Harper Lee Strikes a Nerve

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tags: racism, Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, To Kill a Mockingbird

Paul Ortiz is Director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, Gainesville. 

The furor resulting from the release of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman reveals much about the state of race relations in the United States. Lee’s first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, introduced three unforgettable characters: Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, her brother Jem, and their father, the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch—the latter memorably portrayed by Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of the book.

Mockingbird unfolded in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. It lovingly portrayed the growth of Jem and Scout as well as their father’s valiant but doomed defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Go Set A Watchman opens with a twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise returning from New York City to visit her family in Maycomb after a long absence.

To Kill A Mockingbird has been embraced by millions since it was published in 1960. In contrast, Watchman has been met with hostility. The New York Times has given substantial column space to writers who have taken turns savaging the novel. One review claimed that Watchman is “a distressing narrative filled with characters.” Times columnist Joe Nocera sees the devious hand of a Rupert Murdoch conspiracy behind publication of the book.

Let’s be honest: what makes readers uneasy about Go Set a Watchman is the fact that Harper Lee unceremoniously pulls Atticus Finch down from the lofty moral perch upon which Scout and generations of readers had placed him. It turns out that the real lawyer Finch cannot serve as the conscience of the nation—or even that of his small, southern town. In one of the most poignant scenes in American literature, a twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch ascends the courthouse balcony to view her aging father presiding not in front of jury, but over a meeting of the White Citizens’ Council!

Leaving the Maycomb courthouse in tears, Jean Louise makes an equally disturbing discovery. She goes to visit Calpurnia, known to the Finch family as “Cal,” the family’s African American servant who raised Jem and Scott from the time their mother passed away. By this time, Calpurnia (we never learn her surname) is retired. We are led to understand that she is now a very old woman—in Mockingbird she appeared to be ageless.

It becomes apparent that Jean Louise is desperately seeking affirmation from the woman who sacrificed so much of her own family’s emotional life to raise her and her brother. But the aged Calpurnia refuses. She greets Scout’s entreaties with a dignified silence. In a heartbreaking sequence—we mourn more for Calpurnia, her body broken by years of service—Scout asks the only mother she’s ever really had: “Tell me one thing, Cal…just one thing before I go—please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?” Calpurnia’s answer will stop your heart.

It is at this point that that Harper Lee speaks what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the rude truth” to her audience. What has allowed Scout to be ignorant of the suffering around her all these years? What prevented her from realizing that her father was just as flawed as his kinsmen?

Throughout history white Americans have often boasted that they “do not see color, just the individual,” as a way to say that they are not racist. But Harper Lee depicts color blindness as the debilitating lie that Scout has been hiding behind all of her life. It has stunted her development, and inured her to the suffering of others. “Had she insight,” Harper Lee says after the courtroom incident, “could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.”

To Kill A Mockingbird allowed readers to quarantine racism to a small, ignorant southern town. Maycomb is depicted by Lee in the first novel as an inbred, vicious place run by selfish, untrustworthy white people. Watchman however, argues that racism is as pervasive in New York City as it is in the South. Jean Louise Finch learned nothing in New York that would help her understand African Americans, meet them as equals, or even to grapple with the fact that her father is a leader of the White Citizens Council. (Presumably, her New York friends were also color blind.)

In Watchman,Lee erases the distance between the reader and problem at the heart of the story, racism, and forces us to deal with it in ways that we did not in To Kill A Mockingbird

Uncle Jack—Atticus’s brother—begs Jean Louise to understand that she cannot grow emotionally and face the social problems of her time unless she accepts the reality that Atticus Finch has “a man’s heart, and a man’s failings.” Didn’t Atticus warn in Mockingbird that, “I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin,” a real-life politician who was a notorious bigot? Didn’t Atticus remind us that he was forced into defending an obviously innocent Tom Robinson by the local judge? Harper Lee suggests that that there are no shining knights coming to rescue us from our self-inflicted dilemmas.

Jean Louise Finch’s innocence and color blindness is ours, and we must own up to it before we inflict more suffering on others. Every week, black men or poor white defendants—the Tom Robinson’s of our time—are exonerated after years on death row or decades wasted in prison after he was convicted by a jury “of his peers.” We blame new immigrants for old social problems that we created, and then we cheer men who talk of taking vengeance on powerless people who do not even have the right to vote.

We have set the bar so low on the meaning of equal justice that when a man walks into a church and murders nine African Americans in order to start a “race war” our opinion leaders are not sure the man is a racist! We’ve woefully regressed when one of the nation’s leading historians, in the New York Times, claims that the United States Constitution was a “repudiation” of slavery.

Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman troubles us because it is a pointed reminder that we cannot shrug off our history so easily; the novel’s appearance at a time when many of our youth are in the streets demanding justice is a perfect reminder that we have much work to do yet.

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