Examining One’s Conscience in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

What is the purpose of writing a novel? Is it to entertain, to inform, to expose? Go Set a Watchman ( I will often refer to it as Watchman) does all three well and more! It holds one’s attention, its rivets at times, it exposes vices, it entertains, and it informs the reader by giving historical context to the novel, and greatest of all, it allows for thoughtful rumination on one of the greatest issues that seeks to still divides us all- race. For months leading up to the release of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s companion novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, I was not sure whether I desired to read it. When it was revealed that Atticus Finch, the father and attorney in both novels, was a segregationist, I admit that Watchman began to pique my interest. I wanted to know his thoughts, and what led him to hold such views.  I heard some English teachers talking about how disappointed they were in the social stance that Atticus Finch was now taking, and they were not sure that they wanted to teach the book. Their ambivalence further propelled me toward reading it. I ordered a copy soon after its release date, and it sat on my table for several weeks before I had the opportunity to read it.

I began to realize, while reading, that this novel resonated with me on many levels.  It spoke to me as: a Christian, as an individual, as an African-American, as a teacher, and as both a Northerner and a Southerner.  It caused me to reflect on my own upbringing, and to reflect on a historical tour that I took of the Deep South ten years ago this month (we managed to fly out the day before Hurricane Katrina hit land!).  If a historical novel’s purpose is to entertain, to inform, and to expose uncomfortable truths, then Watchman does its job.  Yes, this novel will make people uncomfortable, whether one is black or white, Christian or non-Christian, and an individualist, or a conformist. It will rivet the reader especially if he himself participated in conversations and activities that mirrored those discussed in the book, or whether he silently sat by without opining about his own thoughts on the subject. Many people of the last sixty or more years have had strong opinions on integration and on segregation. We often fear what we do not understand. We tend to not understand cultures that are different from ours, and we tend to place value judgments on some of their behaviors that directly conflict with ours. We can only see the impact of either segregation or integration on us individually instead of the impact on society as a whole. In Watchman, Jean Louise, the main character, helps us to ruminate, and with hope for tomorrow,  take action regarding our attitudes toward race and class, and toward conformity and individualism.

Go set A Watchman, begins with Jean Louise Finch ( she is rarely referred to as Scout in the novel) returning home to Maycomb, Alabama for her fifth annual visit.  She has been living in New York for the last five years, and her views of people have been informed by her environment, although the majority of her learning came from Atticus, her father. She knows that her ways and her attitudes are in stark contrast to those of her fellow Maycombians, but she continues to behave in a manner contrary to most of its citizens.  Her behavior, however, is tolerated because she is a Finch. Her friend, Hank, wants to marry her, but she is ambivalent toward wanting to marry him and refuses ultimately because they do not share the same views regarding both conformity and race.  He is considered white trash, and it is hard for him to rise above that station in life, although he tries. In the first third of the book, Lee sets the stage for the differences in behavior that Jean Louise displays, and that of its Maycomb citizens. She dresses differently, she behaves in an uncouth manner at times, and the expectation that she has of others is different from what they have of themselves. The action rises when she finds out that both her father and her friend, Hank, have joined a council that has been promulgated to maintain the status quo that the white citizens of Maycomb have enjoyed for many decades. They are against the NAACP legally fighting for the rights of blacks since the U.S. Supreme Court declared, In Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, that separate but equal was not equal, and therefore was unconstitutional. At that juncture in the novel, the action become less but more reflective through the verbose conversations that Jean Louise has with her uncle, her father, her aunt, and with Hank. Not one of them makes apologies for his or her beliefs; Each one tries to validate his or her position by giving historical context for the views.Image result for go set a watchman

Unlike Jean Louise, many of us do not want to acknowledge our thoughts on these racial issues because they may not be accepted, because they may not be politically correct, and because they may make us feel uncomfortable. Some of us are like Jean Louise or like Atticus, Dr, Finch, and even Hank. We either covertly or overtly discuss our thoughts. Jean Louise says that she is color blind. I admire that quality. How many of us have used the words “white trash, or nigger, or cracker? The ability to see people based on character alone is the best way to judge a person. It allows us not to prejudge. Jean Louise’s color blindness, however, causes her to question her home community. She realizes that she no longer fits in with her community. Jean Louise in the novel on page 150, questions ” What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked? No, not the last. What turned ordinary men into screaming dirt at the top of their voices, what made her kind of people harden and say “nigger” when the word had never crossed their lips before?” My thought is that the townspeople’s ideas had always been there, but the political events of the time had brought their feelings to the forefront. We should all strive to be like Jean Louise. Her uncle said to her in the novel, “You’re color blind, Jean Louise,” he said. “You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like.  You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is a burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people. She acknowledges, though, that she does not want to “especially …run out and marry a Negro or something.” Jean Louise shows her humanity and how she is still affected by race.

Through these conversations, one can see fear, conformity, and individualism as each one staunchly defends his position on the issue of equal rights in the United States as these rights relate to race and class structures that have been established through centuries of societal norms, laws, policies, and regulations.  In the end, Jean Louise learns that she must maintain her beliefs and her values, and that if she is to effect change on the masses, she has to surround herself around people whose values conflict with her own. How shall others hear her thoughts, if she only surrounds herself with people who think like she does? According to the novel’s definition of bigotry, (“obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion”) are we all either big or little bigots?

Although this book was written over sixty years ago, it still has relevance to our lives because issues of race and class permeate every aspect of life. It impacts education, employment, housing, and even our coteries. Because most of us are not color blind, we tend to see color as a stumbling block in almost every aspect of life. Lee in the novel, puts the NAACP in context, because it was a feared organization at that time. It fought for the rights of African-Americans.  Although the NAACP was founded in 1909, it did not gain prominence until many decades later. The NAACP was founded to help blacks secure rights that had heretofore been denied.  Lee helps us contextualize this organization and the rampant fears it generated.

Although one may not agree with everything in the novel, the ideas espoused are now part of the marketplace of ideas that allows us to thoughtfully and somewhat painfully debate the ideas and actions behind the main characters in this novel. The question that everyone must ask himself is whether he is a conformist or an individualist. He must ask if he values people based on both race and class, or based on character. Regardless of the answers, we must all ponder our behaviors so that we can move forward as people, regardless of nationality, race, class, creed. gender, or sexual orientation. There are many issues discussed in the book, and I cannot do them justice in this space. Please read the novel, and feel free to opine about the issues discussed in the novel. Perhaps in years to come, we can learn to evaluate people based on character instead of on artificial distinctions. We should be individuals. The color of our skin and how much money we have should not determine our outcome in life, where we can live, the quality of education, our friends, and whom we should marry. Let’s aspire to build better character within ourselves and to encourage our friends to do the same.

Personal Note

In August 2005, I had the privilege of meeting and having dinner with Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith, the first African-American to integrate Ole Miss, Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers, and the parents of one of the girls bombed in the church in Birmingham, Alabama. I also toured Alabama, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. During those ten days, I had the opportunity to learn experientially, concepts that I had only read about. Going to museums and historical sites impacted my life, and I will forever remember what I learned and will turnkey the information. Prior to this trip, offered to me gratuitously, I probably would have never gone to the Deep South.

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