Thank you, Harper Lee

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved Atticus Finch. I loved Scout. A high point of my childhood was meeting Mary Badham, the young actress who played her, at my uncle’s swimming pool in South Carolina – the same pool where, another year, I went swimming with Strom Thurmond.

And yet – all these years, while loving the book, the movie, the characters – there was something about it that made me uneasy. Something that didn’t sit true.

Because, you see, my Southern mother, my Yankee father, and everyone I knew in their generation and social circle, loved it too. They loved the story. They loved Atticus Finch. What’s more, they thought they were Atticus Finch – judicious, wise, willing to take an unpopular stand against the white-trash racists who were more “other” to them than the wise Negro housekeeper and “my uncle’s man,” who tended my uncle’s garden and fixed what needed fixing around the house.

Now, from what I know about To Set a Watchman, I know they were Atticus Finch. Those words people are so shocked to hear coming out of his mouth? – the ones about Blacks “being in their childhood as a people?” – those are words I heard out of the mouths of the white adults who raised me. I can’t quite imagine any of them at a Klan meeting, but there is probably a lot I don’t know, too.

So thank you, Harper Lee, for allowing this fuller picture of the incredible complexity of racism to come to the light of day.

I was a Yankee child who came South every summer. Even with my mother’s attempt to inculcate me in her brand of genteel and soul-crippling racism, I stood outside it enough to notice, to wonder, and later, when I was older, to begin to understand.

And that “Mockingbird” model of Atticus Finch, I feared – lovely as it is – worked powerfully in my parents’ generation to reinforce that genteel racism. They, too, would go to the ends of the earth for individual Negroes. And they, too, like the “Watchman” Atticus, persisted in believing that those Negroes – while they deserved a fair shake, every one of them would agree – were not fully human, not as human as they were, or at least not fully adult.

It pains me to write this. I loved my family. I still do love them, those who remain alive and those who have passed on. And, this I know: as white people we need to examine the roots and branches of the white supremacy that is in every one of us. We need to see the Atticus Finch – the “Watchman” Atticus and the “Mockingbird” Atticus, in our upbringings and our attitudes, in our families and our streets and our economy and our prison system. To identify with the “Mockingbird” Atticus, for any of us, is white denial, and we can’t afford to live there.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the complexity of the racism I was steeped in as I grew up. Because while I met Mary Badham and Strom Thurmond by the side of my uncle’s swimming pool, I also “met” W.E.B. DuBois there. One summer, in my adolescence, I ran out of reading material, and I picked up a book I found on my uncle’s bookshelf. It was Souls of Black Folk, and reading it there in South Carolina began a process of transformation inside me that I will never complete but hope to continue.

I never asked my uncle why he had that book, or what he thought of it. I wish I had. Maybe that would have begun a conversation that both of us needed to have.


3 thoughts on “Thank you, Harper Lee

  1. Thank you. This was true not only for people growing up in the south, but, I think, for most people growing up after WW2 anywhere in the country. It certainly resonates with my childhood (in Indianapolis, where both housing and schools were highly segregated), in which, if anything, I had even less contact with blacks than you did.

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  2. Just finished reading Invention of Wings, which I believe captures well the complexities of relationships between blacks and the whites who held them as slaves . . . though slavery was abolished long ago there remains a great awkwardness in those relationships borne of (1) the residue of that history, (2) white guilt about that history, (3) understandable mistrust in the black community of white people’s motives in befriending them, and (4) the persistence of the kind of prejudice that led to slavery in the first place. Also recently read The New Jim Crow, which is an unsettling account of how this prejudice continues to be played out under cover of the War on Drugs filling our prisons with disproportionate numbers of urban black males who have been picked up for minor drug offenses, while white drug are either conveniently overlooked by law enforcement, or enjoy more lenient treatment if caught.

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