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Waiting for the new Atticus Finch

Not everyone is surprised by the complexity of the white savior

July 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

I have not read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” Along with millions of other Americans, I await its release today. It’s the most preordered book on Amazon since J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” There’s something in that: Both are fantasies; both deal with love, death, sacrifice and redemption; and both appeal to a strain of heroism as hoary as King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.

“Go Set a Watchman” was submitted to publishers in 1957, was returned to Lee for editing and then resulted in her instead writing “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), a best-seller that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. What has most upset critics about the new (actually old) book, kept buried until now, is the supplanting of the liberal lawyer Atticus Finch by an older, disgruntled Atticus who belongs to the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan. The sullying of his image has been the subject of numerous articles. How could Atticus, called a “nigger lover” by some in Lee’s fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, deem blacks too “backward” to “share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship?” How could the man The New York Times (“Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side”) describes as “kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity ” and the “enlightened almost saintly believer in justice and fairness” be a racist?

Some folks just can’t believe that such a principled idealist turns out to have been a character originally conceived as a segregationist. So we are warned that readers will be horrified and shocked to read Lee’s long-awaited novel. But wait a minute: Only the privileged white reader will feel horror, since only they have the leisure to believe in saints. The oppressed and excluded know better. African-American writers and scholars always knew better.

In an interview earlier this year, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison called this fiction, a “white savior” narrative, “one of those” that turned blacks into passive recipients, mere onlookers in their fight for equality. Set in 1930s Alabama during the Great Depression and published with the worst excesses of Southern racists, especially in Birmingham, all over the news, “To Kill a Mockingbird” reframed the civil rights struggle so that whites were always in charge, with blacks humbly in tow.

The popularity and heart-warming poignancy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” buries the very real activism and resistance of black citizens in Alabama and throughout the South right at the time that Lee wrote her story. Its publication made invisible the very people it claimed to care about.

In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago was beaten, shot and lynched by whites for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a Mississippi store. Alabama was the scene of some of the most significant struggles in the civil rights movement. In 1956 Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white man. So began the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King Jr. The same year, King’s home was fire-bombed by local segregationists. White rioters at the University of Alabama became so murderous that Autherine Juanita Lucy, its first black student, was forced to leave the campus. Ordered by the courts to be readmitted, she was then expelled by trustees. Nearly a year later, the city of Montgomery decided to comply with a Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation in buses illegal.

Surely a writer must be excused for leaving out historical events in favor of a less exacting but lyrically powerful story that harkens to the Scottsboro Boys, nine blacks falsely charged with raping two white women in Alabama. But the story of a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by a white-trash woman plays into stereotypes as powerful as they are long lasting. Though defended by Atticus and presented movingly by Harper Lee, Robinson remains a victim, a cipher caught in the cauldron of hate. That is why “To Kill a Mockingbird” is acclaimed as a classic American novel. In this country, especially in the 1960s, could a novel about black people who do not go gently into the night be called classic? 

Whether Atticus Finch is a fallen hero should not matter. Not now.

Now with all the hand wringing about a noble Atticus gone sour, I realize how necessary is his idealized goodness to well-meaning, supposedly liberal whites. If there’s one good white man fighting the good fight, no matter how many black people are threatened or killed, then there’s hope still for America. But ultimately we must ask: Is it really so surprising that the saintly lawyer emerges as a white-haired bigot?

The courtroom scenes of “To Kill a Mockingbird, so loved by lawyers that they still write endlessly about the novel, are at the center of a plot that effortlessly enforces the division between the worthy and the worthless. We observe not the undoing of racism so much as the persistence of stigma. To be made superfluous to the community of well-meaning citizens is to be outside the pale of human empathy. And this novel frames the waste products of society in peculiarly salient ways.

Liberal beneficence depends on the ruses of sentiment: the special realm of right-minded women, reasonable men and domesticated blacks. A cover for superiority, it works wonders in communities of the comfortably enlightened. But such high-minded feeling depends on the presence of inferiors, especially if they’re properly domesticated, the grateful recipients of resounding largesse. Think Herman Melville’s well-meaning liberal Capt. Amasa Delano (a real Yankee sea captain known for his ruthless slaughter of seals). Delano’s “Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres” (1817) was the source for the novella “Benito Cereno,” Melville’s most sustained reflection on slavery. In the story, once on board the Spanish slave ship San Dominic, Delano reflects on “naked nature” in the person of a “slumbering Negress” nursing her baby, “its black little body half lifted from the deck.” Through Delano’s patronizing but controlling vision, Melville exhumes the racism masked by such high-minded humanitarian sentiments.

Throughout “To Kill a Mockingbird” and its 1962 film adaptation (it won three Academy Awards), as we watch Atticus stand tall for justice in a racist and class-bound Alabama town, we’re also shown how to judge, whom to loathe, when to ignore. We’re prompted to distinguish between the valuable and the worthless, those put in proximity to the dump and those who live clean and do right. Our easy assumptions about such distinctions — just like the hype now about the good versus evil Atticus — are nothing more than an invitation to act as if there were or could be a place of moral purity.

Where does Robinson, the black victim of race hatred, fit in this hierarchy of value and waste, threat and removal? He, like the other black characters, whether in the kitchen or the courtroom balcony, exists only to be helped or killed by whites. The continued popularity of “To Kill a Mockingbird, now as in the sixties, proves a resistant strain of racism.

There is something shocking, even harmful, in the appearance at this precise moment of “Go Set a Watchman.” Now, with scores of black people taunted, choked, thrown to the ground, killed by police as well as by white citizens and after the June 17 massacre of pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight of his parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, perhaps the forthcoming novel promises a welcome escape from the facts of racism in this country. That’s both the problem and the secret to its success.

With Atticus Finch returning to the scene today, you could not imagine a better way to take our eyes and minds away from the blight of the inner cities, the mass criminalization and incarceration of blacks, the killing of innocent men and women, young and old, in our cities and suburbs. But there we are. White folks are dead center again, just as they were in a book written 60 years ago. Whether Atticus is a fallen hero should not matter. Not now. 

Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She recently published The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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