Yes, it’s painful and sad to read the first chapter of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (Oh, Jem) — even worse to read this NYTimes review that reveals “Atticus Finch is a racist”, plain and simple.
Just as grown-up Scout/Jean-Louise has to face that the idealized childhood vision of her father isn’t real (or is at the very least too uncomplicated), I sense America beginning the same awakening in relation to ourselves and our past. To Kill a Mockingbird gives us the sense that righteousness can prevail, if not in the courts, then in our hearts. And that it matters.
But matters to whom? What the book helps maintain and protect is actually “White” America’s own sense of moral goodness. It allows me the belief that if I am not personally and individually racist, then I can live within the racist system and enjoy that system’s benefits without guilt or shame.
I will always love To Kill a Mockingbird, because it starts where we all must start: waking up to the fact of the world’s great pain and injustice, understanding it only a little bit, railing against it, and grasping onto the hope that small acts of compassion and kindness are meaningful and necessary. I maintain that we can continue to draw strength, joy, and lessons from its pages. I will go back to ‘Mockingbird’ time and time again, as I’ve always done, when I need to restore my faith in humanity.
But as I’ve grown older, each reading brings with it new realizations. Even before the revelations of ‘Watchman’, I had come to understand that Atticus is not perfect, and by that I mean he is limited. Limited by the prejudices of his time and by his own insistence on a sort of radical evenhandedness and emotional restraint. I have accepted that putting him on a pedestal as America’s anti-racist hero is not just seriously problematic, it’s untenable. I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s 2009 piece in the New Yorker sub-titled ‘Atticus Finch and The Limits of Southern Liberalism’ for more on this topic.
Today, our historical memory chooses to paint the Civil Rights Movement as a noble, finished cause. Brave young men and women rode buses rocked by white hands and stones. They sacrificed their bodies at lunch counters and rallies. They sang, they marched, they prevailed. Our thoughts move on. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategic use of nonviolent resistance is referenced constantly, but diminished into a convenient soundbyte for those who prioritize racial harmony over racial justice.
Is it surprising that more often than not, these are the same people for whom past and pigment are protection from constant fear of the violence that might be done to their own children’s bodies? To Kill a Mockingbird can be another convenient retreat, akin to quoting King from a castle of privilege. It is uplifting, yes, but again, for whom?
Scout and her father are heroes for those of us who have a long way to go in our internal reckoning of what it means to live a good, ethical life. They give us hope and faith. We recognized ourselves in Scout. We always knew she’d be fine, and so we believed we would be, too. But it’s time for me to stop putting the state of my own individual conscience before America’s collective salvation. It’s time to read the stories that will make me grieve and despair, and realize that for too many these stories aren’t fiction.
In Tamir Rice’s coming-of-age story, imagine the hundreds of blank pages after the first few chapters. In the novel of Trayvon Martin’s life, imagine the sentence cut in half on the page, and then nothing. After reading Ta-Nahisi Coates’s letter to his son, imagine having to decide not if but when you will tell your child his terrifying odds, because taking away his innocence might save his life.
It will hurt to see Atticus with mature eyes. It hurts to finally see myself and my country a bit more clearly, and the long road ahead. But I’m ready to invite that pain. There’s all this talk, now, that Harper Lee might not be in the best frame of mind to make the decision to publish her novel. That may be; it doesn’t sound like we may ever really know. But perhaps she sees it all… That we need Go Set a Watchman just as much, if not more, than we ever needed To Kill a Mockingbird.