What Go Set a Watchman Can Teach Us

by Claire Chevrier

Trayvon Martin was killed by a man with multiple gun-related arrests who now makes his living painting Confederate flags.[1]  Mike Brown was shot by a police officer for allegedly stealing a box of cigarillos.[2]  Eric Garner was killed in front of all of us for selling loose cigarettes.[3]  Sandra Bland died in jail after a routine traffic stop.[4] Corey Jones was killed by a plain-clothed, rookie police officer who shot him while he was pulled over with car trouble.[5]  And Barack Obama is our president, perhaps creating a false collective “one Black friend,” thereby allowing implicit biases to bubble up where they were previously suppressed.

There is no doubt that explicit racism has subsided since the 1960s. No longer are KKK memberships put on resumes. However, our country continues to be in the midst of an enormous battle for the civil rights that continue to be systematically denied to people of color. I doubt the incidents of racism and murder are increasing, but technology and social media are certainly forcing us to witness more of them. It is my sincere hope that this awareness, and not pushy, capitalist publishers, caused a lucid Harper Lee to publish Go Set a Watchman last summer before she died.

I read the reviews questioning whether Lee had intended to publish this “uninspired,”[6] book that may have been a “mediocre first draft.”[7]  I emphatically disagree with those characterizations and fear that the vast number of negative reviewers failed to grasp the timeliness, significance, and quality of a necessary book, potentially decreasing a broader readership who might have enjoyed and learned from the subtleties of Lee’s insights.

Returning to Harper Lee was, at some points, like kissing an old flame. It had not occurred to me that I remembered nuances about the way she writes, but as I read I was thrown back to the excitement of reading her character descriptions and dialogue for the first time. Given the love I have for her first novel, this déjà vu was an extremely welcome surprise and felt like returning to the comfort of loving arms.

More important than her talent for intertwining the past and present, in Go Set a Watchman, Lee told a nuanced story about racism that should also become mandatory high school reading. As many have lamented, Atticus Finch indeed turns out to be racist. The devastating effect this realization has on Scout likely mirrors the feelings of despair readers experience as their childhood hero is dethroned word by word. This is important and, I believe, intentional. Strong, existential beliefs about justice and the need to promote it are not at odds with implicit biases. One can feel certain that all people are created equally, that the innocent should not suffer, and that skin color should have no effect on access to rights, and yet still maintain racist society-imposed beliefs. These same perceptions, rooted in slavery and segregation, cause purse-clenching at the sight of individuals history has conditioned us to think of as dangerous. Atticus transparently shows his discomfort with school integration, a feeling we retrospectively associate with explicit racism and bigotry. Years from now, I hope we will recognize purse-clenching as a similar act of racism and bigotry. The vestiges of slavery and segregation are still very much a part of the psyche of our country. There are currently more Black men under the purview of the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850.[8]  Whites are more likely to use drugs but Blacks are more likely to go to prison for drug offenses.[9]  Many of our laws were created to subjugate people of color and White people have been benefitting from racism since its inception.

If Lee’s book allows us to realize these abhorrent, racist inclinations are a part of a character we once loved, maybe she will encourage us to turn the mirror introspectively and realize that we also retain elements of racism we are too ashamed to candidly discuss. Maybe we need to recognize that we all have implicit biases that must be collectively discussed, rather than embarrassingly disguised. Let’s stop being afraid of race-based discourse, and stop giving bad reviews of books that force these topics that make us uncomfortable. If we do, then hopefully, future Martins, Browns, Garners, Blands, and Joneses will be able to die of old age like Harper Lee.

[1] Adrienne Cutway, George Zimmerman Selling Confederate Flag Painting at “Muslim Free” Gun Store, Orlando Sentinel (Aug. 18, 2015, 9:18 AM), http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/gone-viral/os-george-zimmerman-confederate-20150818-post.html.

[2] Rachel Clarke & Christopher Lett, What Happened When Michael Brown Met Officer Darren Wilson, CNN (Nov. 11, 2014, 5:22 PM), http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/08/us/ferguson-brown-timeline.

[3] Ken Murray, How the Daily News Acquired the Eric Garner Video, Daily News (New York) (July 11, 2015, 11:00 PM), http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/video-shows-fatally-choking-eric-garner-graphic-content-article-1.2289271.

[4] Ray Sanchez, What We Know About the Controversy In Sandra Bland’s Death, CNN (July 22, 2015, 10:00 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/21/us/texas-sandra-bland-jail-death-explain.

[5] Richard Luscombe, Corey Jones Shot Three Times by Officer During Fatal Encounter, Says Lawyer, The Guardian (Oct. 22, 2015, 1:46 PM), http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/22/corey-jones-shooting-florida-killed-by-police.

[6] Randall Kennedy, Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’, N.Y. Times (July 14, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/14/books/review/harper-lees-go-set-a-watchman.html.

[7] Joe Nocera, The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman Fraud’, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/25/opinion/joe-nocera-the-watchman-fraud.html.

[8] Michelle Alexander, More Black Men Are in Prison Today Than Were Enslaved in 1850, The Huffington Post (Oct. 13, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/12/michelle-alexander-more-black-men-in-prison-slaves-1850_n_1007368.html.

[9] Saki Knafo, When it Comes to Illegal Drug Use, White America Does the Crime, Black America Gets the Time, The Huffington Post (Sep. 18, 2013), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/racial-disparity-drug-use_n_3941346.html.