Harper Lee and the Myth of a Post-Racial America
On the Complicated Legacy of a Beloved Writer
The last year of Harper Lee’s life led the public through a maze of conflicting emotions. First there was the excitement about the new book, then the questions about whether Lee had really exercised her will in seeing Go Set a Watchman published, the reluctance to sully a classic with a mediocre sequel, and finally, the feelings of betrayal and shock at learning Atticus Finch’s true colors. But if we objected to the new Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, we knew that no one could go back and rewrite To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird, at least, was sacred. Or so we thought.
Prior to the release of Go Set a Watchman, very few bothered to question the heroic nature of Atticus, or to reevaluate the dated morality in To Kill a Mockingbird that had taught so many white children what it meant to be good white people. But since July of last year, many have turned a critical eye to this American institution that children have been taught since 1960. Catherine Nichols wrote for Jezebel that she re-read both books with one question on her mind: “Hasn’t it always been this way?” She concludes that, yes, Atticus Finch was always a racist, and a sexist to boot. The sum of a good person, in his eyes, was someone who was polite, chivalrous, and protective of the people who had been infantilized by society’s structures—there was no need for him to address the structures themselves. Nichols calls Atticus’s philosophy “the other American dream, which is the idea that a man can be the ultimate patriarch,” guiding everyone else out of “moral infancy.” Ultimately, she writes, “[To Kill a Mockingbird] is about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves.”
This investigation inevitably leads to further questions. First among them: Did Harper Lee ever consider Atticus a hero? Pre-Go Set a Watchman criticisms of Atticus generally considered it a foregone conclusion that Lee’s intentions were to hold Atticus up as a defender of justice. But the biting sarcasm and angst of Go Set a Watchman put all of that into doubt. As Nichols puts it, “The new book gives the impression that Lee knew what much of her audience didn’t: that her character’s principles didn’t constitute justice.” Go Set a Watchman led me to wonder if Lee wasn’t, in fact, a relic of antiquated progressivism, but a satirist so subtle that the moral of the story went right over our heads. Perhaps Lee was far more ahead of her time than we gave her credit for, and America was just too sick to see that Atticus was a clown. Perhaps Lee failed. Or perhaps we failed her.
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Sometime between the publication of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and, let’s say, the invention of Twitter, white Americans got the strange idea that ours was a “post-racial” society. This goes a long way toward explaining why To Kill a Mockingbird became a book that was so ubiquitously presented in literature classes; it served to congratulate Americans for the racist wrongs we had righted. In my experience, the book invoked in teachers a kind of nostalgia for the good fights our country once fought, but which, in their view, had been squared away long before my ungrateful generation arrived on the scene.
To Kill a Mockingbird seemed to usher in a new trend in Southern literature. It proved that a book could acknowledge and even condemn the South’s racist past and still be wildly commercially successful—provided it was just the right amount of progressive. The key to this was not to betray the central tenets of the post-racial delusion: 1) That racism was an American scourge that resided firmly in the past, and 2) That any remaining racism represented a personal, rather than a political, problem.
This trend has been pervasive among contemporary Southern writers for at least the last decade or two, particularly those who write the kind of upmarket, warm and fuzzy books that tend to become family-friendly movies. You know the ones. These writers set their stories in a pre-1970s South, and they mobilize the book’s setting toward an unsophisticated teachable moment, whether or not the plot revolves around racism. I can at least appreciate that by this point, everyone knows better than to write a book about the South without a single mention of race. But that’s about where my appreciation ends.
The problem with these books is that they depict racism through poorly developed characters who frequently resemble the hapless, blundering villains of a Warner Brothers cartoon. These fictional racists—always easy to identify—are incredibly problematic in their moral obviousness. They are flat characters, ridiculous yet innocuous: out-of-touch curmudgeons who inevitably get their comeuppance in some comic, poetic-justice kind of way, whether by eating literal shit or having ill-behaved children spoil their dinners. Then they are swiftly disposed of as characters for whom we, the enlightened readers, no longer have any use. They leave me waiting for the punch line in which some silly racist accidentally shoots himself with a rifle bent back on itself.
This device has served an important function for white post-To Kill a Mockingbird Southern writers: to establish the author as “not a racist” or, in some cases, to go ahead and get the whole race conversation over with entirely. To be clear, I don’t mean to raise hell about this because I wish that we would all have greater compassion for racists (I don’t), but because I feel that otherizing racists is a form of destructive escapism.
I understand where the urge comes from. I do. A lot of white people (and a lot of white Southerners, especially) want to remind everyone that not all of them are or were, even then, evil in the way you have to be to perpetuate racist systems. They want us to know that some white people objected to and even fought these systems (and, of course, this is true). So they use hyperbole to create stark contrasts between the right-thinking protagonists and the villains of the story. But by bracketing off racists—by participating in the “post-racial” delusion that certain long-dead and apparently extremely powerful psychopaths were exclusively responsible for the oppression of black people—we thwart our own development as a society in two ways.
First, we allow ourselves to forget the inconvenient truth that racists can also be war heroes, loving mothers, charitable neighbors, or good friends to select people in their communities. For many white folks, racists are not in fact an “other”; some of us share a Thanksgiving table with them. When we tell ourselves that we have seen the true villains—the ones who burn crosses—and these family members certainly are not that, we excuse ourselves from confronting the ways in which we act as apologists, implicitly condoning modern racism. Secondly, the post-racial delusion exempts us from the soul-searching work required to identify and defeat the insidious effects of institutionalized racism, past and present. By viewing it as a personal issue, confined to other kinds of white people against whom we are set in relief, we dismiss a system that is structurally organized to keep black people marginalized.
In To Kill a Mockingbird Lee seemed to make it her personal mission to vindicate upstanding Southern citizens by passing the baton of guilt along to an “other”—in her case, poor, lower-class, “white trash” Southerners. Malcolm Gladwell said it best in a New Yorker article that describes how Lee’s characters traded prejudice against blacks for prejudice against poor whites—a strategy often used in the media and pop culture, as well as in real life, to absolve Southerners as a larger group. He writes: “The Ewells are trash. When the defense insinuates that Mayella is the victim of incest at the hands of her father, it is not to make her a sympathetic figure. It is, in the eugenicist spirit of the times, to impugn her credibility—to do what A. A. Sizer did in the John Mays case: The victim, coming from the same inferior stock, would likely share her father’s moral character.”
But when reading Go Set a Watchman, one does not get the sense that Lee herself ever meant to condemn poor whites specifically. Jean-Louise (Scout) Finch, who, like Lee herself, grew up and moved to New York, seems to be the singular voice of reason in her hometown. She has been sufficiently enlightened by the Yankees, or by her urbane city life, to understand that integration is the just path for the United States, and she is heartbroken by her father’s continued support of segregation. In fact, had To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus never existed, readers of Go Set a Watchman might have believed that the whole aim of her book was to denounce the South in its entirety, placing the blame squarely on its shoulders in much the same way that many real-life Americans do. This sheds new light on something I thought I’d understood about To Kill a Mockingbird and has caused me to rethink what I had previously believed Lee’s intent to be. I’m no longer sure that Lee was all too interested in absolving the South; I think Lee was interested in absolving herself.
And yet—can you even imagine?—the writers she influenced continued in a tradition she may never have meant to start in the first place: using Southern nostalgia to rewrite racial history.
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The clumsy way in which many contemporary Southern writers discuss race reminds me of a theory I once heard: that Southern literature died in 1962 when William Faulkner, the great master of ambiguity, did. Certainly no white writer since has portrayed the complexities of Southern race relations with the same skill. Faulkner’s characters were often conflicted people whose morality had a tendency to crack under pressure. They all fell into some sort of gray area between good and evil—not unlike my own grandmother, who did not want to think of herself as a racist but who nevertheless needed to know, “Was he black?” when I told her my house had been broken into. Faulkner also employed characters whose race was unclear as a comment on the constructedness of race that still highlighted the grave social consequence of it. He treated the legacy of slavery in the postbellum South with unrivaled nuance, and he looked upon racism as a structural, haunting, pervasive, and sometimes invisible evil.
Perhaps Faulkner brought such nuance to his discussion of race because he himself was conflicted. As John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “Absalom, Absalom! has been well described as the most serious attempt by any white writer to confront the problem of race in America. There is bravery in Faulkner’s decision to dig into this wound. He knew that the effort would involve the exposure of his own mind, dark as it often was.”
“I don’t like forced integration any more than I like enforced segregation,” the Virginia Quarterly Review Online quotes Faulkner as saying in a London Sunday Times interview (though he later disputed some of the quotes). “If I have to choose between the United States government and Mississippi, then I’ll choose Mississippi… But if it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi and against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.”
Those who have read Go Set a Watchman will no doubt recognize this argument for state’s rights as the same one for which Atticus Finch advocates, much to the dismay of his daughter. But this book begs to be understood within the context of its writing and publishing. It is popularly believed that Harper Lee modeled the Atticus character after her own father, who at the time she was writing Go Set a Watchman supported segregation, and that the character evolved into the more progressive one we know from To Kill a Mockingbird in step with Lee’s father. Still, the resulting impression on the reader is that of a hypocritical, disappointing hero. Much like Faulkner in his remarks to the VQR, Atticus leaves us confused, betrayed, and heartbroken as we discover the limits of his conscience. In a way, our experience of reading these books mirrors that of Scout; we grow up and find our childish illusions violently destroyed.
I understand the deep sadness felt in response to the moral failings of Atticus, erstwhile “great American hero,” though I challenge the notion that he was one to begin with. But it is such a good thing! There’s hope in the prospect of Southern literature maturing past its Cold War-era morality and recognizing that in real life, our consciences are limited too. This reminds us that the “right thing” is not always clearly illuminated, in literature or in life. Huck Finn debated long and hard about whether he would turn in Jim, and even when he decides not to, his reason for doing so wasn’t exactly noble. Real white Southerners who would have never participated in the lynching of a black man were not necessarily supportive of integration. And these moral crises don’t reside comfortably in the past. Contemporary progressives who would never dream of voting to register Muslims are not necessarily supportive of “Black Lives Matter.” Truly complex, challenging characters and storylines are those that don’t flinch from engaging with the United States’ continued legacy of racism. That Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird endures as the quintessentially Southern work that everyone “must read” is frustratingly representative of the binary way that many white Americans insist on thinking about what a racist does and does not look like.
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One cannot help but marvel at the timing of all this. Go Set a Watchman came to us in an Internet-age, a post-post-racial moment, when the discussion of racism has reached an unprecedented pitch, and many white Americans have finally realized that we have not, in fact, put these issues behind us. We are not okay. Just as Go Set a Watchman forced us to revisit the simplistic morality of To Kill a Mockingbird, so has it forced white readers to reconsider the reality of race relations in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. Go Set a Watchman‘s more contemporary setting and delayed release have made it a useful postscript to the popular American narrative around racism: that once upon a time, good triumphed over evil.
I confess to feeling hopeful about the impact of the book on the American psyche, if we let it. Accidentally or not, Go Set a Watchman is a visceral reminder that we cannot keep celebrating our progress and ignoring the road ahead. If we’re lucky, it will bookend a naïve era in Southern literature.
In light of this past year’s developments, it remains to be seen how we will remember Harper Lee. There’s no doubt that her legacy has been dramatically altered. But now that we lack the opportunity to ask her exactly what was on her mind, we can never know if she was, in fact, laughing at us the whole time. Regardless of Lee’s personal views, one thing is clear: with Go Set a Watchman, she forced a sustained national discussion on race.