Sunday, September 6, 2015

Go Set This

I listened on BBC Radio to a reading of the best selling "Go Set A Watchman," supposedly written by Harper Lee. She is now in a nursing home, prohibited from speaking publicly about herself or her work. This "new" book was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird," everyone's favorite book, made into everyone's favorite movie.
I love both. The book is so reminiscent of my own childhood in Georgia, l lived at the same time as the period in the book, the thirties. When they made the movie, the houses and the street looked like the neighborhood I'd lived in. I knew what everything felt like, smelled like and sounded like. When my own children were young and saw the movie, they identified Atticus Finch with their own father, who had died so young, and they were right. John Burnell was tall and slender and wore dark-rimmed glasses. He was a gentle, kind and honest person. He also was a staunch civil rights oriented person, a sociology professor who was denied tenure at a small liberal arts college for leading a student protest against discrimination at a local skating rink, a protest which made the front page of the twin paper, thus angering the college president, a Southerner who was not happy about the burgeoning civil rights activities going on at that time. ( The college was in the North.) john continued his actions for justice here at Kent State, which also caused  some administrators to chastise him and other young professors over housing discrimination. He was far from a rabble rouser, but a quiet man who used logic and persuasive techniques. For this reason, his children, a couple of whom did not get to know him, found Atticus the  personification, or the essence of their father.  I suspect that there are many others even those who grew up with their fathers, who see Atticus Finch as a significant figure.
This leads me to "Watchman."  The first word out was the somewhat hysterical news that in this book, Atticus is a racist!  Good grief! The man who bravely defended Tom Robinson?
Well, let me tell you how I see this book. My friend Annie called it preachy, and it is. What it preaches, as Atticus and Jean Louise's uncle are preaching is the tiresome whine in the 50s by the entitled, genteel whites of the South is this: " our way of life, the rules we have lived by for generations, are not ready for the changes being forced upon us. The Negro is  not ready for what they are demanding. Surely you can see that, Jean Louise? Changes will come, but we must move slowly."
Now that's the kind of thing one heard over and over from that class of white Southern men. Lee ( or whoever wrote this thing)' does throw in a non-elite lawyer who grew up a Cracker, but he has also bought into white supremacy, and cautions Jean Louise, who has been white hot with anger after finding out that Atticus had attended a White Citizen's Council meeting, which he explains he did to know what people's concerns were. Atticus also claims that the Klan started out as some kind of civic organization. Really?!!  Where'd that come from?  These three men all carefully explain to the former Scout that they are just going to make sure that everyone is "ready."
It doesn't seem to occur to them there are Southerners who have been waiting for over a hundred years or more for full citizenship of a country they've helped to build, have worked in servitude, have helped to shape the culture of the South. No, the white folks are just not ready. At the time this attitude infuriated many of us, and now here comes this book which the publishers wisely rejected, with the advice to Lee that she focus on the earlier story of Atticus and the children and his heroic action in a small Alabama town in the 30s. It's a good thing they did, or Harper Lee would have been blasted as an apologist for segregation and racial inequality and we would not have the magic of "To Kil a Mockingbird."
So was Atticus a racist? You bet, but not the kind you identify with lynching and burning Black churches. Even worse, he and his kind were the very ones who could have changed things much earlier, but didn't, and then decried the efforts that rose from the Black activists.
Sorry, Harper Lee.

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