Tag Archives: racism

Do Go Set a Watchman

22 Jul

download (1)Just call her the Donald Trump of contemporary literature.  Seems Harper Lee may be the only writer out there with the courage (insert any other applicable noun of choice) to see it and say it like it is.  (Apologies to Lee, of course.)

That’s what she did in 1961 with the publication of her inimitable To Kill a Mockingbird; it may be what she just did (reluctantly or not) with the publication of her Go Set a Watchman, the second novel set in Maycomb, Alabama, with Jean Louise Finch—Scout—as narrator,  twenty years or so later.


It really is too soon to talk about this latest novel, as thinly disguised autobiography as her first one, but first gut reactions are a place to start.  The initial sound bites have not been reticent, so more thoughtful minds may be called upon to prevail if anyone is to give the novel its due and its chance with the American reader.

Whether or not Lee approved of the rush to publication (“rush” being relative in this case:  she presumably wrote it in the 1950s) or whether she was manipulated by advisors once her late body guard sister Alice was out of the picture (supposedly the 90-year-old author isn’t quite in control of her faculties these days) is the subject of another debate.  Whether this second book is as good (“good” always being relative) as her first is still another.  No one will argue the insurmountable task of meeting or surpassing To Kill a Mockingbird’s popularity—not gonna happen.  Ever.  Period.  End of story.

Partly, that is, because it was the first to introduce us to the immortal characters Scout and Jem, Boo Radley and Dill and, of course, Atticus Finch, characters we all wanted to believe existed, to emulate, to say and do the things that needed saying and doing at that time and place in our history.  Lee couldn’t have chosen a better publication date if she’d tried, putting Tom Robinson (and all of us) on trial on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.  And she couldn’t have a chosen a better defender of an innocent black man than Atticus, even if his gargantuan attorney skills still couldn’t get his client justice then.

It’s no wonder the book has been required reading in schools from Alabama to Alaska and beyond—it’s one book whose entire makeup (plot, characters, theme, symbols, setting) meets the “Must Read” standard, even if there are sustainable arguments that a good editor could have streamlined the story, deleting a lot of the Lee’s rambling style without losing any of its charm or vitality.

And it’s no surprise, either, that it’s been on censorship lists for an equal length of time; both sides of the racial divide have been offended or defended it with equal vigor. That’s how dialogue gets opened; dialogue is how things get resolved.  And this is one dialogue every American needs to have at one time or another. To call To Kill a Mockingbird the Great American Novel is without hyperbole, though it may not have topped the 100 list assembled by the ALA at the turn of the last century.  It’s kind of like the popular vote vs. the Electoral College sometimes.  TKAM is without argument “first in the hearts of its countrymen.”

I would be remiss in ignoring the role the award-winning film adaptation played in the novel’s popularity and significance.  Even Lee herself, who refused script responsibilities, acknowledges the importance of screenwriter Horton Foote and his signature perspective that endeared everyone to the memorable characters Lee had created. (Personal note: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Foote primarily for this reason.)  I don’t recall who cast the 1962 film directed by Robert Mulligan, but can anyone imagine anyone but Gregory Peck or Mary Badham (or any other members of the incredible cast) in these roles?  Lee’s Atticus and Scout are as iconic American figures as those etched into Mt. Rushmore, thanks in particular to Peck’s and Badham’s portrayals. This was one marriage made in Hollywood that should last the test of time.

All that preamble just to open the discussion on Go Set a Watchman.  First, anyone who hasn’t read the first novel needs to take care of that omission before doing anything else.  I tell everyone, all the time, if they haven’t read it, to stop everything and find a copy. Then, one must read the new novel before passing judgment—no quoting reporters or critics or whoever may feel qualified to comment.  Not only is that lazy, poor scholarship, it’s just useless and wrong.  Read it. Think about it. Then respond if so led.

Having met all the above prerequisites I delineated, I will attempt to do just that right now, reserving the right to return to this topic at any later time with additional observations, even if contradictory.  Time can only tell.

Most importantly, the narrator’s voice—Jean Louise “Scout” Finch—is the same, except this time, all grown up at age 26, the vocabulary finally fits the speaker.  (Lee’s Scout of TKAM always spoke from a lexicon far beyond her age, only justified by the manner in which her lawyer father had taught her to read.)  The same feisty personality and quirky persona emerge from the pages, so true to life one feels she is listening to Harper Lee herself and not the thinly masked spokesperson she created to hide behind years ago.  Jem is already dead, astonishingly, and Dill is off somewhere in Europe; Boo Radley isn’t mentioned and other favorite minor characters are barely identified, no longer necessary to the immediate plot.  Jean Louise (as she is now more commonly called), back to Maycomb for a visit from New York City where she has been living, has a bonafide boyfriend, one Henry (Hank) Clinton, who, if he were mentioned as the lifetime friend he has become in the first book, I don’t recall. Clearly Lee’s disposition not to marry guides her protagonist’s decision to turn down his persistent proposals, one of the few actions that occur in the couple of days the narrator shares with the reader.

That short space of time and the lack of any “real” action immediately relegate the latter novel to second place when compared to TKAM’s time span of several years, with multiple sub-plots intertwining beneath the primary spotlight on the Robinson trial. That Lee can depend on her readers to be familiar with her heretofore established setting and characters justifies to some degree the sparseness of the second book, and although she succumbs to some flashbacks to the original story, it is to her credit that she has kept such repetitiveness to a minimum.  (The probability that Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird is immaterial, as the reader’s access to the stories is the only logical consideration here.)

What does happen, though, is as significant to the older protagonist and her readers as were the famous themes derived from the plotline of the first published book.  That these messages are, perhaps, more apropos for today’s audience than even Lee’s initial lessons (so fitting for the 60s) is what makes the timing of publication so canny.  It also allows Go Set a Watchman to take its rightful place beside its famous predecessor as an equally significant contribution to contemporary American literature.

So what happens?  Jean Louise eavesdrops on her saintly Atticus as he attends a local council meeting in which the problem of segregation is being addressed. What makes this surreptitious knowledge so remarkable is that it convinces Scout of her father’s prejudice, a revelation that shocks both her and the reader, having come to believe Atticus Finch is the one white man in the South who is color-blind.  Jumping to angry conclusions of her racist, hypocrite of a father, she eventually confronts Atticus, dragging him down from the marble pedestal on which she placed him long ago and tearing him into bits of human flesh and blood.  He allows her tirade, while trying to reason with her, telling her “plain truths” so she can “see things as they are, as well as they should be” (243).

Reminding Jean Louise of the compatibility Maycomb’s races were accustomed to, he points out the unrest the NAACP is causing, stirring up resentments where there were none, and insisting on immediate advancements the Negro people as a whole are not yet properly prepared to take on.  When she tries to counter that the African-Americans are entitled to these promises, Atticus is astute in informing her of the NAACP’s primary objective:  “The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land,” he says, “how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man’s vote” (247).

Insert your favorite race-baiter in the public eye today for “NAACP,” and the relevance for today’s society is obvious.  And for those today still fighting over the Confederacy and its flag, Lee (writing in 1950) is clairvoyant in following the trail of bread crumbs  back to the Civil War.  When Scout engages her Uncle Jack in the debate, he cites a similar hastiness on the parts of the abolitionists whose insistence on immediate emancipation pushed a precarious situation prematurely over the brink into utter disaster, a chaos the South had been trying to clean up ever since, all the while forcing their Southern brothers to bear full responsibility for the sin of slavery.

For those who maintain the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights, Lee’s voice is their own, as even Scout comes to admit her reluctance at accepting anything when forced to do so.  Reminds me of a t-shirt I’ve seen recently on sale depicting a Confederate flag with the slogan:  “Just because you said I couldn’t.”  That’s basic human nature: no one wants to be forced to do anything, even if it’s the right thing to do; and no one wants to be told what the right thing is by those who don’t really have a dog in the fight.  The arrogance of the uninvolved and unaffected telling those in the pool how to swim from the safety of the shore is insult to injury.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Lee intimates, especially when such arrogant ignorance results in such damage.

If for no other reason, everyone needs to consider things from the other person’s viewpoint, or, as Lee put it in her first book, “climb in their skin and walk around.”  And if for no other reason than that, one needs to read her second book to hear all sides of the argument.  Maybe then, armed with more information, we can all bring something to the table and respect each other enough to have a conversation that leads to compromise and healing.

The saddest scene in Go Set a Watchman occurs when Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia, the elderly black woman who practically raised the motherless Scout.  Jean Louise hardly recognizes her old friend when she realizes Cal barely recognizes her, either, compounded by the interference caused by the current racial unrest.  The confrontation is rescued—barely—when a heartbroken Scout demands if Cal hated them—the white Finch family—and the old woman at last shakes her head “no.”  If situations were left to individuals to personally deal with whatever inequity exists, without the demanding outside interference of, well, outsiders, perhaps the least amount of destruction would take place.  It’s certainly worth trying.  Nothing else seems to be working very well.

I was determined to dislike Lee’s second book, suspecting her reluctance to publish and threaten her literary status as Queen of American literature.  Fortunately, I allowed reason and evidence to dissolve my preconceptions.  I hope other readers will do the same.

–Rebecca Luttrell Briley, Ph.D.



“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down…”*

27 Jun


Let me be the first to admit it:  I have a Confederate flag at the bottom of my cedar chest;  there, under my once-worn handmade wedding dress, a couple of my late husband’s hand-knit sweaters, and a stack of old concert tees I keep meaning to turn into a quilt someday, hidden from view.  It has always been hidden, except for the one time I dug it out to use as a prop for a silly satirical melodrama my theatre class was performing.  Even then very few beyond the cast saw it—no one else came to the performance anyway. It’s probably still there, though I haven’t seen it for years.

It was just a souvenir a college boy from Louisiana gave me so I wouldn’t forget him or his Southernness, ages ago when we were much younger and didn’t know any better, I guess.  He wasn’t a racist, that Southern boy, at least not to my knowledge; in fact, if I remember correctly, his best friend and roommate was an African guy—not just African-American, but a 100% full-fledged man from Africa.  Recently someone innocently posted a TBT picture of him (my Southern friend, not the African one, though we were friends, too, for the record) and the flag in his dorm window on the college Facebook page and all hell broke loose.  People who didn’t even know him were calling him a racist and insisting the photographer take the picture down.  Guiltily, I felt I had to chime in, to uphold his honor and proclaim he wasn’t a racist, he was just a Southerner—a good ol’ boy from the Bayou—and that he had given that flag to me.  The one I have hidden in my cedar chest.  Much ado about nothing.  Right?  Right?

Well, maybe not.  For starters, that flag was introduced in the Civil War, which wasn’t much ado about nothing.  It was much ado about a lot of somethings.  First and foremost, as a Kentuckian with one foot on either side of the state line, I have to point out the war wasn’t about slavery in the strictest sense; it was about states’ rights and the conviction that a federal government couldn’t—shouldn’t—coerce individual citizens into supporting things they didn’t want to support.  Many of those who fought—and died—for the Southern “cause,” didn’t own slaves, didn’t even believe slavery was right.  But they didn’t think Northern bullies—abolitionists or unionists—who knew very little about the Southern way of life had any right to tell them how to handle their “white man’s burden,” a burden slave traders from the North had actually initiated.  General Robert E. Lee leads the roll call, in more ways than one.  Yes, his family owned slaves, slaves inherited from his wife’s family, descendents of President George Washington, no less.  He, like Thomas Jefferson, believed in systematically freeing his own slaves; unlike the third president, though, who never got around to letting any of his chattel go, even in his will, Lee and his wife were actually in the process of doing just that, following a carefully thought-out program that prepared his former slaves for independent living, something abolitionists did not consider in their horserace to the emancipation finish line.  Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, “the little lady whose book (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) started this great big war,” as President Lincoln supposedly claimed, protested war and abrupt abolition were not her purpose, citing the lack of preparation for immediate freedom could be as destructive as the institution itself.

It did become about slavery, however, when Lincoln realized he had to do something to rally reluctant Northerners to continue fighting for a Union they were beginning to fear was slipping away with Lee’s army.  Lincoln, himself no friend of slavery, had long considered the “African” question primarily from a shrewd political perspective.  If supporting slavery would win him the coveted office, he wasn’t going to speak against it; if emancipation would stuff his ballot box, he wasn’t above climbing on the campaign stump to rail against Southern slavery, either.  There’s a reason the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t proclaimed from the White House until 1863, over two weary years into a seemingly endless conflict: partly because that’s what Lincoln needed to light a fire under his flagging patriots—and partly because he had grown over those debilitating years into someone who didn’t just not own slaves to one who believed no one should.  Frederick Douglass’ persistent arguments had not fallen on deaf presidential ears.  Lincoln proved above all else that he was a man willing to learn, willing to admit when he had been ignorant or just plain wrong—enough to fill a book from which modern presidents might take a chapter or two.

This secondary reason for the war—a cause after the effect, perhaps—became grander than merely whether or not separation between states was sanctioned by the Federal Lord God.  If nothing else, it gave purpose to the growing, growing, always growing piles of corpses carpeting both sides of the Mason-Dixon.  Now Yankees had a principle they could sink their teeth in; now Rebels knew their days were numbered, as even many a slave owner had come to question the righteousness (or profit?) of one man owning another, no matter how many preachers cited chapter and verse in support.  Mary Boykin Chestnut’s Diary From Dixie proves even the staunchest Rebel to the bitter end was more than willing to give up her husband’s plethora of dependents (i.e., slaves) if the North would just grant the divorce the South was seeking.

So the War was and wasn’t about slavery.  And the Confederate flag was and wasn’t a symbol of that way of life.  Like many symbols, what it started out representing and what it ended up standing for in the latter day may—or may not—be entirely different things.  It depends on who is flying it and why.  I used to babysit for a little girl whose entire bedroom was rainbows:  from rainbow-colored bedspread and curtains to a big gaudy multi-colored rainbow arcing from floor to ceiling across one entire wall.  She didn’t know she was proudly flying the colors for Gay Rights; she didn’t even know what homosexuality was.  To her the rainbow flag was pretty and popular.  It created a lovely fairy-tale world she liked to play and pretend in.  For some Southerners, I suspect the flag of the CSA isn’t much different:  it represents a gone-with-the-wind world they like to fantasize about, nothing more.  The fact that that world was held aloft on the whip-scarred backs of millions of slaves likely never enters their heads, or if it does, in only a Disney Song of the South sanitized kind of way.


Contrary to many opinions, the one flying from the capitol building in South Carolina actually isn’t one that represented the Confederate States of America or the fight against Black emancipation.  By now, everyone realizes this particular flag—and the one most commonly associated with the South, the Confederacy, slavery, Dixieland, and the Dukes of Hazard—was merely a battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee’s band.  To many a Southerner, it continues to stand as merely a symbol of past sympathies, something to hold onto long after the actual flag was torn from their ancestors’ cold, dead hands.  Something to assuage the shame of defeat no other region of America has been forced to face, a generous concession from the winners to the losers. A  capricious pennant that continues to fly from the turrets of Camelot, reminding Romantics there was, for one brief shining moment…..

Because for many, Romance is really what it’s all about.  Even Southern Civil Rights Activists like me (not trying to wave any bloody shirts, but my husband and I did our bit for the “cause” back in the day…) can understand an ache for a “past that’s not dead, not even past,” as our most articulate spokesman William Faulkner put it.  There’s a reason Gone With the Wind is still one of the most popular movies ever made, and it’s not just Rhett Butler’s looking like he knows what we look like without a chemise.  Romance—that destructive desire for what isn’t, regardless what that “what” is.  To them, those who want to remove the flag are just party poopers, wanting to take the romance out of everything like air from a balloon, forcing the fingers of the blinded down on the red-hot Braille of reality, as another Southern spokesman (Tennessee Williams) so eloquently phrased it.

But this living in a fantasy world really does need to come to an end.  Not only do adults need to face up to realistic responsibilities, they especially need to do so when their whimsical world is propped up by the rotting remnants of an existence that caused and continues to cause great pain to others.  As the adage says, “It’s all fun and games—until somebody gets hurt.”  It may be ok to live in a Romantic daydream, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.  Or maybe it isn’t even ok then.  No one would expect Jews to tolerate others running around dressed like Nazis, for example; in fact, the swastika, purloined insignia of hate and evil, is banned in Germany where its party once ruled with an iron fist.  Had the Nazis won, I’m sure that angry black spider sprawled across its bloody background would continue to intimidate all who cower beneath its arrogance.  Had they won.  But they didn’t.  And their flag has been taken down.  And banned.  No, it isn’t erased from the history books or removed from museum display cases, but it isn’t allowed to flourish from official government buildings or even grace (disgrace?) the fronts of souvenir t-shirts, at least not there.  Even as a Southerner I admit I am amazed we’ve allowed the Confederate flag to fly so long, if for no other reason than the concession that it represents a treasonous act against the united States of America.  That has really been “letting ‘em down easy,” as Lincoln implored, to a fault.

So, in spite of my souvenir Rebel flag (probably moth-eaten by now) and my Kentucky-rooted ambivalence, let me lift up my voice with the others singing out to furl the flag of Southern sympathies.  Misty visions of mint juleps, magnolias, and moonlight can’t hold up against the stark black and white photographs of the Emmitt Tills, Medgar Everses, the four little girls in Birmingham, or, now, the nine dead members of the Charleston Emanuel A.M.E Church.  Not that the flag itself necessarily prompted this massacre of the beautiful and innocent; likely Dylann Roof would have developed and attempted to carry out his evil racist agenda regardless of what flag was flying from his government’s capitol cupola.  But we have to start somewhere, even if it’s as innocuous and symbolic as removing a rag from a pole.  Maybe we didn’t mean anything by it.  Or maybe we did.  Maybe no one cares.  Or maybe someone does. Whatever. We need to grow up, in the South and all over the United States.

Amazingly, Charleston, once the scene of the largest slave assembly, not to mention the opening act of the Civil War, is leading the way by reacting to its recent episode of senseless, deplorable violence, not with more violence as in Ferguson or Baltimore, but by forgiving, praying, and embracing.  And its state’s governor, the political descendent of the first to declare his state’s secession from the Union, has opened the dialogue for change by calling for the removal of that symbol from their government’s official buildings. That’s how adults respond, regardless of their race or sensibilities.  We all look small and childish if we don’t follow suit.

To paraphrase St. Paul’s I Corinthians 13 message, when we are children, maybe it’s ok to think as children; but now we are no longer children, we need to put away our childish things, in a cedar chest or a history museum.  And get on with it.

Rebecca Luttrell Briley, Ph.D.

Midway, Kentucky

June 24, 2015

*Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Old Ironsides”