Book Spotlight: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Here there be spoilers.

When I told the librarian who was checking the book To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAMB) by Harper Lee out to me, I told him I was doing so in prelude to reading Go Set A Watchman (GSAW). The man begged me not to read it. He said that Atticus wsa made out to be a racist. Since he’d read TKAMB as a child who idolized Atticus, he refused to believe that his hero would end up racist. I don’t think I even read TKAMB in high school. I might have seen the movie. So his spiritied dissuasion did not affect me. I wanted to read TKAMB, and I was going to read GSAW. I figured that I could read it with less dislike for it since none of my heros were being dismantled. This time.

Harper Lee is a good writer. She really is. I like the way the story unfolds in GSAW just as I did with TKAMB. Unlike with TKAMB, I had no idea of the actual plot of the book. After a while, I wondered to myself where Harper Lee was going to this story. When Zeebo’s grandson gets into trouble while driving, I thought another court case was going to be central to the story. Turns out that it doesn’t really go anywhere. The plot was an excuse for Scout to visit Calpurnia who, by this time, is old and broken at her grandson’s troubles.

In this story, Scout returns to Maycomb for two weeks to visit her now aged father, Atticus. He’s crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. His sister Zandra takes care of him. Older brother Jem long since died from the same kind of heart troubles that killed their mother. Scout goes on some dates with Hank, but she’s really not too into him. But it’s when Scout reminisces about games that she, Jem, and Dill played when they were young that I feel it.

I felt the magic in Lee’s writing. That’s when I knew exactly why the publisher, who read GSAW first because it was written first, told Lee to go back and write about Scout’s young life. All the magic in her writing is there. Lee wrapped up all the loose ends in TKAMB, like she didn’t in GSAW. That’s what makes TKAMB such a darling book. It’s about Scout’s life as a child as seen through her eyes, allowing for more innocent and open-eyed approach to the topic of racism in the South. GSAW did not have the same magic throughout. Still a good read.

And it’s really not clear to me that Atticus is racist until the end when Scout confronts him about his participation at a men’s meeting with Hank, Scout’s Maycomb boyfriend. A speaker rails against the Negroes (the word in the book and not my nomenclature). By association, Scout assumes Atticus holds those same extreme views until we get to hear from Atticus what it is he exactly believes.

Yes, Atticus is racist, but in more of a paternalistic way than in an “I hate them” kind of way. According to Atticus’ explanation, the relationship between the whites and Negroes in Maycomb County changed after the NAACP came in to try and get judges to start getting Negros on juries. Negroes started (shock! horror! dismay!) having an attitude and getting uppity. Well, hell no! That was not gonna fly with those Southern whites. They thought the right and proper place for Negroes was in obeisance to whites. Since Negroes weren’t gonna stay in their place, the whites were not gonna have that. Hence, the whites were organizing.

Worse, Atticus goes on to explain that the Negroes are like children. If the NAACP was going to come to Maycomb County to rile up all the Negroes to vote, then they were gonna vote in themselves all in a bloc (just like whites already do, Atticus, hello!!), and they had no business in goverment cuz they didn’t know anything.

Well, Atticus, now who the hell’s fault do you think that is? You enslave a people for centuries. Then you only begrudgingly free them. You try to keep them separate so you don’t have to deal with them or work with them. You don’t educate them the way you educate your own children. You keep them in grinding poverty and beat them down and kill them for the slightest social infractions. You use the power of the state, the courts, and the cops to injure and maim and kill and keep them down with impunity.

I only have one question:

WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?

If Atticus thought Negroes needed to be educated before they could run for government, then EDUCATE THEM!! TAKE SOME DAMN RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SITUATION YOU CREATED, WHITE MAN! THAT’S what you do. You do NOT do whatever you can to keep the status quo. That’s not a real solution. And look at us! It’s decades later and not much has changed. Some, yes. But not enough. Oh, not nearly enough!

In any case, I think Atticus racism is besides the point of the book. The point of Atticus being racist is so that Scout can have a major blowout with her father who she has idolized. Scout learns that even her father, her idol, is a human being who is flawed with flawed views. They had it out. Now they can move on together as two adults instead of father and daughter. Sometimes, we have to accept that someone we love has a view that we hold anathema. If we do not idolize them, then we are more likely to do that.

And here we are back at my librarian friend who did not like that Atticus, his self-professed idol, ended up having some views that flew in the face of his prior knowledge of him. I find it interesting that he and Scout were in the same position. Yet only one of them was able to change, accept Atticus as a flawed figure, and move on.

Advertisements

Book Spotlight: Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I only recently became aware of Ta-Nehisi Coates from an article on Rawstory.com or Salon.com. Once my interest was piqued, I requested a copy of the book from the library. In the intervening time, I read at least two fiction novels. Delving into fictional worlds is my primary method of escapism and helps me forget a lot of things I would rather not remember. It unfortunately also includes a lot of things that I might rather remember instead, like what I liked about him that made me want to read his books.

I knew ahead of time that he had written the book as a long letter to his son, Salomi. I rather like that kind of one sided conversation that an author has with a particular reader, the most poignant being from a parent to a child or vice versa. When I first started writing in an online journal to read by my friends, thinking of them helped me frame my thoughts. Reading this book is being on the listening end of a very private and emotional conversation filled with love, fear, and hope.

What I like most is that he writes plainly and openly to his son. Coates does not soften his words because they are not cruel, simply the truth of what it is to experience life as a black man in America. He does not exaggerate to bolster a claim that lacks a solid foundation. His experience lights his truth. He does not hide his thoughts from his son or from us. His raw honesty to his son about what to expect in life gives his writing strength, depth, and insight. I also think that his honesty and unwillingness to look away from the truth comes not only from his experience as a black man, but as an atheist. He has no God or spirituality to fall back on, just the realization that life is beautiful and precious and irreplaceable because it is the only one that we have.

In the midst of reading, I saw again that there are some things that I will never understand about the black experience. Black bodies can be taken and abused, crushed, and killed at any time in way that happens much less with white bodies. Justice almost never comes. Mr. Coates’ honesty about this and his unwillingness to be anything but honest for his son’s sake form a gripping narrative interwoven with examples from his personal life, along with others.

There are some things I understand better or differently after reading Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Not all of these conclusions can be traced to the book. Some things that I see now or more clearly include:

  • The foundation of American commerce was built on black bodies, i.e. slavery. To call it slavery disguises reality: black bodies were controlled and put to use for the profit of their white owners.
  •  In the Civil War, the Confederate South did not want to give up their right to enslave black bodies for profit. Calling this a way of life disguises what happened to black bodies.
  • Despite the North winning the Civil War or the passage of the 15th and 19th amendments or The Voting Rights Act or The Civil Rights movement or #BlackLivesMatter, institutionalized racism exists. As long as it exists, black and brown bodies suffer disproportionately.
  • It seems that some whites are still angry that they cannot enslave black bodies and have been busy trying to punish them ever since. They do not want to give up a defeated flag. They do not want welfare. They do not want affordable health care. They want black bodies to go to work to get off welfare, but make laws that prevent people with jail time from getting hired. And they especially do not want to give up their flags or give welfare or see people covered by health insurance or hire someone if it’s going to help black bodies and hurt poor white bodies. As long it doesn’t hurt rich white bodies, anything’s on the table. They want to call it a way of life or tradition. They want to silence the truth of black bodies, voices, minds, and expression with their revisionist histories.
  • Black bodies are blamed for their violence done to their bodies as rape victims are blamed for their rapes. Blackness automatically equals a thug. Black bodies are told to “be twice as good”, as if this could save them from being beaten killed in the same way that telling a woman to be “twice as modest” wouldn’t work to prevent rape. Rape exists in the land of the burka. Death of black bodies because of institutionalized racism exists in the land of the free.
  • As long as people live in a Dream that there is such a thing as white and it has a singular ethnicity or is associated with lightness, goodness, and righteousness, black bodies will continue to live in danger for speaking too loudly, for playing music too loud, for posing like a “thug”, for wearing a hoodie, for not pulling over for a plain clothes police officer driving an unmarked vehicle in the middle of nowhere, for playing with a toy rifle at a playground.
  • The only solution to break up the systemic and institutionalized racism is to break the Dream. There is no one true white race. Racism is a physical experience for black bodies because their bodies are often not under their control to save; they cannot get or expect justice when harmed. That is the reserve of the privileged, of white bodies.

When I first read the title, it sounded similar to the phrase “between you and me” as in “this is our little secret.” However, the title signifies something much deeper and more sinister. There is a breach between the world at large and Ta-Nehisi Coates, between the world of the white bodies and black bodies. Racism and the dream of whiteness sundered the worlds of white and black bodies with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. Black bodies have not been the only ones at the bottom, but they have been at the bottom of the American Dream since America’s inception.

Let’s tear that shit down. I believe that we have a much better future ahead of us, if only we’d dare. The way it is now is not sustainable or right in any sense of the word.

I Finally Read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

Please Note: Spoilers!

Many years ago, I saw the movie (1962) on TV with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford as Scout and Jem, and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. (Any movie with Gregory Peck (or Cary Grant) is a movie worth watching, in my opinion, and To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) was no exception.) With all the hullabaloo with the release of Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) by author Harper Lee, I decided to finally read TKAM.

I had read online in a couple of different articles that, in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch was a racist. One article in particular blasted Atticus’ attitude through TKAM as a white man’s paternalistic attitude. I wanted to immerse myself in Scout’s world before going on to read GSAW and to look for signs of paternalism and racism in TKAM. Since it had been years since I watched the movie, I wondered if maybe I had missed something when I had seen it. I was also interested in seeing if there was a thread of consistency between the two novels in Atticus’ character.

When I picked up my TKAM from the library, one of the regular librarians assisted me. As he checked the book out to me, I explained that I was reading the book for the first time in preparation for reading the sequel. He forcefully instructed me to not read GSAW. He then told me that Atticus Finch in TKAM had been his hero growing up, and that GSAW was not nearly as well written as Lee’s first novel. I told him that I had read that criticism of her writing elsewhere. I mentioned to him that even her publisher had sent GSAW back to Lee, asking her to write about Scout’s young life instead. To Kill a Mockingbird was the lovely result. In any case, I had to read TKAM so I went home with the book and began to read.

A couple of things stood out to me. Although I looked for signs of white man’s paternalism in TKAM from Atticus Finch, I found no evidence of that. I am a white woman, so take my opinion for what it’s worth: just an opinion. Atticus Finch treated everyone with respect in that novel, no matter what their station in life and, even more amazingly, no matter how they treated other people. He understood that people were a product of their environments. Some people had hard lives and hard situations that, even when the other people are at their worst, deserve our respect and sympathy. Whether it was Bob Ewell, Nathan Radley, or Mrs. Dubose, it was Atticus Finch’s compassion for others that made him the least paternalistic or racist person on the planet.

I did discover one instance of a paternalistic attitude, but it wasn’t towards any of the African Americans in town, it was towards women. In one scene, Atticus jokes with Jem that the reason that there are no women on the jury is because “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried—the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.” That was the only instance that came close to any of the -isms, but it would not be enough to convince me that Atticus was sexist. That was not really one of the issues meant to be addressed in TKAM anyway; it would have been racism, if anything.

Another thing I noticed is that Lee took pains to say at least twice in clear writing that the reason why the townspeople were unhappy with Atticus Finch is that he had committed the unforgivable act of wanting to defend Tom Robinson. Yes, Atticus had been appointed, but he wanted to serve as a defender of Tom Robinson. When Tom Robinson was shot trying to escape, it was Calpurnia and Atticus who went to Mrs. Robinson’s home to deliver the bad news. So, no, I do not believe that Atticus Finch is in any way, shape, or form racist nor displays white man’s paternalism in TKAM.

What really struck me about TKAM was how much of the book went to talk about the games that the children played. The children Jem, Scout, and Dill work themselves up to be scared of the secretive Radley family next door and scheme to get a closer look. All three take turns make up games during the three summers that they shared together. I’m guessing that at least a third of the book is about the games that the children played.

I liked that the book was written from Scout’s point of view. Children are more innocent, especially in the mid-1930s when this story was set, and see things more clearly, without as many prejudices that we have as adults (although definitely more imagination). I found it to be a believable filter for the story because children can notice things as they are more than adults.

I also noticed that Harper Lee’s birthday was 1926. That means that, during her childhood years, she would have been about the same age that Scout was when the story takes place. Makes me wonder whether anything like this happened in her life that she saw.

When I turned in TKAM, the librarian whom I saw was not there. I didn’t see him until a few days later. I told him what I told you here. I find it hard to believe that the Atticus Finch in TKAM would have suddenly become all sorts of racist by the time GSAW takes place.  If Atticus is actually portrayed as racist in Go Set A Watchman, then they can be treated as two different books.

I still plan on reading Go Set A Watchman, but my expectations are that the writing will be poorer and the characters different.

Racism is The Devil

At one of my prior jobs, I worked with a young African American woman, S (not her real initial). S told me that her grandmother would refer to things that she thought were wrong as “the Devil.” To me, racism is the Devil, one that we need to exorcise from American society immediately.

Recently, eight churches in the South with African American congregations have been lit on fire and burned to the ground. Two have been confirmed as arson, but it’s hard not to assume what the causes for the rest of them might be. Now it’s possible that at least one of them is not arson, but I would be surprised. More than that? I’m doubtful, but open to being proven wrong.

The burning of these churches sickens and angers me, and I am not even a religious person. A place of worship is a sacred space to believers and, as such, should be a haven from these things. I know they haven’t been. Not in Birmgingham, Alabama in 1963, and, sadly, not now, either.

I am thrilled that the Confederate flag is being taken down off of state grounds in the South. The Confederate flag as such is a statement of the South’s refusal to submit to the fact that they lost a war fought in the 1800s and that they wanted and lost the rights to a system wherein whites could own black slaves as property. Yes, it’s part of the history of the South, but it’s part of the past now, of their racist and political past – a part where whites dominated blacks, could kill them with impunity (not much unlike today), where separate but equal were anything but that. Time to put the Confederate flag into the past, to stop glorifying it as anything other than the racist and oppressive symbol that it is, and move on. Racist and white supremists see that flag up and see it as a reminder of the righteous of their cause. The civil rights movement happened; let’s treat it like it did. Taking down the Confederate flag off of state grounds isn’t the biggest step in the world towards racial equality, but it’s a tiny step in the right direction. And well past time.

I hate racism with a passion. Racism is a belief system trying to cover up the individual’s self-loathing by masquerading as pride. If racists were confident about their own inherent value, then the thought that they were better and others inferior would never enter their heads. They would love themselves as themselves and see no reason to hate. Racism is a greedy, world-half-full-and-it’s-my-half philosophy. It is bankrupt in all senses – personally, publicly, morally, spiritually, and physically. Racism is a hate-based cancer. Just like negative thoughts proliferate in your head if you let them, racist thoughts feed and grow by their own power. Racism is helpless internal anger targareted at an innocent external target.

If you need to, be angry at the system. Be angry that life isn’t fair. Be angry that you aren’t treated fairly or given opportunities. Be angry that you are turend away and scoffed at and shit on. Deal with all that – really deal with it. Look at the real causes of that, the imbalances in the system, and invest in doing something positive with your life instead of seeking to destroy the lives of others. Stop blaming the poor and people of color for the failures in your own white life. We are all responsible for ourselves. We have the most control over our lives. So turn your attention to yourself instead of hating others.

No doubt, standing up to address the real political and cultural issues in our society is hard work. You put yourself at risk by standing up to the system, trying to help the disaffected, and fighting the powers that be. You might become a target. Jesus knew that. This was his realization in the Garden of Gesthemene. After he prayed to God to “take this cup away”, the cup that was his suffering to come on the cross, Jesus knew that the only way to make a difference was take the step that needed to be taken, to let others hate, revile, and punish him. Jesus knew he had to be the face of protest and principle in the face of his own annihiliation. It is the same for anyone who steps up for what is right. There is no other way.

This is the crux of what protestors in our society today do. Activism is the only way to make the changes that you want to see in the world (to paraphrase Gandhi). We cannot speak just for ourselves. We must stand up and speak for those whose voices are less acknowledged until the acknowledgement comes. Writing and publishing are one way, whether blogging or writing letters to government officials. We can make phone calls and give money to causes we support. We can volunteer for organizations working for social justice. We need to get the word out that racism is not acceptable in our society. We need to educate, and, most of all, we need to work together across all income and race lines.

I look forward to the day that we can look at the back of racism as it recedes into the past of our great American history. I never thought I would live to see marriage equality prevail in the United States. As a result, I harbor a small hope that maybe we, as a society, will see significant strides in the decline of racism. Let’s do this work together because America does not need racism.

Fear and Loathing in Ferguson

I don’t normally wander into offering my opinion on current events. I hate getting into arguments with people, and I try to avoid posts that invite vitriol and threats, like one such as this might. However, a friend on Facebook mentioned that Robin Williams was getting far more press in her feed than the events in Ferguson, so I felt compelled to tip the balance in the other direction.

The Way We Were?

In my heart, I believe that many people in this country are good, decent people. Yet, as a white woman born of Italian immigrants, I have seen the worst of the worst that we do to each other, the blame we place, and the truths we deny.

And I wonder whether the brutality that African-Americans live under in this country still has roots in centuries-old WASP beliefs that races out of Africa are inferior, comprised of wild animals that were made by God for the white race to subject and use. Because, you know, God is white (that’s sarcasm, dear reader). This “fear of the black man” thing seems to be alive and well.

Slavery and the birth of this country went hand in hand. We cannot escape that this great land was partially built on the torture, abuse, and exploitation of Africans who were brought to this country as work horses. Early Americans saw them as property to be bought and sold.

Things.

They were thought of and treated as things to be used and discarded instead of living, breathing humans with hearts and love and families.

The thought makes me ill.

Fear and Loathing

I am appalled at the way some police officers treat some people in this country. Every ethnic group gets hassled, but the seemingly unbridled brutality against African-Americans by some in law enforcement shocks me. Young men seem to bear the brunt of it. Countless stories of mistreatment, unfairness, beatings, and death! I cannot imagine the kind of heartbreak that families endure in these communities.

I mean, WHO CARES if two young African-American males are walking in the street? Why hassle them? I wonder why the officer wasn’t simply concerned about their safety. If pedestrians walking in the street is a safety issue, then you should ask them to walk on the sidewalk. Is that really a reason to get your gun out, officer? It seems to me that that particular officer was looking for a fight. Oh, he got one. Not the one he expected, I’m sure.

Oh! He went for your gun? Well where the fuck was it if his hands were up in the air? Don’t get me wrong. I get the self-defense thing. But when an officer is this tightly wound, they could disintegrate a spider with a shotgun and claim it was justified. And the juries and courts just go, “Oh, yeah. Ok. No problem.” Being frightened should not be an unrestricted license to kill another person.

The Blame Game

I heard that some Ferguson rioters carried shotguns, so the police state force was justified. I hear you. I do. But, to blame the victim for everything all the damn time, is morally wrong and invites lawlessness from law enforcement. I won’t blame victims in just the same way I won’t blame rape victims for wearing a skirt too short.

Fuck that “blaming victims and absolving aggressors” shit. Aggressors of all stripes need to be reigned the EFF in, whether in law enforcement or not. Blame might be one way to identify who the involved parties are, but, after that, it’s an utterly useless tool for solving problems.

Decent People

Social standing is no indicator that you will be treated like a decent human being, either. You can still be hassled and blamed. African-American Washington Post Wesley Lowery was arrested in Ferguson, as was white colleague Ryan Reilly who reports for the Huffington Post. Both were arrested when they did not vacate the premises fast enough for the police. Did you get that?

For not moving fast enough.

Where was the life-threatening emergency that necessitated such impatience? It’s this kind of thing that makes you want to tear your hair out. At least, their lives were not endangered.

If Ferguson is in racial meltdown, don’t you, as an officer, have anything better to do than arrest two reporters simply because you wanted them to get out in 10 seconds instead of 8? It takes time to clear out a restaurant. If you are a patient cop, then give the customers time. Because the people in McDonald’s were customers before you walked in with a purpose in mind. It’s called appropriate crowd control, not how to arrest a crowd of people in one easy step. Officers: Let’s please stop treating everyone you encounter during a crisis as an enemy.

Stop Making Shit Up

Grabbing someone and yelling, “Stop resisting!” has got to cease being proof of someone resisting arrest. At the very least, please counter this with cooperating statements, such as, “Yes, officer, I am cooperating.” Do not give them the ammunition they need to blame you for your arrest by getting upset.

Besides, you only do yourself the disservice because the likelihood of a reprimand or justice through the courts is extremely low, unless you are white. Then, maybe, you might have a chance. However, being white is no guarantee of justice either. People from many backgrounds have been coerced into confessions or had evidence withheld that resulted in their convictions by conviction-happy DA’s who forgot their job is to preserve justice. And that’s just Texas.

(Sorry, Texas peeps. I’m not picking on you. The story just sticks in my mind.)

What to Do if You are Arrested

The ACLU has great online resources for you to read if you want to be educated and prepared to know what to do when you are arrested.  Remember, being arrested can happen to anyone at anytime. No one is safe, but some of us are less safe than others – sometimes remarkably less so.