Published in 1960 but based in the 1930s, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird provided America with a liberal southern perspective on race as told through the eyes of a 6 year old white girl in fictional Maycomb, Alabama. The novel and the 1962 Oscar winning film starring Gregory Peck, made a hero out of Atticus Finch, the Lawyer-Protagonist, who placed his life and career on the line to defend a Black man, falsely accused of raping a white woman. Now comes, Go Set A Watchmen, written in 1957 but publish in 2015, showing a disturbing and much older Atticus, a segregationist and enemy of the NAACP.
Since the novel’s July release, literary critics and some of Lee’s most devoted fans have criticized the text as being a fraud, a scam, and the product of greedy publishers. Lee, who is in her late 80’s, once promised that she would never publish another book. Critics have asked whether Lee had been taken advantage of now that she was in her later years of life.
Harper Lee’s second southern gothic has rattled the consciousness of America, offering a multilayered representation of southern identity. Getting off to a slow start, the book begins with Jean Louis returning to her Southern home of Maycomb, Alabama. Things have changed since the 1930s. Atticus has aged; he is in his seventies and Jean Louise spends the first couple of chapters wrestling with coming to terms with the true Maycomb, which she soon realizes is much different from what she remembered.
The racial dynamic fully enters the novel when Jean Louise discovers a copy of a pamphlet titled, The Black Plague, a white supremacist based text full of racist propaganda that she finds in her father’s possession. From this point forward, Lee’s audience gains a view of Atticus Finch which is the polar opposite of the Atticus portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch has evolved.
He is now the leader of Maycomb’s Citizens Council, a white supremacist group, whose rhetoric continues to inspire acts of racial violence today.
At one point Finch says, “What’s to prevent any Negro from going where he pleases in the country and finding what he wants?,” before adding “…Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
Jean Louise spends the remainder of the book attempting to make sense of how racism and inferiority consumed her southern Christian family and community she had grown to love.
Here, Lee taps into what Maryland’s own Frederick Douglass names as “the climax of all misnomers,” the contradictions of professing Christianity with one hand and dehumanizing their fellow man or women with the other. The overlap between race and class is clearly evident within To Kill a Mockingbird, and indeed is a consistent theme within Go Set A Watchmen.
Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchmen provides convincing commentary surrounding the dueling historical perspectives often championed as the cause of the Civil War, the two being states rights and slavery, both of which are represented within the current debate surrounding the Confederate flag.
The debate surrounding the nature of the publication has overshadowed the benefit that Go Set A Watchmen brings to the dialogue-surrounding race in this country. One only needs to look to at the recent Republican debates to witness politicians negating the suffering and oppression of others for their own agendas. On a stage where nine white male republicans (and Dr. Ben Carson, who is Black) were asked about the social concerns of race based police brutality and the #blacklivesmatter campaign, the one candidate who did respond failed to mention the scores of black bodies gunned down at the hands of law enforcement. Instead, they spoke about getting law enforcement officers more training. The dialogue lasted less than a minute.
Charles L. Chavis, Jr., has written for Religious Education, Blackpast.org, and the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. He is a Doctoral Student in History at Morgan State University. He can be reached at charleschavis.com.