Little ironies and coincidences always amuse me. As I scanned my social media feeds this weekend, the juxtaposition of posts about Harper Lee’s latest release with those about Michael Brown, and Bernie Sanders versus #BlackLivesMatter seemed like some sort of cosmic salvo.
People are wildly upset that the mythology they have built around the character Atticus Finch is being busted by the author. Perhaps it’s like discovering that our parents or other heroes actually don’t walk on water. It hurts us, and robs us of some innocence. We humans cling to our heroes.
When I was in the fifth grade or so, I began to hear stuff about banning Mark Twain’s classics Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I had just read the books because they were on my summer reading list, and I loved them. They were challenging and a little frightening as far as social mores went. But some people were offended by Mark Twain’s use of dialect writing while others thought children should not be exposed to a protagonist of questionable moral character. Maybe they were upset that the slave character Big Jim emerged as the hero. I remember at the time thinking, “Isn’t that the point of it all?”
It’s hard to have our society, our hometowns, our backyards reflected back at us with a sharply polished mirror versus the rainbow-inducing prisms of our youth. Yet, it is so important that we see ourselves as people in full, not just capable of the same foibles that worry us, but filled with them.
It seems to me that most of the people who are horrified by Watchman are those north of the Mason-Dixon Line or those who have smugly identified with the all-good white knight version of Atticus Finch, and they are devastated to learn he might also be a knight with a custom-fitted white sheet. To accept the possibility that he might harbor the same prejudices as the rednecks in the courtroom galley of To Kill a Mockingbird means that they might have to confront their own nascent bigotry.
A year ago, a match lighting the way to this type of national introspection was lit in Ferguson, Missouri. By the time the Emanuel AME churchgoers in Charleston were gunned down, our country seemed to be experiencing a full-on catharsis. How ironic, then, that one of the best white champions of Civil Rights and causes close to the African-American community was shouted off the stage in Seattle this weekend.
Maybe, therefore, Go Set a Watchman provides us — of all races — with the opportunity for some at-home therapy on the couch. Maybe if those who have so prided themselves as embodying the immutable beneficence of Atticus Finch read this, then they will finally recognize the stealth racism they harbor in their own homes. Perhaps such self-examination will allow them to be less satisfied with scapegoating the South and Southerners, and they can finally clean beneath their own carpets in the Upper East Side of New York or the Northwest Territory of the U.S., like Seattle.
But, then again, maybe not. It’s so much easier to point fingers, naysay and cling to hero-worship than to have a dialogue-in-full.