Seven years ago, Andrew Hartzell talked to Christine Sajecki about parades.
“I had been invited to an artist group where they talked about each other’s work and encouraged everybody,” remembers Hartzell. “[Sajecki] invited me to go because I’d been talking about the fact that we have these lovely squares, and wouldn’t it be nice if there were more planned events? Then I just brought up the subject of parades.”
Not long after, Hartzell got a call from Sajecki.
“She said, ‘You wanna have a parade?’” he laughs. “It was Flannery O’Connor Day.”
The rest is history. Now in its seventh year, the Flannery O’Connor Birthday Parade and Street is a beloved Savannah tradition full of community love and support.
However, as Hartzell remembers, it wasn’t always that simple.
“The first parade was without a permit, completely ad hoc,” shares Hartzell. “Everyone was a little nervous because we thought we would get accosted by the police or something. Whoever was carrying the big banner in the front, they just took off almost running. I had to go, ‘Hey, slow down!’”
That’s a far cry from the parade in its current state, which now operates with a permit and an even bigger cast of participants.
“The Sentient Bean donates coffee and tea for everyone, and we have a big Flannery birthday cake for everyone to share in,” says Cody Shelley, director of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. “We also have Local Authors Day, which is a huge component. We coordinate with The Book Lady, who does a huge amount of work for this event to bring in local authors.”
The Local Authors’ Day shows how important O’Connor is to the city.
“Savannah has so much to do with her childhood and her experience here, and even physically in this space on Lafayette Square has so much to do with the childhood experience she has and the voice she goes on to write with,” Shelley explains. “Bringing in local authors who are also experiencing this place ties them together and reinforces that community aspect.”
That’s part of the magic of this event: it’s more for locals than for tourists.
“This event is really mostly for locals,” Hartzell says. “I think that’s important. There are a lot of people that are tourists who end up in the square that day for our event, but I think it’s very important that we keep doing things for all of us who live here.”
“I’m here at the house, working with visitors to Savannah every day,” Shelley adds. “It’s really cool that folks are excited to be here and we’re so lucky to deal with that, but those folks are from out of town for the most part. This is one of the times we really get to connect with Savannah and the folks here in town, and that’s why this is one of the most special things that we do.”
While tourists no doubt love O’Connor, the author holds a special place in locals’ hearts.
The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home at 207 E. Charlton St. is where O’Connor spent thirteen years of her early life. For the uninitiated, O’Connor was a prolific author, particularly of short stories, and continued to be an exemplar of Southern Gothic work until her death in 1964.
“She died at age 39, and that’s all we have,” Hartzell says. “I think she still influences Southern writers and may other writers as well.”
Her abbreviated catalog leaves us to wonder what O’Connor could have written and examine, perhaps too closely, what she did write.
“Also, I think because she was so young and there’s only a certain amount of work to look at, I’m always fascinated at the criticism,” Hartzell says. “There’s a lot of criticism that’s really reaching very far into it without a lot of evidence. Critics have to come up with things to talk about, so there’s been a lot of talk about her racism and all sorts of issues that I’m not sure are borne out in the actual material, even in her letters.”
“I feel like people conflate thinking people are a product of their time and the idea of context,” muses Shelley. “They’re very different things. When you take someone’s context and what they’re doing, really reflecting their time and place, that’s different than just assuming they are regurgitating what is around them. I think when you take Flannery’s context and what she has to say, when you put those things together, she’s saying some really prescient, timely, and enduring things.”
“And she was such an individual, I’m not sure you could say she’s a product of her time either,” adds Hartzell.
In its lecture series, the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home has worked to push back against recent allegations that O’Connor was racist by including a variety of perspectives that invite close inspection of her life.
“She was a woman out of any time,” says Shelley. “She would’ve been the person she was regardless of when she lived.”
As Hartzell says, the lecture series is just another level of community outreach for a group that already has community support throughout the year.
The celebration includes the perennial favorite Chicken Shit Bingo, as well as Starlandia offering crafts for kids, vendors, face painting, a blessing from former board president and Bishop Emeritus J. Kevin Boland in his regalia, live music by the Sweet Thunder Strolling Band, and then the parade at 3:15 p.m.
“We’re doing New Orleans second-line stuff this year,” shares Hartzell.
Events like this bolster the importance of O’Connor in Savannah’s culture.
“Savannah has everything to do with the writer she becomes,” Shelley says. “Her experience is unique because she is herself, and yet it also is indicative of the special Irish Catholic Savannah experience as well. That doesn’t happen in the rest of the South. She’s in this perfect storm here in Savannah.”