Today marks the anniversary of the sequel’s release just six years ago, and it’s managed to stir up quite the controversy in those few short years.
Author Harper Lee’s first novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, has been a recurring character in many an English classroom. The success of the novel was, as law professor Osamudia R. James wrote for her New York Times piece on Go Set A Watchman, “no surprise given how America likes its stories about race: centered on innocent white protagonists benevolently exercising power, with black characters relegated to the margins even in stories about their own oppression.”
Yet, in order for the white savior to even be the savior, the Black victim has to be perceived as helpless, less than, ultimately not capable of protecting themselves, which in essence is a racist notion.
The fact that author Harper Lee eventually makes her classic white savior character, Atticus Finch, reveal his racist notions as he comes to the end of his life and encounters integration efforts shouldn’t be surprising. If anything, Lee uncovers the ignorant notion that makes up the backbone of the white savior.
The white savior thrives on the racial hierarchy that places white people as superior Black ones; it wouldn’t exist without it.
This conclusion to Atticus’s life as a supposed “hero” should make us question our tolerance for the white savior dynamic, and why we so easily relegate characters like Atticus to the “hero” category regardless of the context in which they are a “hero”.
Admittedly, Lee painted Atticus to act as one of the “good” white southerners, in contrast to the outwardly racist Ewell family, but he was still a white man situated in America nearly 100 years ago. To act as if his racist mindset couldn’t coexist with his desire to save Tom Robinson clouds the insidious and murky ways that racism operates in America to this day.
Lee simply gave readers the logical conclusion to the racial dynamic established in To Kill A Mockingbird; even the benevolent lawyer who bravely defended an innocent Black man can remain chained to the racist ideas so deeply rooted in the mind of white America.
Jean-Louise’s (previously known as Scout) realization that her father and lover both hold onto their violently racist ideas thus represents the same one which readers must also come to when reading Watchman. Her idolization of her father as a voice for equality mimics that of America, and so it must come crashing down in the same way.
“They’re [Atticus and Jean-Louise’s love interest] hostile (if not downright paranoid) toward the Supreme Court and the NAACP, which they worry are trying to incite the local black population. And Atticus, for his part, genuinely believes that African Americans are mentally childlike and unable to lead themselves or society,” wrote Dara Lind for Vox.
Atticus’s frequenting of KKK meetings and entertainment of pro-segregationist ideas shock the same readers who bought into his white savior persona, held up only by his compassionate stance on Tom Robinson’s case and the passionate closing argument in which he advocates for equality in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Atticus’s prejudice shouldn’t be seen as new or sudden, but rather dormant. It was always his mode of thinking, yet with the comfortable distance from the Black community provided by segregation, he lent himself to more “accepting” views. However, when the racial hierarchy that he became so at home in was threatened by the likes of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement, Atticus leaned into his racist infantilization of Black people, exhibited in his saying, “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Harper Lee chose her second book as the setting to rip the tarp off of Atticus’s true feelings, you could say.
This same infantilization is the bedrock for the white savior, that allowed him to become the hero of American literature that we knew before the release of Watchman, baked into Atticus’s very characterization. Lee, in her own way, provided a cautionary tale regarding the white savior and the racist ideology it relies on.
The resistance some readers have to this “new Atticus” is understandable but also spotlights the refusal some have to face the reality of their literary heroes, white savior or otherwise. But this resistance does the exact opposite of what Lee set out to do with the novel. Readers are made to follow the same path to acceptance that Jean-Louise does as she reconciles with her father’s racism.
“But thematically, Go Set a Watchman is literally about what happens once you realize Atticus Finch isn’t the paradigm of civil rights you thought he was. It’s the story of a young woman coming to terms with knowing that the father she had revered as a god is merely a man, and that the morals she thought she’d inherited wholesale from him are actually her own,” Lind wrote.
Take, for example, the words of reader Atticus Rowe in The Guardian: “I will keep the Atticus we know from To Kill a Mockingbird as my Atticus.” The ownership Rowe, and many others, had over the spotless Atticus Finch of the first novel holds so strong that the vile racism spewing from the same character’s mouth in the sequel is better ignored than addressed, for the sake of avoiding the betrayal of “his” new Atticus. Granted, he may have tried to salvage the character’s image because they share a name, but the principle doesn’t change.
While relatively harmless in regards to literature, this sentiment is toxic when translated into real life. How long are we willing to ignore the racism of our “heroes,” just because they are our heroes? If the outcry at Atticus’s portrayal in Watchman is anything to go by, I fear it might be too long.
“It would be easier to ignore “Watchman” and stick to white saviors and the triumph of individual values over structural oppression,” James wrote. “But if we choose this account, racism is not overcome, black children still encounter anti-blackness at their schools, and whites – despite their individual goodness – remain complicit in it all.”
featured image credits: amazon, buzzfeed news