Atticus Finch and the Slave Mentality

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By Joi A. Tramuel

As someone born twenty years after the release of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I know that popular culture puts it on a pedestal. In an effort to write from a clear perspective I watched the movie version starring Gregory Peck. Given the recent re-emergence of police brutality, I viewed the movie from a different perspective.

Atticus Finch’s depiction as a confederate flag-waving klansmen in Go Set a Watchmen does not surprise me. Even though autocorrect continues hounding me to capitalize klansmen, I refuse to do so. Does the fact that Atticus turned out to be this racist old White man living in Maycomb, Alabama, really surprise anyone? The rural South is the home of the Confederacy and White men pretend to be someone they’re not, reinforcing the distrust Black-Americans have for the “White man”.

Although the movie focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson and the book highlights the childhood experiences of Jem and Scout, I questioned Atticus’ intentions throughout the movie. His passion for the law and justice did not extend to civil rights. The court appointed him to Tom Robinson’s case to give the appearance of a fair trial.

Atticus knew that he’d lose the case. Finch defended an innocent Black man to burnish his image within Maycomb’s Black community. That doesn’t mean that he wanted his children to play with Black children … let alone go to school with them. Many Southern Whites who don’t mind Black people as long as they live separate lives.

Just like any older adult, Atticus sees his life coming to an end and voices his honest opinions on everything—including race relations. The sequel informs readers that Jem died but doesn’t say how. The involvement of a Black man in Jem’s death might explain Atticus’ bitterness, especially after working the high-profile case of Tom Robinson. He and his family suffered as the “n***** lovers” in town.

Perhaps a White man killed Jem and pinned the homicide on a Black man. At the end of the movie, Boo Radley killed Mr. Ewell and the sheriff told Atticus that he would not pursue charges against him, a sort of karmic resolve. If a Black person cannot be seen as a good person and a White man cannot be a bad person then we are still lost, the slave mentality demonstrated by people’s jaw-dropping reaction to the evolution of Mr. Finch in Harper’s Go Set a Watchmen.