with her book and calls her a wart hog from hell. Within this context, the song highlights segregation and social hierarchies based on race and socioeconomic factors. By leaving “your church” as blanks in the lyrics, O’Connor leaves it up to the reader to fill in the “blank.” As well, the song comes into the story directly after Claud tells a racist joke and Ruby and others in the room laugh. In this manner, Ruby shows her attitudes towards African Americans and the mask that she cherishes so dearly starts to peel away.
Looking further back into the story, Ruby thinks about the dreams she has where “all the classes of people were moiling and rolling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven” (916). When the African American messenger comes into the office. the “white-trash” lady proclaims, after he leaves, “They ought to send all them niggers back to Africa” (917). In response, the pleasant lady who Ruby connects with because she sees the woman as a social equal, informs the white-trash woman that she “couldn’t do without [her] colored friends” (917). To all of this, Ruby interjects, “There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger” (917).
Early on, Ruby latches on to the pleasant woman; however, here, she differs from the lady and more closely aligns herself with the “white-trash” woman, a lady who Ruby despises. The linkage comes in how each woman refers to African Americans. The “white-trash” lady and Ruby both use the term “nigger” and the pleasant lady uses “colored.” Both terms carry with them negative connotations, but Ruby’s linkage, through the word, with the “white-trash” woman shows her as having more in common with the lady than she initially thought. However, she remains oblivious to this fact throughout the story.
All of this, and other aspects of the story, work to show how Lord’s song takes on a subversive undercurrent in the story delves into the forced and involuntary separation of individuals based on class and race. For all of her blustering about helping those in need, Ruby maintains thoughts of segregation and separation, and the song highlights her deep-held beliefs. Even at the end of the story, we can question whether or not she actually realizes the “non-Christian” attitudes she carries within herself. She sees the procession of people o heaven with her, Claud, and those like them pulling up the rear.
As she gets up from her vision, Ruby does not hear the sounds of the woods; instead, she hears “the voices of the souls climbing upward into he starry field and shouting hallelujah” (529). In this scene, the lyrics of Lord’s song come to fruition where every “Christian,” regardless of color or social class proceeds to Heaven where “Our heavenly Father loves us all.” While the song appears in a manner that contradicts its true meaning in the waiting room, at the end of the story, its message emerges as the one that Ruby, and us as readers, should take away from “Revelation” that we do need to love our neighbor as our self and help each other out on our journey throughout this life.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation.” American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 913-929.