By Kay Whitlock
This is the second part of the two-part discussion of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman begun on July 17 with Michael Bronski's blog piece.
What is always at stake in a contest of imaginations is the question of whose lives matter.
It’s been so long since we’ve caught up with Atticus Finch—a little more than half a century if you count the time between books. It is now the 1950s, twenty years later, and his daughter Jean Louise—Scout—twenty-six years old and living in New York City, returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit.
And despite the passage of time he really hasn’t changed at all. Despite what some sensation-seeking book reviewers, shocked readers, and disoriented English teachers will tell you, he’s pretty much the same man he always was. We finally have his backstory in print.
He’s older, has rheumatoid arthritis, and is grooming a successor to his legal practice. Atticus Finch hasn’t morphed from a champion of racial justice to a racist. That he’d long made a comfortable peace with white supremacy was there from the moment Lee’s now classic To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. Despite defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, against a false accusation of rape made by a white woman, he was at home with structural Jim Crow. This was never stated but permeated the story without being critically noted by the author—or countless readers—in any obvious way.
It was a distorted reflection from the start. Harper Lee, an unintentional trickster, has pulled the rug out from under delusional feet with the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman, which apparently was the 1957 first draft of what would soon become, under skillful editorial guidance, Mockingbird. In Watchman (written before Mockingbird), Lee reveals Atticus to be a firm believer in race-based eugenics and once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, though his legal protégé says he only did it to keep an eye on others. He believes that Black people are invading white worlds. He takes up the defense of his former (African American) housekeeper Calpurnia’s grandson, charged in the accidental death of a white man, so that the NAACP—Atticus despises them as “buzzards” who rely on Federal courts for support—won’t come in and stir things up. He’s a leading member of Maycomb’s (white) Citizens’ Council.
The citizens’ councils, initiated in 1954 in Mississippi, were community organizations through which respected business leaders and other professionals worked to prevent the desegregation of public schools mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. While the councils foreswore violence, informally they encouraged it, and some of its members were directly involved in violent racial intimidation and murder.
Deeply shaken and filled with anguish by what she learns, Jean Louise wonders how she could not have known.
Harper Lee says that Jean Louise didn’t know because she was “color blind.” Michael Bronski and I posit a different point of view in our book Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness and Justice in American Culture and Politics.
Racist violence is usually depicted as irrational, vicious outbursts—the work of extremists and bigots—that suddenly erupt and then disappear as reason, reasonable people, and the reliable moderate center reassert themselves. This false narrative underlies structural racism, permitting so many people, especially white people, a self-awarded moral exemption from any responsibility for it.
Violent episodes do erupt, but are neither irrational nor aberrant. They arise from the bedrock of respectable white supremacist ideology, assumptions, and fears that permeate the policies and practices of mainstream public and private institution. Most of the time, the dominant, white American imagination cannot or refuses to recognize structural racism as violence at all.
Most white Americans would oppose lynching on principle, especially if we believe that lynching as a widespread practice is in the past. But do we recognize “stand your ground” laws as a pretext that often justifies the extrajudicial killing of people of color by angry, fearful white people? Do we recognize the apparently endless stream of police extrajudicial executions of black women and men, including youth, as modern day lynching? Do we understand the historically constant abusive policing of Black bodies, lives, and communities—in formal and informal ways—as a violent, commonplace expression of white supremacy? Do we think of other ways in which structural racism limits the life chances of Black people? Do we understand the cumulative and continuing impacts of eugenics on Black lives? How about persistent patterns of school resegregation?
Who, then, is responsible for addressing and preventing massive kinds of harm? Who is responsible for dismantling the policies, practices, and structures that produce it?
The most common response to these questions entails people proclaiming, “not me,” quickly followed by public displays of outrage, always directed against others. Most people refuse to engage with these questions in any substantive moral way…an act of violence that receives sensationalized media coverage is, to many, more horrible than other forms of violence that harm, or even kill, a thousand nameless people. When people acknowledge the existence of mass violence, they seldom grapple with the question of responsibility, which is often wrongly reduced to a question of legal culpability. In a culture that articulates a sharp division between good guys and bad guys, where almost everyone identifies as the former, this makes perfect sense. The hate frame allows people to morally disengage from considering how they are implicated in harming others.
In Watchman, the hedged answer to the question of responsibility is: “Not Atticus.” Jean Louise will ultimately accommodate herself to his racism, though she is not reconciled to all of his beliefs. But she still fashions him as one of the really good guys. And in many respects—as a loving father, at least—he is.
This is what happens when we attribute structural violence to the hatred of “extremists” and “monsters.” In reality, good, respectable people are responsible for the structural violence inflicted on Black people and other marginalized communities in the United States.
Faced with irrefutable evidence of her father's lifelong white supremacist convictions, Jean Louise is initially not only shocked but infuriated. Similarly, many readers who loved Mockingbird may recoil at the awareness that older Atticus, who regards Black people as children incapable of exercising full civil rights, is the same guy they first met.
But he is. Atticus is always with us. Now he provides us with a complicated and painfully honest reflection of the normalcy of white supremacy.
The “good guys”—including you and I—are implicated in very dirty work, even if our complicity is sometimes tacit or inadvertent. It will take new forms of civic and cultural imagination and a new sense of collective responsibility, one that actively dismantles social and economic structures that produce systemic violence and injustice, to change that.
About the Author
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.