Atticus Finch, Racist?
Like most of the reading world, I have decided to camp out at my mailbox for the next few days, waiting anxiously like an ’80s teenager sleeping on the sidewalk to get Van Halen tickets (sorry, I just told you how old I am). I can’t wait for my copy of Go Set a Watchman to arrive, and I’m ready to do unspeakable things to the UPS man if he’ll just hurry up.
I have to back up and say I almost didn’t preorder my copy. While not a native of the state, I’ve lived in Alabama for twenty-plus years and I am fiercely protective of the venerable Ms. Lee. If the early accusations had even a hint of truth to them and the author did not knowingly and consciously and joyfully authorize this publication, I was not going to take part in reading it, at least not until she had passed away. When it seemed as though the controversy surrounding the publication had been at least somewhat cleared up, I pre-ordered and hoped for the best.
Now I’m finding myself having to avoid the early reviews for one distinct reason: they’re out to get Atticus.
Yes, review headlines have claimed he has a “dark side,” and even have gone so far as to say that Atticus is painted as a racist in this book. I’m sorry, but was this news to anyone? Let me illustrate something that changed all of Mockingbird for me.
I was an English teacher in a maximum security juvenile correctional facility for many years. I will spare you the diatribe (because I’ll get so busy on my soapbox about society’s “throwaway children” that I’ll forget to tell you about Harper Lee), but most of my students were poor, were African-American, were school dropouts (some as early as seventh grade), and were functionally illiterate. When we had the opportunity to Skype with an AP English class in Vermont (an all-white, all-upper class school) and share our views on To Kill a Mockingbird, I was super excited. I explained to the other teacher that my students would have to watch the movie since most of them couldn’t read, but that was fine.
We connected, and once we got over the awkwardness on the northern students’ parts about seeing my students in their orange jumpsuits, we began our discussion. We had a list of questions that the students would have to answer, and as I expected, the northern/wealthy students had a far different take on the entire book and its themes than my students did. But here’s where it got weird:
Question: Would you say Atticus Finch was ahead of his time with regards to civil rights?
And of course, the Vermont students adored Atticus. Heck, I adored Atticus. Their answers sang his praises and championed him as a pioneering spirit. Then one of my students raised his hand and said, “He’s just as racist as the rest of them.”
I was embarrassed for my student. Surely he hadn’t understood the question or hadn’t paid attention during the movie. I leaned closer to get away from the microphone and said, “No, no, sweetie…Atticus is the lawyer. Her dad. Remember now?”
My student was pissed. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and said, “I KNOW who he be. And he’s just as racist as everybody else in that town.”
I looked at the monitor to gauge the other class’ reaction, then asked him to explain. Sit down for this one:
“When a black man rapes a white woman, he’s all about having a fair trial. But when a white man kills another white man, he helps cover it up.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t even speak until finally I collected my wits enough to blurt out, “Oh my god, you’re right.”
It destroyed me inside. It didn’t destroy the book for me or change its status as one of the finest pieces of literature in all of reading history, but it made me open my damn eyes and see a few things. First, our enjoyment of a story is based entirely on our own experiences, and I was sorely lacking in a lot of experiences I needed in order to fully appreciate the book. More importantly, it made me see that we all have a little bit of a dark side inside us. If Atticus Finch proves to be a little less of a saint in this upcoming book, then we have to realize that part of him was in there all along. Our experiences have just made it come to light.