Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Atticus Finch: Racism and Justice

Since Go Set a Watchman (whose title comes from Isaiah) was released there has been a lot of talk, and perhaps consternation, that it sets up Atticus Finch as a racist.  This shatters the sacredly held vision that people had of Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird leaving many people upset about what happened to the hero they believed Atticus to be.

Let me start by giving some caveats.  The first is that I love To Kill a Mockingbird.  The first gift that I ever gave to my wife when we started dating was a copy of that book because it came up on our first date that she had never read it.  I had a cat named Atticus and we now have a cat named Scout, so I have some background and love of the story.  Second is that I have yet to read Go Set a Watchman so can't speak from firsthand knowledge of the story. I am on vacation next week and that is one of the books I will read and maybe can provide some more perspective.

But all that being said, I don't understand what all the ruckus is about, except that some of it is because of what people brought to the story not what the story actually presented.  First is that the case of Jim Robinson was assigned to Atticus, he didn't take it on, and he actually has little to do with the black community throughout the story, thus we aren't really shown any convincing evidence that Atticus does not have negative feelings towards African Americans.  He also does nothing to challenge any of the perceptions that the community has about Tom as a black man, especially to the jury.

Second, I see no connection between someone being a potential racist as well as someone who wants to see justice carried out.  Let us not forget that John Adams successfully defended the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston massacre.  That did not mean that Adams was for the British position, or against the patriot position, far from it.  But he did want to see justice carried out fairly.  That seemed to be Atticus' goal.  We could then argue whether there could actually be "justice" for a black man accused of attacking a white woman, but that is another much larger topic, and something Atticus does nothing to address.

So to me to hear that Atticus turns out to have the same prejudices of the society in which he was raised is not shocking, it's really what's to be expected.  Now it is shocking to Scout, or Jean Louise as she now going by her given name, but isn't that often the case?  Aren't we often shocked to hear what our parents or grandparents believed that seems so alien to us?  And isn't the fact that Atticus was able to raise Scout, and presumably Jem, although we don't know, without passing on the same prejudices a credit to Atticus?  This represents the generational shift we see on so many things, and the already there and not quite there that is so prevalent in society.

While both books portray very real aspects of the society and culture in which they were written, and still resonate today, let's not forget that these are fictional characters and we often bring more to them they are actually presented.  Since the books were not written to be of one piece it's also hard to necessaarily see them as a collective whole.  Perhaps Harper Lee was upset with her first version of Atticus and wanted him to be better, and so portrayed him so in Mockingbird.

Or perhaps, Atticus is simply a complex character, just as we all are, and as such seems to hold conflicting or contradictory thoughts together at the same time, and is not as good as his best actions and not as bad as his worst either.

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