Why Did No One Suspect Atticus Finch was Racist?

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?

Sincerely,

Stephanie Marceau

Why Do Bloggers Need Mental Health Days?

So this might not completely be about rhetoric.

Just a PSA for anyone in the back who may not get what the title is getting at.

Gist is, I am on my final year of university and the weather here is not conducive for my chronic sinus infections. I love this blog with all my heart, but unfortunately this week’s topic will be postponed until next Sunday so that I can get some more rest and sanity bottled up for more work next week!

But as a little teaser, I’ll give the title of next week’s blog (slightly because it makes me more obligated to do it): Why Did No One Suspect That Atticus Was Racist? 

Hope that tickles all your fancies and you will be super stoked by next week to enjoy it! And I’ll feel super better next week to write it!

Have a great Superbowl Sunday, everyone.

Sincerely,

Stephanie Marceau

Why Should the Current YA Dystopian Novels Die?

So we’re running right out the gates, folks. Probably because I’m uncertain how many pitchforks will be thrown at me for what I’m about to say next:

Current young adult (YA) dystopian novels need to die.

Now, before y’all shoot me with arrows or burn me for click-bait, hear me out. One, because it’s not click-bait. I do think it needs a good death. Second, because I have some good points.

After Hunger Games, the peak of the YA dystopian trendiness, everything about YA dystopian novels exploded. There is a serious over-saturation and oversimplification of the genre as a whole since the novels became popular. The genre has devolved into copying the success of Hunger Games instead of capitalizing on the breadth and fascinating nuances of the genre. Instead of teasing the wonder or horror or complexity of a dystopia world, a back-cover will now say “If you like Katniss, you’ll love *insert ridiculous made-up name of female heroine here*”. That’s not the point of novels. It’s the point of marketing and tired back-cover writing.

On a short anecdote, trust me, it isn’t just YA dystopian novels. YA romances are getting this treatment too, as are many others, and I of course have thoughts on that. But right now, with the current state of things, the dystopian offenses are the most egregious.

So it’s time to take a very brief, swears-riddled literary history lesson. Dystopian novels, pre-Hunger Games, were used to convey serious social commentary without directly attacking society itself and also while incorporating a story. People didn’t love to read straight essays. Nor does anyone love being told they are awful to their face. But wrap it in a story that makes people question their lives and choices and the world around them?

Well hot damn, you got yourself a hot dystopian social commentary.

One of the most famous dystopian novels, and one of the most important for this discussion, is 1984 by George Orwell. It was a novel that discussed how sensationalized and incorrect news, as well as excessive control of people’s lives, eventually created a puppet work-horse society that did whatever the government wanted. It warned of how media needs to be honest and free, and how no one should blindly follow government and disallow it to gain too much radical power or scapegoat any one person as the enemy.

Now take a moment to think about our world today, and scapegoats and sensationalized topics and media.

1984 has grown increasingly more popular once more, ever since certain political events happened. The grandness of that fact is insurmountable, that people are looking for truth and to ask questions. But there is a bigger question that lies therein.

Why did everyone have to go out and pick up a book that was written in 1949 and only has theoretical foods for thought and commentary on society? Why was there no current book? And furthermore, why is there no current book, if the younger generation is the future, that they have to turn to specifically to look for questions?

To be objective, I may not like Hunger Games very much but it’s not per say bad or useless. It questions class systems, which is a fair point in our ever cyclical poverty cycle. Its also written well; I actually have always liked the character of Peeta and certain aspects of Katniss. But it also too often draws away from the commentary and pulls towards things adults assume young adults only care about: drama and romance.

Because I try to be an objective rhetorician, I have seen many of the movies to at least have first-hand experiences instead of go by hearsay. And honestly, I was intrigued and interested in quite a few political and action aspects. Yet then there I was, questioning why it would become excessively about romance all of a sudden. It was tiring. There was a civil war and rebellion going on, yet we needed to take serious time out for a love triangle. This supposedly very serious main heroine was bothering to take time out for a weird, confusing love triangle.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I get parts of it. Teenagers get enrapt with romance and interrelationship problems quite readily. I know it’s supposed to appeal to the audience. I know the writer just wanted the audience interested and involved. I get it. Some teens won’t be that enrapt at all, though.

Yet the romance is taking precedence because romance.

There are messages and there are things to say in dystopian novels. They have a strength, particularly now, that quite a few other novels might not have. Dystopian novels should give younger generations strength in the face of fear and give them motivation and hope to not allow the dystopia their books warn to ever occur.

Dystopian novels, particularly now, don’t need to give young adults love triangles to argue over and trivialize such serious topics. Young adults don’t need their dystopias watered down by cute love or what adults think they’ll like. They need commentary, truth, and strength.

And speaking of strength, what I am not saying is we need to get rid of strong dystopian heroines. Though my distaste with this movement, that is one thing I will never fault them. I have never been more proud as a genre’s success at making powerful, badass heroines. That is something I am not disheartening; I say ramp it up. Just maybe give less emphasis on a love story.

Or, if you do keep the romance, why not make it revolutionary? Our hero’s fighting to save her girlfriend because same-sex couples are illegal and she has been imprisoned. Our hero just has a nice steady boyfriend who supports her, but isn’t the main problem, just a source of balance for her as she saves the world. There are so many opportunities here that don’t need to be Romeo and Juliet or a “big-deal” love triangle.

Our dystopian novels don’t need to be tropes or stereotypes. They can be strong. They can have great, powerful messages. They can have heroines or heroes. I don’t hate the genre; I think it’s misused and misdirected, particularly now. The stereotypical female hero with a love triangle and also being the chosen one and saving the world and being tortured can’t cut it anymore. We shouldn’t let it cut it. We should want more; demand more. This genre deserves more than to just fall into the category of fad. Books like Ender’s Game and The Giver and even Hunger Games deserve more than being apart of a trend.  

The writers, the readers, everyone deserves more out of this genre. Now more than ever. Let the stereotypes and tropes that the past few years have built be our martyrs; let them die to grow a new YA dystopian genre that can make a grander difference. As we go through the next few years, let the burning of the genre’s shortcomings pave the way towards deep meanings, hard-worked passion, and a source of strength for all of us. If the stereotypical YA dystopian novel dies, this is what we might be able to get towards. So why not just let them burn to get to something stronger, better?

If we can do that, I think George Orwell would be damn proud.

Sincerely,

Stephanie Marceau     

Why Do We Love The Little Mermaid?

Now that we’ve all got this whole rhetoric thing together, what do we talk about? What do we question first?

Well in full, grandiose style, we’re starting out with a big hitter: Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Starting out with a funny thing to help explain things better is optimal, I’ve found. So think about that running Ariel joke on the internet where people say, “You know you’ve grown when Ariel says “I’m 16 years old! I’m not a child anymore!” and you agree with Triton”. That’s about where we’re going with this. So the thing we’re tackling is the new discussion that is cropping up as the children who grew up with The Little Mermaid start becoming adults: why does our protagonist, Ariel, never learn goddamn anything and seem stubborn? And stemming from that, what makes The Little Mermaid good regardless of that large, glaring, tremendous flaw?

Well as one of the kids who grew up with the movie and then found themselves hating it for a brief stint before talking to a film-junkie friend, I’m going to question just that. Why do we love The Little Mermaid even though Ariel is a needy, emotional teen who doesn’t really learn anything by the end?

So before we jump in there, we’ll need to talk about a minor rhetorical concept: static characters vs. dynamic character. A static character is a character who doesn’t change, but is used to move plot along or portray an idea or something of a similar sort. On the other end, a dynamic character is one who goes through a great inner change in perspective or outlook by the end of the story.

Now, by these definitions Ariel is clearly a static character representing rebellious teens. Therefore, I got upset. How can a story work well with no good protagonist going through a change? That’s when my aforementioned savvy film-friend swept in: It wasn’t Ariel that changed. It was her father. He is our dynamic protagonist.

Mind blown.

Of course, I’ve just thrown a big idea at you so I’m totally going to explain why this is such a cool concept and way to look at the story that will restore your faith in its importance and greatness.

Don’t worry, not here to nerd-splain everything to you like an un-asked for teacher. This is for my sake as much as yours. If I don’t get to explain all this jazz I’m out of a super-fun blogging stint so please, let me teach it to you with my lame-nerdy relishment and humor.

Off of the selfish tangent now. Back to the point.

There is a complete genius of this outlook on The Little Mermaid that makes the movie so much more intelligent, predicating on the ideas behind the meme I mentioned earlier. The movie has a perfect combination of meaningful adult appeal while also having great appeal for children.

You see, we agree with Ariel so much as children because all we want is all our dreams to come true. We want everything that sounds like the perfect life for us to happen. So Ariel, dreaming of the human world and later, love, and getting all of it in the end is a perfect wish-fulfillment for blooming adolescents. And it has the elements of conflict with adults, which is almost inevitable as a child, but then also the adult letting you go for your dreams, which gives a child more confidence and strength in their convictions. Ariel is the perfect epitome of an adolescent, dreaming of more than what reality tells them and be willing to do anything for those dreams.

Then Trition, our dynamic protagonist, struggles with the unusual dreams of his daughter. He represents almost every adult or parent, believing they “know better” for adolescents. But his violent vehemence for all the things his daughter loves only pushes her further away. And it’s not until the end, when he realizes the daughter he loves can never be happy without those dreams, that he grows, accepts her as an individual/young adult, and they understand and love each other more than ever before.  

And now to the evidence.

So, part one. For my evidence, assume Eric is more of a physical representation of all of Ariel’s hopes and dreams. Let’s be honest, there isn’t much substance to him as a character, so it makes sense for him to more be a beautiful representation than too much of a reality. And Ariel having to fight for her dreams (IE get him to kiss her even without all her possible resources) is her representation of a teen having to fight the lack of adult support or adult income to achieve what she wants more than anything else. But you know, without full resources and support, it’s really hard to get anything you want and work towards, hence why she loses Eric once. Yet once she gets more support and help, and eventually the final support of her father, she achieves her dreams (in the scenario, Eric).

My point basically is that The Little Mermaid is less of a romance and more of a story of teenage struggle to achieve dreams and the hard relationship between a blossoming young adult and their parent(s). Note, the title is The Little Mermaid while specific love stories, like Beauty and the Beast, are titled as such. It’s not The Little Mermaid and The Prince for a reason.  

Just try to think back. How many scenes did it go back to Triton to express his feelings about everything? We saw his rage at her defiance, his sadness missing her and wanting to find her, his melancholy acceptance that she never will be happy without her dreams. The only solo Eric scenes are for exposition, plot movement, or to talk about being with Ariel or not. The whole story is truly, really, about Ariel’s fight for her dreams and her relationship with Triton.

And finally the best evidence I could ever give. The last line of dialogue for the whole movie doesn’t involve Eric, even though the end scene is the wedding. The final words spoken, minus song singing, is Ariel and Triton reconciling, them embracing, and Ariel saying “I love you, Daddy”.

It’s crazy how it seems like our romantic lens of the movie can sometimes distract from the real movie below. I know that most of my life I thought of it as a romance, and the older I grew the more disenchanted I got the more I realized how it wasn’t very romantic and it barely seemed like a strong love story. I don’t know if it was me growing up in the society we have, where girls are all little princesses who love romances and boys are firemen with action stories, but it definitely deeply affected how I looked at the film for a large chunk of my life.

But after a lot of thought, it wasn’t a romance movie. It never was a story where the romance was the main point.

The Little Mermaid is a brilliant movie that walks the line between adolescent dreams and adult acceptance that all things grow and change, even if you don’t want them to. Especially your children and those you love. It has those great achieved dreams for dreaming kids, but then those important lessons for the adults watching, holding their kid’s hands. It’s so much more than you might think.

Everything’s a little more interesting when looked at a little differently, right?

Sincerely,

Stephanie Marceau

What Is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric.

I’m sure everyone has heard it at least 37,000 times in their Language Arts or English classes throughout high school. I’m also sure 90% of you didn’t know really what it meant at all. Don’t worry, until college I didn’t really either.

To start off our friendly weekly blog, I thought it would be good to discuss and digest the word, since it is in the title. Maybe we should know what we’re talking about before we go too deep.

Let’s start super analytical about it. As quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary, rhetoric is a noun that means: “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques”.

Well that sounds kind of completely boggling and hard to swallow, huh?

How about instead we water that down from hard, straight liquor to a nice, pleasing martini.

From what I’ve learned, rhetoric is basically everywhere. Yeah, I know, sounds vague as hell. But bear with me. Rhetoric is basically the meanings we associate with certain objects, colors, actions, etc. and how creators use those associations to make us think a certain way.

For example, an author wants you to feel like a scene is sad? Add some rain to that shit. Or an ad agency wants you to get hungry, they add red to their logos (trust me, there’s a whole psychological thing with red about hunger/sex and others fun things; here’s a link to one place that talks about it and other color psychologies. Feel free to look up more on your own).

Basically, the gist is that certain associations can make you think/feel a thing without just saying “this is sad” or “this should make you hungry”. And that’s what rhetoric is. The process of doing that.

Hence why I say that rhetoric is everywhere. Everything is a bunch of associations that makes people think things. In English classes, it sometimes can feel like rhetoric is a literature based concept, and restricted to the written word or other creative mediums.

Not true one bit. Rhetoric pops up everywhere, which is why its pretty cool to analyze how it works and what’s going on with associations and anomalies in stories. (And also makes writing a whole blog about something that’s  EVERYWHERE a little cheeky but like, genius of course.)

And that’s what we’re going to do here. We’re going to talk about those associations. Sometimes, why they work or don’t. Other times, why ones you wouldn’t expect do work or how sometimes people don’t pull them off. Or how sometimes people are tricked into thinking something is good because of clever rhetoric, or something good gets tanked because of a bit of bad rhetoric. Its all going to be a zany conglomeration of the sort.

But overall, the goal is for us (including me) to think about things in new ways. Asking questions is the best way to learn, so I’m going to work my damnedest to make you all annoying, brilliant, curious buggers. We’re going to question the world together and see where it takes us.

So, any questions?

Sincerely,

Stephanie Marceau