Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Say It Ain't So, Atticus: Go Set a Watchman and the Problem of Racism

You've probably heard that the long awaited sequel to Harper Lee's classic depiction of American racism, To Kill a Mockingbird, was released today. The novel is still widely read in schools, and many of us remember Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch, the tall, handsome lawyer who stands up for racial justice, with the warm, fuzzy nostalgia for simpler times that black and white movies create.

Imagine our dismay to find that in Go Set A Watchman, Lee's sequel, Atticus Finch is a racist. Apparently Atticus positions himself against desegregation and says some pretty intolerant stuff. Say it ain't so, Atticus! How can a character who so exemplifies racial justice in our collective memory turn out to be racist in a story set two decades later? What caused this change and how do we, as readers, deal with the deafening crash of a white role model plunging from his pedestal?

I'd like to suggest that maybe Atticus Finch should never have been placed on that pedestal to begin with. The problem we lovers of Lee's classic text face is not that the character, Atticus, changes so drastically from one novel to the next. The problem is that we've read the character and To Kill a Mockingbird in general through the lens of what we wanted, hoped, and perhaps needed the novel to say about racism and not what it actually says. Just like its curricular counterpart, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird stops short of being the antiracist novel we'd like it to be. In fact, Lee's depiction of African Americans in the story firmly establishes them not as equals, but as lesser beings far beneath the white characters, albeit deserving of their protection.

Let's start with the title, which appears in the text in the following scene. As Scout and her brother, Jem, practice shooting with their new air rifles, Atticus tells them, “Shoot all the bluejays you want…but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Confused, Scout asks a neighbor, Miss Maudie, what he means. Miss Maudie explains, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (p. 90). What does Lee mean by this metaphor? Who are the mockingbirds in the story? 

First, there's Tom Robinson, the black man accused of rape and defended by Atticus at trial. We see through the circumstances of Tom's arrest that he, like the proverbial mockingbird, knows his place and doesn’t bother anyone. Tom, we're told, was walking along, minding his own business, acting as a “respectable Negro” (p. 192) should, when Mayella Ewell asked him for help and subsequently accused him of rape. At the end of the story Lee further cements the mockingbird metaphor through an editorial printed in the town newspaper that “likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children” (p. 241). In Tom, Lee gives us an African American figure who is both without voice (he must rely on a white attorney to defend him) and without physical prowess (due to an injured arm). He is the quintessential “respectable Negro” of the time, the mockingbird who doesn't cause trouble and whose role it is to serve the whites in the story. The only other time the mockingbird metaphor is used in the text is in reference to Boo Radley, who, though white, is mentally disabled, and whose very name, “Boo,” symbolizes an invisible, ghost-like, and voiceless creature.

Lee then extends her view of the “respectable Negro” by showing us the opposite when Scout and Jem visit their maid, Calpurnia’s African American church. As they arrive, Scout relates, the “smell of clean Negro” (p. 118) welcomed them; it's hard to read that phrase and not cringe, but for Lee, presumably cleanliness denotes respectability. Although the white children are given deferential treatment by most of the congregation, one person, Lula (who I guess didn't smell as clean), protests their presence. Lee uses weapons imagery in Lula’s description -- she's “bullet-headed with strange almond-shaped eyes, straight nose, and an Indian-bow mouth” (p. 119). To make her even more frightening, Lee tells us that from Scout’s perspective, Lula “seemed seven feet high” (p. 119). Unlike the other African Americans in the story, Lula is clearly depicted as a dangerous figure. While her anger at the children’s incursion into her space might be understandable given the circumstances of Tom’s false accusation and the blatant racism of whites throughout the novel, Lula’s voice is not tolerated. Calpurnia, who views Lula’s anger with amusement (thereby infantilizing her), calls her a “nigger,” and ultimately Lula is sent away by her own kind as punishment for her “fancy ideas an’ haughty ways” (p. 119). Again, it's hard not to cringe. 

Once rid of Lula’s threatening presence, the children are free to experience the singing of the congregation, led by Zeebo, the town trash collector and Calpurnia’s son. Scout and Jem are amazed at how, without musical accompaniment or songbooks, “Miraculously on pitch, a hundred voices sang out Zeebo’s words” (p. 121). Though they are unskilled in other ways (Calpurnia tells Scout that most of the congregation can’t read), this group of “respectable Negros,” it seems, sing very much like the mockingbirds who, as Miss Maudie explained, “don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy” (p. 90). 

And so To Kill a Mockingbird, supposedly an antiracist classic, has some serious problems in its depictions of African Americans. But what about Atticus himself? While it's true that Atticus does his best to defend Tom Robinson in court (putting himself and his children at risk), he never completely disassociates himself from the racism of his time. He's careful to explain to Scout that racists "are still our friends" (p. 76) and are "entitled to full respect for their opinions" (p. 105). He makes light of the role of the Ku Klux Klan (p. 147) and excuses the head of a would-be lynch mob as "a good man" who "just has his blind spots along with the rest of us" (p. 157).

So it should come as no great surprise that the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is less than satisfying as a white antiracist role model. By today's standards the antiracism of To Kill a Mockingbird and of the character Atticus Finch are weak at best. That's why we need to stop reading the novel through the lens of today's standards. Instead, we should view it and its sequel for what they are: stories of how white people dealt with race during a time when white supremacy was assumed, even by the authors of those stories.

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