Racism and Cultural Controversy in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

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The sequel everyone hoped for but no one dreamed would ever come, and what a sequel it was. Although there was controversy surrounding not only the book’s characters themselves, but also the very decision to publish it, no one can deny that the media hype and the book world frenzy was everything such a novel deserved.

It’s easy to sit and project an opinion about a book; that’s what most reviews are doing and let’s be honest, some of those reviews have been less than flattering, accusing Watchman uncertain storytelling and of racism. In reality nothing could compare to the original brilliance of To Kill A Mockingbird and I think that’s where a lot of reviews made their mistake. Go Set A Watchman needed to be judged on its own scale of merits, not the scale set by Pulitzer prize winning Mockingbird 55 years ago.

Indeed, years of GCSE English Literature teaching has been undermined by the new developments of the character of Atticus in Watchman. Atticus is rebuffed by his daughter, Scout, who is just as disillusioned by this new side of her father as we as readers are. Scout feels like she learned everything she knows about right and wrong from her father, and his participation in a White Citizens Council undermines all of this. Just like I was taught at the age of 15 that Atticus was the moral compass of To Kill A Mockingbird, so Atticus is the moral compass of Scout’s life until she realises her father’s attitude to black people has not only failed to move with the times, but regressed entirely.

But I don’t think Atticus was a ‘closet-racist’ in the first book. It seems very misinformed to assume Atticus was always a racist, or indeed to assume he miraculously developed racism, like a nasty disease, in the 20 years between which the two books are set.

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To read Watchman, and Mockingbird for that matter, it’s vital to remember both are written during their own cultural epoches. Just because the book has been released in 2015, the mass audience seem to forget that Harper Lee didn’t write Watchman in the 21st century so she could not have embodied the cultural atittudes of equality we know today. She certainly could not have forseen the outrage surrounding her controversial employment of the n-word and other racist scenes in her contemporary writing period when such terms were the norm.

I think that is the crux issue, the cultural basis of the book is being forgotten by the modern readership. Atticus was not always a racist, in Mockingbird we see him behaving respectfully and morally towards black people, ensuring the right decision for justice for the innocent Tom Robinson. So why the change to defensive racism in Watchman? Being defensive is exactly why.

Atticus was confident in his respect of black people when he believed they would never be equal to white people. He treats Cal, the family’s housekeeper, like a member of the family, with respect and kindness. But kindness is not the same as equality and this is a distinction that Scout cannot comprehend, she is, as the book puts it, “colour blind”.

20 years after Mockingbird we see the start of the Civil Rights movement and the emerging NAACP bringing the Brown vs. Board of Education into the limelight to overturn segregation in schools. Suddenly the prospect that the law could allow black people onto an equal footing in law and education signifies to Atticus a disruption of the system in a way that he recognises will mean the advancement of black people. In Watchman his fear is of “black juries” and “black judges”. He is perfectly happy to defend an innocent black man because he, as a white man, has the power of the law in his hands: the black people, in this case Tom Robinson, are reliant on white people for any justice they could possibly receive.

In a hypocritical way, Atticus is not racist in Mockingbird because he can choose not to be, he hands justice to Tom Robinson like a rich man hands charity to a homeless person: with a feeling of superior righteousness, in this case Atticus has the law on his side. Tom Robinson accepts it like a homeless man with no power: with gratitude and deference.

Atticus takes up racism as a defense in Watchman because he realises that thanks to the NAACP and changes to the 14th Amendment he no longer holds the power to “hand out” justice and equality to black people, they now had that on their side by law. Atticus lived by the law and its conflict with his cultural understanding of the lower social position of black people was juxtaposed to the changes being made to the law.

Being unable to reconcile his cultural attitude of kind superiority with black people’s new legal equality would have been a cultural shock to Atticus which brought a racism out of him that perhaps he didn’t even know was present, just as Scout and we as readers never anticipated such a character reversal 20 years later.

So cultural changes go a long way to not only explaining the controversial language Harper Lee has used but also the controversial character development of Atticus. Consequently then it’s important to note that despite Atticus’ racism, his moral teachings to his children were still solid enough to ensure that Scout remained morally uncorrupted, unprejudiced and refreshingly “colour blind” 20 years later. 

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