This book sat on my coffee table for a week. I was too scared to read it.
As I have written previously, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee is one of my all-time favourite books.
And I had heard of the controversy surrounding the release of ‘Go Set a Watchman’.
I was concerned with the suggestion that she had not given full permission to have the book published; that she was a victim of greedy publishers taking advantage of her age and the possibility that she is not mentally well enough to give her permission. After all, she had said she would never publish another book.
There were also reports that the Atticus in this pre-sequel was not the champion asserted in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Did I really want to lose my hero in Atticus?
But I have finally taking up the courage to read it. And yes, the Atticus in it is racist.
When Scout (Jean Louise) returns to her home town of Maycomb, she learns that boyfriend and father are active in anti-NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) organisations.
This new book has allowed me to revisit ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and examine its racism.
Atticus is portrayed as a good man – a good, white, middle class man in Southern America in the 1930’s. Being racist at this time was the norm. And Atticus does the right thing in defending a black man against rape charges that are obviously wrong.
His defence in ‘Go Set a Watchman’ against Jean Louise’s accusations of racism are that the:
“Negro population is backward”
“You understand that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?”
“Do you want them in our world?”
Paternalistic and racist.
But let us get back to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Jean Louise is right when she says:
“I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief – nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.”
Catherine Nichols writes an interesting article in Jezebel about this. She claims that Atticus and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has always been racist.
“It’s about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves.”
Ursula Le Guin has a kinder take on it:
“Atticus hasn’t changed. We saw him through his young daughter’s eyes as faultless. Now, seen by his grown daughter, we can see him as imperfect: a good man who, being fully committed to living, working, and having friends in an unjust society, makes the compromises and performs the hypocrisies required of its members. He’s a lawyer — not a judge — with a lawyer’s complex relationship to justice.”
I worry that we will see Atticus and Scout as being of a different era, when racism was acceptable and the norm.
But it is wise to remember. Black people are still being shot and killed in America – by state-sanctioned authorities. The ideology behind Atticus and the people of Maycomb still exist.
It is also this ideology that exists in Australian society towards our Indigenous people
As Stephanie Convery writes in Overland:
“In the last decade alone, remote Indigenous Australian communities have been subjected to military intervention, alcohol bans, pornography bans and restricted internet access (remember that internet filter we’ve been fighting for years? All computers provided by any organisation in controlled areas that received public funding had a mandatory internet filter installed as part of the Intervention). Plus welfare recipients in many communities had their income contingent on their kids attending school, and then restricted by the paternalistic Basics Card which allows purchases of particular goods only from particular retailers.”
‘What’s important,’ said our esteemed Prime Minister in response to all of this, ‘is that we ensure that remote communities, all communities, are being properly policed.’
“Right. ‘Policed.’ There has been a 57 per cent rise in Indigenous incarceration in the last fifteen years. This time last year, 27 per cent of the imprisoned population was Indigenous despite Indigenous people making up a little over 2 per cent of the adult population in the country. Not a single police officer has ever been convicted for one Indigenous death in custody (there have been over 1400 of those since 1980). Just last week saw the anniversary of the death of a 22-year-old Indigenous woman after being jailed for the heinous crime of unpaid parking fines. I’d say there’s more than enough ‘policing’ happening.”
I will still continue to read and enjoy ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – but with more knowledge and awareness – and with a more appreciated understanding of Jean Louise. Because she, and Harper Lee as her narrator, become the heroes in these stories.
As Ursula Le Guin writes:
“So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.
Little white lies . . . North or South, they’re White lies. But not little ones.
Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.”
My next post will continue with Scout and how we can be proud of the woman she has become.