The vigil is on still

Print edition : October 02, 2015

Harper Lee, in an August 2007 photograph. Photo: Rob Carr/AP

Harper Lee’s sequel to Mockingbird, which was actually written earlier, shows a far more nuanced treatment of racial prejudice.

Harper Lee’s legendary novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) has for over half a century challenged racial inequities and has been the impelling force behind her resolute pursuit of fundamental public-spirited principles and a firm commitment to social equality. As a community organiser, public speaker and writer, she came to an early understanding of disruptions in a multicultural society intensely explosive in its racial discriminatory culture. The demands for freedom and equality by southern blacks soaked in a bloodstained history became an enduring credo of her life and her ardent stand against racial difference.

The sequel to Mockingbird was released on July 14 in the midst of historic anticipation and fanfare. Go Set a Watchman is situated in the traumatic history of the 1950s American South, some 20 years after the time in which Mockingbird was set, and tells the story of an older Jean Louise Finch, known lovingly as “Scout”, returning to her hometown Maycomb, Alabama. Rebellious and strong-willed as ever, she undergoes a shocking reacquaintance with her now-bigoted segregationist father, Atticus Finch. The hypocrisy and immorality of the fallen Babylon of the Old Testament, which reflects in the title of the book, is central to the prevailing racist attitudes in her beloved birthplace: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” (Isaiah 21:6).

Being witness to the deeply racist proceedings in the Maycomb County Council, Scout feels nauseatingly betrayed by Atticus, who was once a progressive advocate who stood up to defend human rights: “She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never realised that before she made any decision of importance, ‘What would Atticus do?’ passed through her unconscious, she never realised what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshipped him.”

And now the only human being she had trusted has let her down: “The only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.” She goes on to compare him to Hitler, disgusted as she is to hear his pro-segregation arguments: “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people…. Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”

The reference to the Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board of Education decision that ordered the principle of integration in schools in the South apparently led to the provocation of the segregationists.

The entire thesis of Harper Lee’s earlier book is upended in this one. Atticus Finch was never intended to be the way he appears in the first book, the beloved hero, defender of civil rights, civil rights lawyer who fights for the rights of a helpless black man, the mythical giant of a man in a time and geography riven with irreparable fissures of race. He is now a troubling mean-spirited racist, a staunch believer in the superiority of his race, clinging to the belief of a South divided between white and black where the latter shall not mix with the former. His prejudiced thinking and the widespread social opposition to “mongrelisation” severely disturbs Scout and leads her “to wonder if that’s not rather an unfortunate phrase, and if probably it should be discarded from southern jargon these days. It takes two races to mongrelise a race… and if we white people holler about mongerlisin’, isn’t that something of a reflection on ourselves as a race? If I were a scholar, which I ain’t, I would say that kind of talk has a deep psychological significance that’s not particularly flattering to the one who talks it. At its best, it denotes an alarmin’ mistrust of one’s own race.” In the history of racist America, it is very well known that white gentlemen kept coloured women.

Scout must now learn that the reality of intolerance is different from her childhood impressions. Race politics of the Deep South are indeed complex and nuanced. Racial discrimination continues to be rampant and “colour blindness” is a mere conceptual construct to hide the sinister colour consciousness that has been an essential part of Western history. In this context, the acrimony over racially charged issues aiming at justice, and the general nature and implications of liberalism, cannot be disregarded.

The book, an original draft of her Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel, Mockingbird, is an exploration of race relations in the civil rights era and may truly reflect the vexing questions in the author’s mind. We will never know for sure whether Harper Lee bowed to pressure of the publisher to portray a simpler, noble, generous Atticus. The payoff was historic. Americans welcomed this benevolent hero in their lives, they named their children after him: he symbolised all that was good, wholesome, and free of strife and prejudice. He was America’s idol, he protected Americans from the ghosts of a sordid past of slavery and a very uncomfortable present. Go Set a Watchman, published some 50 years later, rips out the myth. In this book Atticus is complex, more real, a character struggling to make sense of progressivism at the cost of the pride in the southern way of life. This is the way that whites want to live, cloistered in their enclaves, isolated from the ugly side of their history with the blacks.

Harper Lee saved this manuscript in a safety deposit box. Today, when the issue of race and inequality is more urgent than ever, the publication of the novel is appropriate. In the context of horrifying acts of domestic terrorism, such as the mass killing at the African Methodist Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, which had played a significant role in the civil rights movement and is the oldest black congregation church in the South, preceded by incidents of black men being shot by white police officers, and most recently the suicide in jail of the young black woman Sandra Bland, as well as the Ferguson killing not so long ago, the discomfort in the South over this negative portrayal of Atticus is palpable. It offends the American sensibility, which naively assumes that race relations are much improved.

The American people have built many bridges, and yet, in many very significant ways, not much has changed. Watchman may not be a literary masterpiece like Mockingbird, but it is enormously relevant in America today and will elicit much serious discussion on the extent to which the nation has come forward in acknowledging, validating and, most importantly, facing honestly the “elephant” of racism that stares it in the face.

The declaration made on July 4, 1776, upholding equality, life, liberty and happiness has not been completely effectual in altering or abolishing racist practices. The American people should one day be able to declare confidently and sincerely: “We will rise against all racism and inequality and injustice wherever it may lurk, that we will take down the Confederate flags both from our physical spaces as well as within our minds, that we will neither revive the New Black Panther movement nor give any more credence to the Ku Klux Klan, that we shall not isolate any group in a subhuman ghetto and shall work tirelessly to rid ourselves of prejudice and self-entitlement and attempt a more inclusive existence.” It is only then that they will be able to resurrect the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird and bury the one from Watchman.

There is an urgent need for the American people to come to terms with their racist past, as Scout does at the end of the novel. The lesson that civil society must learn about compassion and hope, which young Atticus once preached, has to take into account his capitulation to the demands of his political and social environment. The confrontation with his strong-willed daughter moves him towards a sense of pride for her anti-racist stance. Tolerance and forgiveness become the two essential ingredients in the acceptance of one’s dark history and the cherishing of a robust diversity.

This hard-hitting work reflects the bitterness of the modern-day debate over racially charged matters. It shows that social justice can be reached only through equality. Our watchman is our consciousness.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor