By Jennifer Scism Ash
The media is abuzz with controversy over the release of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman. There has been considerable backlash on the part of Harper Lee fans that caused me to pause and ask: What are the root causes of this backlash? Is it in a desire to protect Harper Lee’s wishes; a desire to resist the exploitation of her legacy? Or is this backlash about fears and anxieties about our own personal politics? The answers are not clear. Let’s consider the possibility that multiple issues are colliding here.
We must question the rationale for the publication of this newly discovered novel and think critically about who stands to benefit the most from its distribution. If Harper Lee cannot articulate her wishes, we must be critical of that. However, I question our notion of consent in this case and others like it. Clearly everyone — from an auction house, to attorneys, and a publisher — profits from the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird’s sequel. Historically, such entities have not always acted in the best interests of those they represent. They do not care about the political implications of such a novel.
How do we define the consent of the elderly or of the disabled? I don’t claim to know the answer in Harper Lee’s case. But it can be argued that we often rush to infantilize older folks and conveniently fulfill our own desires instead.
To publish or not to publish: that is the question. Why all the anxiety and resistance? Absent the arguments about Harper Lee’s ability or inability to consent, would there still be resistance to the distribution of this novel?
My gut screams, yes. And the rationale lies in the character of Atticus Finch. We like to see ourselves in Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. He’s the protagonist, the hero, despite his inability to protect Tom Robinson. He works for justice and seems to be on the right side, despite his flaws (and there are clearly many, including his sexism and paternalistic ethos). He is, at his core, a good anti-racist man though. And we are too, right?
We see ourselves as the good guys—the liberal thinkers who believe in equality, who delude ourselves into believing that we would have been on the front lines of the civil rights movement, if that were our era. The progressive historical narrative tells us that racism is on the decline and that working within the legal system — like Atticus does — provides the surest path to justice. Atticus, the White liberal prototype, gives comfort to leftist mainstream ideology.
The possibility that Finch could morph into a racist causes us great discomfort because it forces us to reconcile — not only with a fictional character in a book — but with our mainstream critiques of Black movements for justice today. It forces us to think critically about the evolution, or lack thereof, of our own politics and to draw critical attention to inaction on the part of White liberals.
Either version of Atticus could be us: rabid racists or liberal progressives. We make a choice. White supremacy is not biological. We learn it and it transforms our thinking, forcing us to support or resist the ideology.
Some White southerners rejected both molds and rooted themselves further to the left than Atticus ever leaned. They did not see a broken system, but rather one that was never meant to operate fairly in the first place. And these radical politics are still alive in the South.
Consider Anne Braden. She sought neither fame nor glory for the work she did in solidarity with Black southerners and allowed herself to be led by the movement and by Black directives. She nurtured and cherished relationships she formed with other organizers and leaders like Ella Baker, critiqued injustice wherever she saw it, and she evolved politically over time. Braden knew her mission, as a comrade to Black people, was to educate White people about how they participated and benefited from White supremacy.
While I acknowledge that there is a certain dignity about Atticus Finch, I look to Anne Braden. I can use her example to grapple with my own shortcomings. In addition, instead of fixating on Atticus, we need to read Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Pauli Murray, and Ida B. Wells to complicate our views of ourselves, and remind us that People of Color do not need saviors. They need comrades and self-reflective collaborators. For purposes of accountability, my motto is: Anne over Atticus, and Audre over all of it.