by Emily Howell
Only July 14 Go Set a Watchman stocked the shelves in stores across the country. Amazon stated that it was “their most preordered book since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007.” I can’t say I’m surprised; after all, To Kill a Mockingbird is a beloved American classic.
Readers eagerly opened the book expecting to find their favorite hero, Atticus Finch, alive, well, and as righteous and progressive as ever. Instead, they found him to be a bigot (much more common considering the societal climate in which the book takes place). In the last 24 hours the Internet has been abuzz, once again, as the writings of Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, have been released. Lee inspired Finch’s character and based on the newly released writings experienced the same fluid, contradictory beliefs. Social media has blown p with angry tweets from fans that feel betrayed, duped, and lied to. How can a man who chose to defend a black man in the South also be a segregationist?
Looking at all the outrage I can’t help but be entertained. In her article in The Guardian,Kimberly Ellis puts it best: “The discrepancy is only a source of cognitive dissonance for those who retain the notion that white people who engage in progressive actions can escape white, racial socialization and the system of white supremacy.”
Progress comes from complicating the white savior. It comes from recognizing that every hero is also a villain depending on your perspective. Progress is complicated. Characters are complicated. Instead of being angry about the new complexities that have arisen in Atticus’ character we should all appreciate that he has been made more complete, more human, more real.
It’s easy to be angry with Harper Lee for popping our disillusioned bubbles and forcing us to see Atticus in another light. With the release of Go Set a Watchman Atticus has become less fictional; he has become a more accurate representation of a man grappling with his understanding of societal structure and his own sense of justice. These new insights into Atticus aren’t shocking and they shouldn’t be criticized or ignored. Atticus Finch was racist, as were many Americans in his day, as are many Americans today.
Earlier this year a white man massacred African Americans at a black church. There have been countless accounts in the past few years in which black men and women have been subjected to police brutality and harsher criminal punishment. The confederate flag still flies in many states. These are the things we should be paying attention to. So, I’m not mad at Harper Lee. I’m hopeful that she’s opened at least a few eyes to the myriad of complexities that surround the racial issues present in our country, both in her time and today.