So, back down my rabbit hole we go. And damn, do I have a rabbit hole for y’all today.
In the spirit of my edgy post last week, questioning a whole very popular genre, I will now question something nearly holy in literary circles and I’ll just have to live with the consequences of that. And, truly, it’s less me wanting to be edgy and more I feel like this is a very important topic to talk about.
As I’m sure you’ve gleaned from the title already, we’re truly going for it. Today, we’re going to question an important question people have been looking at ever since Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was published. Why did no one suspect that Atticus Finch was racist?
To get this anecdote out of the way, I will be honest: To Kill a Mockingbird was never my favorite. But I still was very aware of how well it was written and why it was a classic. I just never loved it as much as everyone else. There’s a part of me that thinks my subconscious is chronically offbeat, as while everyone in grade 9 was swooning over Mockingbird, I was on my third round of Great Expectations.
What can I say? I’m weird.
But to the point. I am very aware of how well-written the book is, so this is not some personal dig. And honestly, I am far more impressed with the book after reading Go Set a Watchman than before. Why?
Because Harper Lee got everyone tricked into thinking just like little Scout and assuming Atticus Finch was the pinnacle of righteousness, which I never think he truly was. It was only Scout who thought that. And since Lee is such a great writer, and had such a great editor as well, everyone was convinced to think just like Scout.
Go Set a Watchman, though I do believe it needed some editing first before being thrust upon the public, is one of the most important race books I’ve encountered in my lifetime to completely jostle the white psyche. It could have been, if better edited and cleaned up and maybe had the ending tweaked as I’m not the biggest fan of it, one of the most revolutionary narratives about race for white people. But instead it was brushed under the rug.
Well, not today. Today, we’re going to talk about why the Atticus fallout was one of the most important moments that was wasted upon the people who needed to learn from it instead of shun it.
To start let’s go back to the beginning, to the book that started it: To Kill a Mockingbird. While reading it, we look through the eyes of elementary age Scout Finch, a curious and adventurous young girl who is learning about the world, its flaws, its strengths, and her place in it. Her father is Atticus Finch, a lawyer, who believes in the law and justice above all. He sees the world in the terms of strength, weakness, and justice, and it’s the way he bases most of his actions.
Through the case of Tom Robinson, Harper Lee masterfully portrays how through Scout’s eyes her father is a pillar of justice, goodness, and fairness for all. She similarly, with the same mastery, convinces the readers by using Scout as the narrator of Atticus’ virtue. We as readers saw him as the superhero that Scout saw him as.
But beyond Scout’s eyes, beyond the naivete of a child’s world-view, Atticus was not the perfect man she built him up to be.
Yes, Atticus believed in the law and justice above all; but he also believed in strength vs. weakness, something shown in the book heavily. He calls Miss Maudie, their neighbor, one of the bravest women he ever met, dealing with her morphine addiction. Though clearly some people would only see the addiction and her unpleasant demeanor, he highly values that strength. Oppositely, he shoots the town dog, Tim Johnson, once he shows the possibility of being mad. There is a good caveat, the dog is likely sick, but Atticus does take it upon himself to put the weak dog down.
When it comes between Tom Robinson’s case, Atticus likely did it more for justice and strength v. weakness instead of because of the fact Tom was black. Tom was a strong, hardworking man, while his accusers, the Ewells, were weak, mean, and low people. Though the Ewells were white, they were terrible. Atticus defending and believing in and supporting Tom likely had more to do with the fact, in his eyes, Tom deserved justice for the strong, proper man he was.
But what if Tom was less strong and hardworking? But what if the Ewells had been less weak, low people?
What would have Atticus done then?
And this is not to say that Atticus ever distinctly and directly despised black people; he did truly appreciate Calpurnia for all she did for his children. In Go Set a Watchman, he even respects her strength and devotion to his family by taking up a case in her godson’s defense, even though he did a terrible thing. It’s very likely Atticus never thought himself racist at all.
But Atticus was culturally racist, though. And in Go Set a Watchman, we can see that more clearly and it shocks Scout, and the reader, to their very core.
Yet why did people uproar against Atticus and Harper Lee instead of realizing their own cultural assumptions and questioning their own ideals?
Recently I read the scholarly article “Where Do We Go From Here?: Toward a Critical Race English Education” written by L. Johnson. In it, I found a very powerful description and key to the reason why readers became so uproared. He describes the character of Atticus as, “be[ing] viewed as a white savior—the heroic upper middle-class white male who [tries to] save the innocent Black male who is on trial for allegedly raping a white woman”. He discusses how this ideal can become a serious problem, because it can distract white people from seeing their own privilege and cultural racism if they think focus on the characters/people who “prove” the mindsets behind phrases like “not all white people”.
People reacted so violently to the truth that Atticus had racist aspects of himself because he, for a long time, was the pinnacle in people’s minds of justice, goodness, and the white ability to be non-racist. Atticus Finch comforts us to think “not all white people” and that racism is beyond us, but it isn’t. Yet again, not saying everyone runs around screaming for white supremacy, but we all have cultural norms we have been raised with that we don’t think to question until they are questioned. Us not be raging racists doesn’t change the fact that our culture and society, since the conception of black slavery was introduced as a social norm in America, has been insidiously riddled with racism.
The whole thing is like saying the phrases “not all men” or “all lives matter” or “not all white people”. They may be well-intentioned, trying to give an air of perceived equality or a sense of safety with some in a community, but it doesn’t change the fact that certain groups are still being hurt by others. Trying to cover your own ass or trying to be technical doesn’t help anyone but your own ego. That never was the point of any movement, to attack the individual. It’s to make a social and cultural change. But people don’t like to focus on the larger point; just themselves.
The real racial point in To Kill a Mockingbird is that a black man was blamed for a white man abusing his daughter and it’s wrong, yet the a town convicted him. The point was not that this one white man lawyer tried really hard. But Scout is a young child, so it makes sense she wouldn’t quite get all that just yet.
But the problem is that the culture, our culture, didn’t.
Harper Lee is brilliant; I even think her second book, though unfocused and unedited, might be a more honest view into the issues of Atticus, childhood assumptions, and racism.
The truth is that no one knew Atticus Finch was racist because everyone wanted him to be literary proof of “not all white people”. Atticus Finch wasn’t racist because everyone was so happy and eager to have a middle-class southern man before the civil rights movement be an abnormally progressive pillar of righteousness to help them deal with the fact that the U.S did and does convict and/or kill people like Tom Robinson every day.
The truth is Atticus Finch wasn’t racist to us because we didn’t want him to be.
But the bigger truth is everyone has a bit of racism in them, simply from the way our society formed, now and then. It sucks, and it’s awful. The past and culture we have been born into is one that has one hell of a screwed up base code that we need to work towards overwriting.
His was a white-centered society and the first step to changing that is accepting that someone standing idle and shouting “not all white people” makes them a part of the problem. Like in any issue that needs solving, or in any conversation, getting defensive and trying to be the right one doesn’t solve anything. Actions, sympathy, and understanding do.
Atticus is our imperfect forefathers, the ones we didn’t want to believe were all bad. And in their own ways, they weren’t. Yet those pillars of what’s “good” and “right” that they left up for us will always not be good enough eventually; it’s the nature of societal growth. But when it comes to race, just like Scout in Go Set a Watchman, we need to learn from our younger ideals and realize the only ones who can build up better, stronger pillars of justice for this country aren’t our forefathers. Its us.
So why don’t we keep on questioning for a better tomorrow?