Wednesday, July 15, 2015
The Problem With Atticus Finch
There are many things to admire in To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel offers one perspective on racism in the South. It exposes the casual racism and injustice that are still endemic. TKAM has humor, an unerring narrative voice, and great characters. And yes, Atticus Finch is an admirable man, an indelible character. Who can ever forget the scene where Atticus shoots a mad dog in the street, or the incredible grace and dignity which he displays in the courtroom. And his advice to Scout, to walk around in someone else's skin before judging them--these are all great moments.
But TKAM and its characters have their limitations. And it has always troubled me that this most revered novel is often treated as the ultimate novel about racism.
The trouble is that TKAM is written from the point of view of a white character, is written by a white author, and depicts the white world. TKAM is a great novel--I'm not disputing that. But is tells a very narrowly framed story (from a racial perspective). And much of what the novel is about (coming-of-age, family conflicts, education) exists outside the racial conflicts of the story.
The trouble is that Atticus Finch is another variation on the white savior. The character of Tom Robinson is thinly constructed--he is present as more of a symbol than a fully developed human being.
So if Atticus turns out to be more complicated, and more racist, in Go Set a Watchman, I won't be devastated. I'll be interested.
I'll be interested in the moral complexities of writing about race in America. I'll be interested in the ways in which white writers evade or face those complexities.
But I won't look to a single novel, or two novels, for an understanding of racism.
And I'll definitely look to black writers to tell me about the experience and effects of racism in this great, flawed country of ours.
I'll read James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Inside. Baldwin is a truth teller.
I'll read Jesmyn Ward, especially her devastating memoir, Men We Reaped.
I'll read Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. If you want to know and understand the felt experience of racism in America, this volume is an excellent place to start.
I'll read Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.
I'll read Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Between the World and Me was just published. And if you want your heart thoroughly broken, read his piece in the Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations."
I'll read Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Alan McPherson, Ernest Gaines, Richard Wright, Nella Larson, Edward P. Jones.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautifully written novel, but it is a narrow sliver of life. If TKAM moves readers, then good. If Atticus Finch inspires readers, then good. But there are truth tellers out there, and we should be reading them all.