Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Atticus

It's always hard when we realize that our heroes are flawed. Or that there exists, in some alternate universe, the possibility that they could be flawed.

I've been binge-watching season one of The Flash, which deals with this theme a lot, as many superhero stories tend to do: how to figure out who the good guy is, and who the bad guy is. What to do, when it turns out the lines between the two are blurred. There is a character that seems to be good, but turns out to have been the Big Bad all along.

I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird in a long, long time. And, I haven't read To Set a Watchman at all.

Five years ago I read a post on Stuff White People Do, that changed the way I think about To Kill a Mockingbird in a very dramatic and devastating way. Macon, the author of the now on-hiatus blog, is lifting up a critique of the book that was levied by academic Isaac Saney in his 2003 article The Case Against To Kill a Mockingbird, published in the journal Race and Class. Saney is working off of efforts by African Nova Scotians to ban To Kill a Mockingbird because they read it as a racist book.

That's right - not the new book, where the central character is openly racist, but the old book. The one with the Atticus Finch that we all love so much.

Saney's case is basically this: yes, Atticus Finch is portrayed as noble, moral and upright. But there were not many white people who behaved in this way, in that time. Maybe there weren't any. To write a story about one fictional white man who did stand up against white supremacy erases the reality of the vast majority of white people who not only didn't resist but stood in solidarity against recognizing the full humanity of their black brothers and sisters.  Saney looks at how the black people in the book are presented and sees people without agency, victims waiting for the efforts of a White Savior. Even the title suggests that black people are useful, harmless pets. Mockingbirds. And finally, he notes that in reality it was not the heroism of white people that brought civil rights to black people, but the willingness of black heroes to march, fight, sacrifice, and risk.

When I first read that blog, and article, I agreed.

Then the last few years happened, and I agreed even more. Black men still die at the hands of white men who hate and fear them, without repercussion.

So I've been reading through the reviews, and the astonishment, with the release of To Set a Watchman. And it seems to me that while it might be hard to read a version of Atticus Finch that is openly, horrifyingly racist, there is also something that feels right about that. The first Atticus is a myth, and a damaging one. This Atticus, perhaps, is something closer to real life. This one really lived, in many, many regular white men all over our country then. And he still lives now.

To Set A Watchman sounds more realistic than it's beloved cousin. Reviewers say it is less satisfying, more disturbing, not as well done.

That's probably all true. I lost my love for Atticus several years ago. So, for me, there is something satisfying about learning that before she wrote him perfect, Harper Lee tried to write him real.

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