Go Set a Watchman…To Kill a Mockingbird…and Me

So, today Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” has been released.

Ms. Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has long been an important book to me. So, I was crushed to read a NY Times article which stated that, in “Go Set a Watchman” Atticus Finch turns out to be an unrepentant racist and segregationist. This broke my heart and, at least for the time being, I won’t be reading it.

Unlike some, I don’t feel betrayed or let down by Ms. Lee — “GSAW” is essentially the first draft of what later became TKAM, and Atticus and the other characters belong to her to do with as she will. Ms. Lee allowed us to get to know her characters and for that I will always be grateful.

It’s just that, for me, this new turn of events puts a dent in something very important to me.

I have never seen Atticus Finch as a completely perfect, not racist person. I have always felt that, even with his noble defense in TKAM, that there were some teasings of racial inequality in his beliefs — he harbors a very paternalistic view of black people in TKAM. It’s just…Atticus was the perfect representation something that was so important for me to believe exists.I know that many people have said and will say that GSAW adds complexity to the character and that is true. However, on the subject of white people and racism…complexity is not something I crave or need.

I KNOW about the complexity of racism. I have no choice but to know about it. I have lived it every day of my life and will continue to live it until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil. I dealt with it in high school with white friends who refused to date black people and who said I couldn’t come to their house. I’ve seen it in dudes who have told me, with a straight face, that I was pretty for a black girl and from people who swore up and down that they harbored no racist views, but couldn’t believe that I speak multiple languages.

The complexity of racism exhausts me.

Atticus Finch was so important to me because he represented what I needed to exist: well meaning white folks who do believe in equality and justice, but have some problematic beliefs and behaviors.

Those sorts of people are so important. Why? Because it’s so much easier to affect them and nudge them towards a greater understanding of racial equality and of the minority experience.

That is important.

Talking to a dyed in the wool, hardcore racist is like shouting at a brick wall – nothing’s gonna get through. Sure, every now and then, you might get a little nugget of information into one of them, but it’s few and far between and it’s like pulling teeth. The well meaning white folks who have some backwards beliefs, though? They’re more likely to listen because they’re more likely to willingly spend time with you in the first place. They are more likely to listen to what you have to say because they’re more likely to believe you have something worth saying. They are more likely to listen because they are more likely to want to understand.

I have to believe that those sorts of people exist. I need those people to exist.

I would love, love, love for people to be true believers in racial equality and to be completely unfettered by any racist ideas or beliefs. I also know that is a pipe dream and that, while there are those who fit that description, the vast majority of people do not. And I cannot deal with a world where hardcore racist outnumber everyone else. It’s too exhausting.

So, I need the middle road. And I need those people to be there and I need those people to listen and learn. I need that because, sadly, we need those people in order to make strides towards racial equality in this country. We black folks can keep shouting from the roof tops – and we always, always will – but, let’s face it — politicians don’t take us seriously about our community’s struggles ’til white people get involved to. And those white folks who are true, unabashed believers in equality? They get listened to more than us, but not truly enough – some people just brush them off and act as if the only reason they care is because they want to be black or something. So we need those middle road people. We need those people to learn and have their eyes opened a bit more than they are and help us to affect change.

I always thought of Atticus Finch in that manner – fair or otherwise. And it never failed to dawn on me that TKAM is, for many white children/teens, the first time they have read about racism in a story and not from history lessons. TKAM is the first time they are asked to imagine and empathize with characters and to imagine a narrative including racism.

And it’s the first time they are asked to analyze a text which includes racism.

I have always thought it was important because, often, Atticus Finch, is the first white character white kids are expected to read who has the same sort of view and response to race as they and their parents to – that middle of the roadness.

And I found it important for black kids like me, because it’s one of the first times we see a white character talks about racism, who isn’t perfect, who has some problematic ideas, but who cares enough to try and help.

I think that’s hugely important. For a lot of kids, reading TKAM in school is the first time they have a discussion about racism that’s not just about historical facts.

Atticus Finch is an important part of that, I think.

For me, he doesn’t represent anti-racism. For me, Atticus gave me hope.

Hope that there are those in the middle. Hope that those in the middle can be taught.

And hope that, together, we might be able to change things.

I realize, of course, that the weight I put on TKAM and Atticus Finch was not Ms. Lee’s doing – that it was mine. But for some reason, even though you know a book and character belong to the artist that created them, it can be difficult to not to see them as “yours”, especially if they comforted you through a tough time or represented something important to you.

Perhaps, in time, I will read “Go Set a Watchman”. I hope I do. Now, though, I think I first need to mourn an ideal that I created for myself after reading To Kill a Mockingbird.