What Harper Lee Understood Sixty Years Ago (That America Still Isn't Ready to Hear)

Source: WSJ

Source: WSJ

"I don't want to read it," said my father when I showed him my copy of Go Set a Watchman. "I've read what they're saying about it, and...I don't want to read it." 

My father read me To Kill a Mockingbird when I was a little older than the novel's protagonist. I related to Scout’s tomboyish spunk and horror at the gradual unveiling of human nature, and I had an inkling even then that my father may have related to, or perhaps idolized, Atticus. I only realized later that sharing this book with me was not merely about a story he found interesting, but about imparting the values of kindness, courage, and integrity — values he saw in Atticus, which Go Set A Watchman was now threatening to take away from him. 


Others have pointed out that Watchman only confirms what critical race theorists have been saying for years: that Atticus was a racist all along, even in Mockingbird, even when he was Scout's hero — and ours.


The press has by now cycled through all possible reactions to Watchman's less reverent treatment of Atticus. The Onion's predictably hilarious highlights include "Atticus shocks readers as a white man who has become a conservative blowhard with age." NPR's Maureen Corrigan calls the novel's characterization of Atticus a "bizarre transformation." Joe Nocera, writing for the New York Times, even claims it's "silly" to view the two Atticuses as the same person. Others have pointed out that Watchman only confirms what critical race theorists have been saying for years: that Atticus was a racist all along, even in Mockingbird, even when he was Scout's hero — and ours. What is perhaps surprising even to them is the revelation that Harper Lee seems to have known it all along, too.

What Lee understood even in the 1950s, what a grown-up Scout (now Jean Louise) begins to discover in Watchman, and what most of white America still hasn't figured out, is that kindness and charity are not synonymous with, nor even acceptable substitutes for, justice and equality.

Six months ago, Starbucks and USA Today announced an astonishingly tone-deaf initiative that highlighted the disconnect between the problem of racism as it actually exists versus as it is perceived by well-meaning, well-off white liberals today. Called "Race Together," it involved the coffee company's mostly-white baristas attempting to engage their mostly-white customers in a conversation on race, while the newspaper published a special supplement with such helpful conversation-starters as “how have your racial views evolved from those of your parents?” and "In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race _____ times." These questions suggest that the problem of racism is not one of systemic inequality in which people of color are held back by barriers that are often invisible to white people, but merely one of ebony and ivory somehow failing in real life to live together in perfect harmony, like they do on the piano keyboard.


What we need to hear, as many times as it takes to get through, is that none of that changes the fact that we are afforded disproportionate power and protections at the expense of others who are just as good, and just as deserving.


Atticus Finch understood the difference between helping the downtrodden, as he does in Mockingbird, and actually permitting a disruption of the status quo, as he declines to do in Watchman. As a Depression-era widower raising his children with the help of his black housekeeper Calpurnia, he teaches his son not to shoot at mockingbirds. As Scout's trusted confidante Miss Maudie explains, "[m]ockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy...[t]hat's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." But when Jean Louise returns to her hometown as a young adult at the dawn of the civil rights movement, the mockingbirds have decided they'd like to do more than sing; they'd like a seat at the table. Now Atticus tells her "our Negro population is backward," "we're outnumbered here," and "they vote in blocs." In Watchman, the Tom Robinson trial has been replaced with one in which Atticus won an acquittal for a black man accused of raping a white woman. Now he agrees to represent Calpurnia's grandson, accused of vehicular manslaughter of a white man — but only to keep the NAACP from hiring a lawyer who won't talk him into taking a plea, and might fill the jury with other black men.

Perhaps Atticus realized that equality could lead to such things as increased competition for white-collar jobs such as his, and decreased availability of affordable, high-quality hired help, such as he had in Calpurnia (and such as many upper-middle class families still have thanks to continuing inequality and waves of desperate immigrants). Perhaps he had other reasons for wanting to hold onto his power, even as he exercised it with benevolence. Perhaps he realized that, without his privilege, there was no justice for him and his family to fall back on.


But if you're avoiding Watchman because you (like my father, and if I'm honest, like me, a little, at first) fear that it will topple one of your idols, I implore you to read it. It's important for us to see how racism can coexist with a multitude of likable, even admirable traits within a person, how it can lie dormant when that person's power is secure and allow that person to do good, and how, even then, it's still a problem we need to fix.


The thing about privileged white folks, we'd like everyone to know, is that we're not all bad. Some of us are even good. We pay our taxes and donate to charity and don't racially discriminate in our friendships or hiring decisions or jury verdicts. What we need to hear, as many times as it takes to get through, is that none of that changes the fact that we are afforded disproportionate power and protections at the expense of others who are just as good, and just as deserving. Even if we, as individuals, didn't do anything wrong, we owe it to our fellow human beings to recognize this system for what it is and try to make it right.   

If you're among those who noticed the ways Mockingbird's Atticus fell short of this moral duty the first time around, you may or may not be interested in seeing him through adult Jean Louise's more mature (but still limited) perspective. If you'd rather spend your time reading, say, a book about race by a woman of color who might have an even better perspective on such things, I'll gladly step aside. But if you're avoiding Watchman because you (like my father, and if I'm honest, like me, a little, at first) fear that it will topple one of your idols, I implore you to read it. It's important for us to see how racism can coexist with a multitude of likable, even admirable traits within a person, how it can lie dormant when that person's power is secure and allow that person to do good, and how, even then, it's still a problem we need to fix.

I'll keep working on my dad.