Blogger's Note: I posted this essay for the first time 3 years ago, but have decided to revamp and improve it
In the spirit of my love for edgy questioning, today we're talking about a book 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 something that's been upsetting book fans ever since Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was published: Why did no one suspect that Atticus Finch was racist?
Okay, perhaps not everyone is asking that. More people just denoted Go Set A Watchman as an unedited travesty to Harper Lee's good name. But if you look at the context of the book, there is a lot more wisdom to the story than one might think. Let's talk about some literary history.
When Harper Lee was looking to publish her first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird was not the manuscript she brought to her editor. What she offered was Go Set A Watchman itself. She wanted to tell the story of a disillusioned, progressive young woman going home and finding her ideals about her childhood to not be what they seemed; especially the father she idolized. In that story, Harper Lee included many flashbacks to that childhood to show they difference between Scout back then and Scout as an adult. When her editor read the story, she immediately noted that the childhood flashbacks were the most interesting part to read, and encouraged Harper Lee to go back and build a story around that time, instead.
And Harper Lee did. She shelved Go Set A Watchman and instead wrote what we all know now as To Kill A Mockingbird.
So, that kills the argument some people make about the book being an untrue version of Harper Lee's writing. She wasn't ill or aging when she wrote Go Set A Watchman; it was actually the reason To Kill A Mockingbird even happened. And no matter how much people hate it and pretend it didn't soil their perfect Atticus, it proves one very important point: no matter how much fans deny and complain, Atticus was always meant to be racist and they can't change that.
But what do I think about this strange turn of events, revealing Harper Lee's true intentions so many years later?
To get this anecdote out of the way, I will be honest: To Kill a Mockingbird was never my favorite. I was very aware of how well it was written and why it was a classic, of course. 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've never been made for mainstream.
But to the point. I am very aware of why and how this book is a classic, and agree that title is justly deserved. So, my arguments are in no way based on some personal dig. And honestly, I am far more impressed with Mockingbird's story after reading Go Set a Watchman than before. Why?
Because Harper Lee got everyone tricked into thinking just like little Scout in assuming Atticus Finch was the pinnacle of righteousness, which I never think he truly was. Especially not after reading Go Set A Watchman. 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. That's some impressive reader manipulation. No wonder people fall in love with a book that makes them believe in heroes even in the worst of times.
In defense of the haters, though, Go Set a Watchman needed some editing first before being thrust upon the public. It deserved to be cleaned up and polished when it has such powerful potential and it was squandered because publishers wanted to sell the "raw, unfiltered" version. After all, I truly believe that Watchman 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 tweaked for cleanliness and a modern audience, 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 lawfulness, and it’s the basis of every action he takes.
Through the case of Tom Robinson, Harper Lee masterfully portrays how Scout sees her father as a pillar of justice, goodness, and fairness for all. She convinces the readers to see like Scout by using her as the narrator of Atticus’ virtue. We as readers saw him as the superhero that Scout saw him as. No wonder anyone who fell in love with the book fell in love with him, because Scout loved him.
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 favoring the strong over the weak, something the book takes the time to point out. He calls Miss Maudie, their neighbor, one of the bravest women he ever met, dealing with her morphine addiction. Some people would only see the addiction and her unpleasant demeanor, but he values her ability to fight and survive, keeping up a proper, Southernly noble facade. If she seems tough and strong, she deserves his respect. Oppositely, he shoots the town dog, Tim Johnson, just for stumbling down the street and seeming sick. Sure, the dog is likely sick, but Atticus takes it upon himself to put the dog down because he looks weak. And weakness doesn't deserve respect, right?
In the case of Tom Robinson, it comes down to the same principles. Atticus likely did it more for his ideals of the law and strength, not because Tom was black and facing social injustice. Let's break the accusers and defenders down. Tom was a strong, hardworking man who was always polite no matter how people treated him. For a black man, he was exactly as a proper man should be. Meanwhile his accusers, the Ewells, were weak, mean, and low people. Though the Ewells were white, they treated others poorly, stole money, skipped school, and lived in a family cycle of abuse and suffering. Atticus defending, supporting, and believing in 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? And what if the Ewells had been less weak, low people?
What would have Atticus done then?
I think we all know that defending Tom Robinson wouldn't have been as easy for him.
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. Maybe Atticus believes a strong black man shouldn't go to jail for something he didn't do, but that doesn't mean he thinks he's good enough to be his equal. And To Kill A Mockingbird never said he would believe that, readers just assumed that it was implied.
Yet why did people uproar against Watchman's version of Atticus with such all-consuming rage? If the book expanded on his character in a logical way as he and his daughter aged, why did fans act like his racist reveal was some sort of betrayal?
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 that holds the key to why readers became so uproarious about Watchman. 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”. Johnson 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 emulate and idolize the characters/people who “prove” the mindsets behind phrases like “not all white people”, that means they can be good white people, too, right?
People reacted so violently to the truth that Atticus was racist because he, for a long time, was the pinnacle in people’s minds of justice, goodness, and white absolvement from racism. Atticus Finch comforted us to think “not all white people” and that racism was beyond us, but it isn’t. We all have cultural norms we have been raised with that we don’t think to question until they are questioned. Just look at the amount of white people who call the police because a black man is standing outside of his own apartment. We assume they look dangerous when they've done nothing wrong. That's not on them; it's on us. Us not be raging racists hurting minorities and calling them slurs doesn’t change the fact that our culture and society, since the conception of black slavery, has been insidiously riddled with racism.
The godly reverence of Atticus relates to people 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 within a community, but it doesn’t change the fact that certain groups are still being hurt by others. Trying to call yourself the exception or trying to be technical doesn’t help anyone but your own ego. Attacking the individual was never been the point of any social justice movement. 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 truth in To Kill a Mockingbird was not that this one white man lawyer tried really hard. It was that a black man was blamed for a white man abusing his daughter, yet the a town convicted and condemned him anyway. 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, the childhood perspective, 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”. To them, Atticus Finch couldn't be 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. That helped us 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 truth of racism is that everyone has it in them, simply from the way our society formed, now and then. The 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.
Atticus' white-centered society was still racist, even if they did some good things sometimes. The first step towards changing that is accepting that someone standing idle and shouting “not all white people” makes them apart 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 Finch is a fictional token our imperfect forefathers, the ones we never 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 never be enough. 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. It's us.