In American letters and mythology, there are few characters as noble as Atticus Finch. The gentleman, lawyer, and single father from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” has been the very model of masculine decency for decades. Whether through the dulcet delivery of the classic novel or the buttoned-up dignity of Gregory Peck’s movie portrayal, Atticus has been loved as few figures of fiction have.
As reviews trickle out for Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” written before, but taking place after, her masterpiece, one bit of news has dominated: Atticus Finch is a racist. Had he been a historical figure, we would say Atticus Finch was a racist. But as a fictional character, he is a racist, and it is up to us to decide what that means.
The Wall Street Journal review of Lee’s new book suggests many people will feel cheated by the revelation of Atticus’s racist attitudes. Perhaps this is true. But do we have any reason to feel cheated or betrayed? Did the Atticus Finch of “To Kill A Mockingbird” lead us to be believe that he saw the races as equal? In fact, there is nothing in the twentieth century’s seminal novel on race from the white perspective to lead us to any such belief.
In the 1930s, Everyone Was Racist
Atticus Finch was an adult, white male in the 1930s deep South. For him to have believed that blacks and whites were equals would have flown not only in the face of his upbringing but in the face of science. Before the early twentieth century biologist Charles Davenport and his followers’ views of eugenics became labelled “scientific racism,” they were simply labelled “science.”
Just as is the case today, the educated class held the pronouncements of science quite dearly. The best science of Atticus’s time would have confirmed the belief that whites were superior and interbreeding was bad for mankind. That Atticus would not have said this directly in the 1930s is hardly surprising. It was a belief so widely held that it barely required mentioning. By the 1950s of “Go Set a Watchman,” this was no longer true.
The closest Atticus comes to expressing the notion of equality comes in his closing argument in the case of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. He says:
You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.
Making the very Christian argument that we are all sinners by no means suggests Atticus Finch would have viewed blacks as equals or supported integration. It seems like a hard circle for us to square. It seems it was a hard circle for Atticus’ daughter, Jean Louise, as well. The realization that Atticus harbored deeply racist views challenges us with the idea of the moral racist. This kind man, this model father, this defender of the underprivileged was a racist. Is that a concept we can still accept?
You Can Still Be Good If You’re Not Perfect
Atticus Finch has one central claim to the moral high ground. Although he may not have believed that all men are truly equal, he certainly did believe that all men are equal in the eyes of the law. His fidelity to the rule of law, regardless of the prevailing racial attitudes of the day, is what makes him such a remarkable character for his time. His firm insistence that Robinson have a fair trial is the triumph and the tragedy of “To Kill A Mockingbird”: The triumph of standing up for one’s principles; the tragedy of that just not being enough, and seeing the system you believe in fail.
Like Jean Louise, I was the child of a criminal-defense attorney. My mother represented Eddie Africa of the MOVE 9 in 1980 who were convicted, many believe wrongly, of the murder of Officer James Ramp in Philadelphia. She later represented Kevin Brinkley, who has been in jail for three decades for a murder his brother has repeatedly confessed to. I don’t mean to run down my mom—she won a few, as well—but her frustration when young men, usually young black men, were not protected by the rule of law she swore by was difficult to watch. But not as difficult as knowing and sharing the pain of her clients’ families. She understood that the poison of racism was at work in these losing efforts. Surely Atticus did, as well. So how could that have failed to temper his racist beliefs?
To understand the disconnect between knowing the system failed as a result of racism and Atticus himself being a racist, we must look at racism as first and foremost an irrational position. This is not how we view racism at present. We view it as a moral failing, an emotional response or a representation of pure evil. But at bottom it is irrational. There is no basis upon which to believe that a person’s race defines or fundamentally describes him in any way. Atticus thought there was. So did most of the other well informed folks of his day. But for his daughter, both the Scout of “Mockingbird” and the Jean Louise of “Watchmen,” the irrational irritant of racism was a scourge to be destroyed.
People Can Be Two Things at Once
Lee employs two powerful images of animals in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” One is eponymous, as Atticus explains to his children what his father taught him upon first giving him a gun. Scout relates it: “‘Remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. ‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’”
The other image is of Atticus shooting and killing a mad dog prowling the street in front of his home. Robinson is the only character shot to death in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” So is Robinson the mockingbird, or the mad dog? In fact, he is both. When Tom is the pleasant, harmless black man who offers to help break up a chifferobe, he is the mockingbird, and killing him is a sin. But when racism and oppression drive Tom crazy enough to flee the police after his wrongful conviction, he is the mad dog, and killing him is a civic duty. Atticus knew executing Tom was morally wrong, but legally justified.
With this metaphor, Lee was tapping into the idea of the psychological toll that racism placed upon black people. It harkens to W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of the psychological wage—the unseen advantages that whites have in American society. If that sounds familiar, it should. But unlike Peggy McIntosh’s invisible knapsack of privilege theory, easy answers, and quick confessions, DuBois created a nuanced and complicated theory that defies viral video fixes.
The Atticus Finch Challenge
More than anything else, “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a coming-of-age story, a loss of innocence. Judging by the reviews of “Go Set A Watchman,” that innocence would never return for Jean Louise. But for all of us as a nation, the revelation of Atticus Finch’s unrepentant racism is an opportunity. It is a rare gift from an author who has already given us so much. Until last week, we had seen Atticus fail, but we had never seen him as a failure. Now we have.
It is often said that America is a young nation. Compared to some, it is. But America is no longer the child it was in 1950s. We no longer hold our fathers, founding or otherwise, to be the infallible givers of liberty. All of us as sons and daughters eventually learn of the faults of our parents. Lies, manipulations, shortcomings. But for most of us, notwithstanding the pain of such realizations, we embrace our parents, and whisper to ourselves a promise to be better.
As we watch the Confederate flag recede into the unseen corners of history, we ask ourselves if Atticus Finch must suffer this fate, as well. Can we, as we do with Abraham Lincoln, look past Finch’s belief that the races are unequal? Have we learned enough to understand the complex nature of his character and times and forgive him his sins? Or have we learned enough to refuse such forgiveness and hold his legacy cheap? Either way, Atticus Finch challenges us, as he always has, to stand up for something and fight for it. For my part, I hope we can hold on to him, like the parent who disappoints, but still loves us.