Posts Tagged ‘white privilege’

My first thought upon hearing that Atticus Finch was a segregationist was to wonder if the recent trend of naming boys “Atticus” would screech to a halt. As NPR moved on to a new topic and I made coffee in my kitchen, I pictured some frantic yuppie couple in Brooklyn or Nashville Googling “boys’ names” while their hospital overnight bag sat packed and ready in the corner. I’m not going to lie – I smirked at the image. Silly trendy yuppies.

But as my mother used to say, pointing one finger at someone else aims three back at yourself. If you, like me, are white, American, and named for an ancestor, the overwhelming odds are that you also tote a complicated cultural load.

Before I discuss the nonfiction truth of what it means to confront a legacy, let’s look at the fictional one. In Harper Lee’s universe of Maycomb, Alabama, Atticus Finch defends a black man in court in 1935 and rails against Brown v. Board of Education in 1955. I’m going to be blunt here: If this surprises you, there are some serious knowledge gaps you need to address regarding the South, the white moderate, and the sea change Brown ushered in. The Civil Rights history book, Carry Me Home, would be a good place to start. It’s long and multi-faceted. To Kill a Mockingbird is neither of those things; the novel so many Americans love was created for an entirely different purpose.

Mockingbird is a 20th century morality play. The racist townspeople whom Scout, Jem, and Dill encounter consist of a bitter old woman, a lynch mob, and Bob Ewell – a shiftless drunk who throws the n-word around with abandon, beats and rapes his daughter, and meets his demise because he sneak-attacks the Finch children. On the other side, we have Atticus Finch – America’s dream dad. Atticus dispenses wise advice about courage, empathy, and the fairness of the courts, all in a way his cherished children can understand. However, we readers learn very little about Tom Robinson, the man Atticus defends. All we really know is that Atticus and other white Maycombers consider Tom to be the “right” kind of black person. It’s clear throughout the book that Atticus has taken the case because he believes in upholding the fairness of the law. The law in 1930s Alabama was dominated by Jim Crow.

And so, in Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise “Scout” Finch comes home from New York City and the man who once called Tom Robinson “a quiet, humble Negro” is now telling her, “The Negros down here are still in their childhood as people.” Paternalism reigns in each Atticus, but Jean Louise is upset and disillusioned, and, from what I can tell, so are some journalists who have read the book already and at least one who hasn’t.

Y’all, of course Atticus is racist. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker some years ago, Atticus demonstrates his own prejudices throughout the novel. His words regarding the “trashy” Ewells and his chummy relationship with the Sheriff indicate that Atticus moved in the rarified air of the privileged white moderate. Also, while Atticus says a number of compassionate, moral things in Mockingbird, he never talks about overthrowing the system he’s working under – he mainly wants to make sure it works equally well for all parties.

We have to move past our Mockingbird understanding of racism. Racists are not only the Bob Ewells of the world, stumbling around full of malice and corn likker. Good people are racist, and I don’t mean that in an apologist sort of way. Matters of race are hard to discuss and even harder to understand, so we white people create this headspace where racists are thoroughly, demonstrably evil, and we are not. The truth is, if all racists were the KKKs and Bob Ewells, we would have figured out how to get rid of it all a generation ago – very few of us tolerate that degree of evil. The truth is, everyone is racist – or at least makes snap judgments based on race, which is my definition. Racism is as multi-faceted as we are. Like a number of white men of his class and standing, Atticus believed that most people were fundamentally good. He would never be so base as to attack a black man or use the n-word,  but he still believed that blacks and whites were intrinsically different and should lead separate lives. Atticus was wrong. He was not “a victim of his time.” He looked at the facts and drew the wrong conclusions. From the reviews I’ve seen of Watchman, Jean Louise recognizes as much.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I carry the name of an Atticus of my own. My middle name, Euline, was my grandmother’s. Grandma was born in Alabama in the early 1920s. She died when I was twelve, but I learned much from her in that first decade of my life. I took my first steps in her yard in Birmingham. She taught me about art and storytelling. I have a clear memory of the day she told me what a lie was and explained why I must never tell them. It was years after Grandma passed away when I learned she’d had nothing good to say about Martin Luther King or the end of Jim Crow. Considering that she grew up white and poor in the South, I might have surmised as much, but it’s still difficult to learn. And the thing is, if you’re a white Southerner and you’re paying attention, your memory is filled with Atticus Finches – neighbors, grandparents, and teachers who shaped your moral landscape, yet were themselves opposed to desegregation, often vocally so.

I want to defend my grandmother and the other role models of my childhood. I can’t say they were bad, nor can I say they were good. The long-gone folks whose space I now occupy, whose mantle I have taken up, were like me, I suppose, good in many ways and bad in many others. I don’t intend to vilify, lionize, or make excuses. The only thing I can do is what I hope my descendants and students will one day do for me – recognize that real people are complex, recognize their own fallibility in mine, learn, and press on to a more enlightened state.

Rather than despair at the racism of Atticus Finch or our grandparents, it should make us respect the Martin Luther Kings and Fannie Lou Hamers all the more. They were visionaries, and being a visionary takes far more than being simply good.

For the record, I would pass the name “Euline” along to a daughter, if I had one. The name evokes my family’s past as tenant farmers, my grandmother as a real-life Rosie the Riveter, and my mother’s lessons and good humor (Euline being her middle name as well). I would tell that daughter the truth about the past, just as my mother did for me, and I would hope that she would face those truths squarely and work in her present to improve upon the future.


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