Redefining Atticus Finch

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was a book that affected me deeply when I read it as a child, though it was an English assignment, it was a book I read with great interest. I read it multiple times during different stages of my childhood and early adulthood and it affected me profoundly each time, I found new meaning each time I reread the book. I wanted a father like Atticus Finch.

‘Go Set a Watchman’ shattered that illusion for the reader. Atticus Finch, was, after all, a product of his time, a racist white man who despised the NAACP and the Supreme Court for infringing on state’s rights and would have preferred a sort of ‘de facto segregation’ of neighborhoods, keeping the centuries old status quo. What’s up for debate is which is more preferable? Atticus’s brand of quiet unspoken racism or the raving, foaming at the mouth, George Wallace style of racism? Who can forget his inaugural speech when he was elected as governor of Alabama:

In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

Needless to say, poor Jean Louise Finch was aghast that her father and her childhood sweetheart and possible future husband Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton were racists and that this whole time they were just pretending to be good.

Jean Louise Finch (childhood nickname Scout) was always a late bloomer in every stage of life except for her blazing intellect fostered by Atticus at a very young age. In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, school to her was boring as she learned all that she needed to learn from her father, he read to both of his children whatever he was reading, whether it’s a legal book, non-fiction book, novel, anything. The seminal defining event in Scout Finch’s young life was when her father Atticus Finch defended a black man Tom Robinson, wrongly accused of raping and beating a white woman. Atticus took this case on knowing the kind of vitriol and backlash that he would experience from the town, he took it on because he knew for a fact it was impossible for Tom Robinson to have raped that white woman as he only had one arm and other physical limitations. The implication was that the sex was consensual which was even worse than rape in the Jim Crow days of the South. A white woman could never in her right mind ‘consent’ to sleeping with a black man so to cover that shame she will always cry rape.

By taking on this case Atticus Finch was risking his family’s personal safety as reprisals from the accuser’s family and others was very much a possibility. Especially since Atticus was implying in open court that the sex was consensual, thereby tarnishing the good name of a white woman, which was worse than the possible rape itself. The all white jury ended up convicting Tom Robinson of rape and was sentenced to jail. Everyone knew this would be the result even Atticus, but in the face of that he still defended the man to the best of his ability because it was the right thing. Atticus earned the respect of everyone in town and after the verdict was read, as Atticus was leaving the courthouse, everyone stood up as a sign of respect for his valiant effort.

Jean Louise Finch took this defining event in her childhood to mean that her father was ‘different’ from all the other bigots and racists in Maycomb and so it made living there more tolerable, Atticus never used the n-word that was bandied about from everyone’s lips. Atticus gave total respect to Calpurnia, their maid who served as surrogate mother to Scout growing up. Since Scout’s mother died when she was 2, she sees Calpurnia as the woman that raised her and Atticus gave her that respect. In the first chapters of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ it is revealed that Calpurnia finally had to retire from her job because she was getting so old and Atticus was doing more of the housekeeping than Calpurnia. It appears that Calpurnia was well taken care of by Atticus and was retired with financial security.

Just like with the defining event of her childhood, the shattering moment of her adulthood was when she catches Atticus and Henry Clinton attending a ‘council’ meeting which was a meeting where the town racists congregate once a week to discuss the ‘negro’ problem and all were welcome, Klan members, your local common bigot even white trash along with distinguished citizens like Atticus and Hank were given a place at the table and a platform to air their grievances about the NAACP and decisions the Supreme Court was handing down regarding black people’s rights, though it was couched as ‘infringing state’s rights’. Jean Louise was aghast at what she saw.

Scout Finch with her superior intellect wasn’t  quite as astute when it came to observing human nature and human behavior. She didn’t have the capability of picking up on the emotional nuances of the people she grew up with, she was a very black and white kind of girl. It was right or it was wrong because Atticus told her so. There was no gray with her. To the modern reader that it was perfectly reasonable or normal for Atticus to defend Tom Robinson and still hold racist views. Just because he is racist and believes in segregation doesn’t mean that a black man should go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, as an attorney, the idea alone could offend his sensibilities. In his mind, one’s got nothing to do with the other. Black people have rights, same rights as whites when it came to criminal law and that one shouldn’t be punished for a crime he didn’t commit, regardless of race, but when it comes to civil rights, the right to vote, bringing an end to segregation that’s a whole different story.

Defending a black man in court doesn’t affect Atticus’s private life, he still gets to live in a white neighborhood, where he doesn’t have to deal with black people, except the help, it’s a world he is comfortable in and sees no need to change it. As for his views about the black race in general being in its infancy when compared to the white race, that was a commonly held viewpoint at the time too. The black people weren’t ready to vote for leaders, they weren’t ready to receive equal education as whites, they weren’t ready to live, work and play alongside white people, they weren’t ‘there’ yet, developmentally. And the pesky NAACP has no business coming into the South and causing a ruckus by registering black folks en mass to vote as they have no idea just how backward their people are.

To go back even further, the great emancipator President Abraham Lincoln, though he freed the slaves, he was not ready to grant them the same equal rights as white citizens right away, if ever. President Lincoln freed the slaves because he knew that an advanced progressive nation cannot be enslaving its people and it was morally reprehensive to own slaves but it was for the survival of the Union that he freed the slaves. While he believed slavery was wrong on principle and should be outlawed, he was far from believing that black people were equal to white people. The book,“Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement” asserts that Lincoln didn’t believe that blacks could totally assimilate into white society and sought to ‘repatriate’ black people back to Africa or other places such as Belize, Guyana, Haiti etc. Some believe that this was the promise he had to make to the Northerners in order to get the Emancipation Proclamation through Congress and others say that Lincoln didn’t believe that black people should be assimilated into white society and believed that social mayhem would ensue so he wanted to avoid the racial strife that would result from the emancipation. The motive for repatriation of black people was unclear but the one thing is clear is that he didn’t view black and white people as equals. Freeing the slaves was a policy issue, it had to be done in order for America to maintain its credibility as a legitimate nation and one can’t do that if a part of the population is enslaved.

Children adore their parents unquestioningly, our mothers and fathers are our heroes, they can do  no wrong until we discover that they are human and make mistakes, then we get to a certain age to where they can do nothing right (teenage years) and then after the turmoil of teenage years and early adulthood, we settle back down and reconcile the fact that our parents are only just human and aren’t perfect but we love them anyway, just like how they love us with our flaws. And on this score, Jean Louise Finch was late to the game too, she was 26 years old when she found out Atticus wasn’t perfect like the god she worshipped, he was flawed like all of the others, but what’s worse she felt cheated, like he presented one side of himself to her and another to the rest of the world.

The truth is more complicated. Atticus’s strength as a father was to let his children be who they are even if they are contrary to his views. Even Scout acknowledged as much, that her father always let her be and never tried to change her, to the chagrin of their relatives, especially Aunt Alexandra. This is far easier said than done, to let your children be, accept them as they are without any hint of disapproval. It could also be that he knew his daughter worshipped him like a god and he didn’t want to shatter that image. He was also not an overbearing father with the obsessive need to control every detail of his children’s lives. He imparted his vast knowledge of the law and the ways of the world to his children and he let them run with that. During their ‘showdown’ where Jean Louise laid out all of her grievances with her father attending those council meetings, the climax of the conversation where Atticus asked her if she felt blacks and whites were equals, Jean Louise said she didn’t know but she knows that black people are human beings (not subhuman like her father and Hank believes them to be) and from one fellow human being to another, they deserve respect, hope and adequate education. Jean Louise knows that she has gotten this far in life, living in New York City is because of her superior education by the local public school and of course from Atticus.

The release of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ came a pivotal time in our nation’s history. Though we are no longer facing the kind of racism like the Jim Crow South, there are still significant hurdles we face as a nation when it comes to race, especially the issue of police brutality and mass incarceration of blacks and latinos, often for nonviolent drug offenses, which have blighted a whole generation. In this current election cycle, you have candidates like Donald Trump who openly deride immigrants, other candidates who are suspicious of minorities but using other issues like feminism and religious liberty as a cover for the covert racism. Like Atticus Finch, the old order is changing and they don’t like it, they find ways to preserve the old status quo to suit their comforts. America is changing and it’s changing at a faster pace than it was in the 1950’s and many though not vile racists by definition, they are still uncomfortable with the change.

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