The Coziness of Structural Racism

Today, an author will have her second book published—some 55 years after her first book was published. The book, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before her (up until now) one-hit wonder, To Kill a Mockingbird, and is a sequel to the events in that book. Already it is causing a huge stir, because Scout, now a grownup Jean Louise, returns to her hometown to find her father, the revered Gregory Peck—no, sorry, Atticus Finch—is a racist. As one headline puts it, “Go Set a Watchman Sparks Collective Freakout Among Critics” (http://www.10news.com/newsy/go-set-a-watchman-sparks-collective-freakout-among-critics).. This is because Atticus Finch discusses African-Americans as childlike and segregation as a necessary evil.

Harper Lee asked that the book be published as she wrote it back in 1957; in doing so, she can put any controversy down to her first efforts as a novelist and to the range of acceptable attitudes of the times. The book, however, has disturbed many who want to believe that racism only affects the “bad guys.” We would prefer to believe that, even in the Jim Crow south, there were those who rose above racial prejudice. But that statement in and of itself is riddled with the structural racism that underpins America (and many other societies). By “those who rose above racial prejudice” what we really mean is white people who rose above, and specifically white liberals.

Does the sequel to Harper Lee’s book really show a different Atticus Finch?

Another author who grew up in the American South once said, “I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices or caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being–that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.” This author, like Harper Lee, once published an idealized view of American childhood that became a classic—and then, some years later, followed it up with a sequel that has been reviled and challenged for its depiction of racist attitudes in the South. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer first appeared in 1876, and has been hailed ever since as the quintessential depiction of American boyhood. His Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) has had a more dubious reputation, being hailed by some and banned by others from the time of its initial publication. Twain’s books, and his experience with publishing them, are pertinent to the discussion over Harper Lee’s works as well.

Twain & John T. Lewis Contemplating a racist society.  Photo by Dave Thomson

The Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library’s 1885 response to Huckleberry Finn is particularly enlightening. Concord was the home of many liberals of 19th Century America, people who opposed and criticized the practices of slavery before the Civil War and continuing racism after it. The Alcott family, the Emersons, and the Thoreaus all lived there, and many radical reformers passed through as well. When Huckleberry Finn was published, the Boston Transcript reported that the Concord Public Library decided not to put it into circulation, characterizing the book as “rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating” (you can find the text of the newspaper item in the Norton edition of Huckleberry Finn). The library already stocked Tom Sawyer, however. The earlier book had been labelled by William Dean Howells (who lived just down the road from Concord in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and who edited the Atlantic Monthly) as “a book full of entertaining character, and of the greatest artistic sincerity” (this review is likewise in the Norton edition of Tom Sawyer). That Tom Sawyer is suitable for children and Huckleberry Finn might not be is purportedly based on the elevating characters (or lack thereof).

But in fact, the difference between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is the acceptance and awareness of a racist society. Reading Tom Sawyer allows the reader to focus on Tom’s point of view, one which not only accepts slavery and prejudice against people like “Injun” Joe, but does not even notice it. Tom accepts slavery as a given fact, and even though Jim, in this novel, is described as a “small colored boy” (12), Tom is content to let him work for him while he plays hooky from school and otherwise is able to free himself from societal regulation. He does not see that his freedom depends (at least in part) on the enslavement of others, and thus the readers are also directed away from seeing this paradox.

That all-American boy Tom Sawyer finds it amusing to play on the fears of another.  Illustration from the first edition of Huckleberry Finn by EW Kemble.

That all-American boy Tom Sawyer finds it amusing to play on the fears of another. Illustration from the first edition of Huckleberry Finn by EW Kemble.

Similarly, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is able to flee to her family’s servant, Calpurnia, for comfort at any time and yet not see anything wrong with the fact that the “Negros” live in “cabins” (252) while serving the white people living in houses. Atticus Finch may defend an African-American when many other white people refuse to do so, but he still maintains the hierarchy of the society which places white people in positions of leadership and black people in servitude. But this is acceptable because Atticus is kind to Calpurnia and Scout loves her. Readers of Tom Sawyer and To Kill a Mockingbird are both directed to embrace the African-American characters as part of the lovable world that their main (child) (white) characters live in, even sympathize with those characters at times, but not to question the underlying system that created the inequalities. After all, there are good white men, like Judge Thatcher and Atticus Finch, who will ensure that justice is done. Twain’s later novel Huck Finn is partly controversial because Tom Sawyer is shown to be, not just indifferent to, but complicit in the racism of the American South. Tom, who seems a lovable scamp in Tom Sawyer for tricking Jim into whitewashing part of Aunt Polly’s fence, becomes something more sinister when readers discover that he has made an elaborate game of freeing an already-free slave. Atticus, who seems like the perfect father, may appear more sinister in Go Set a Watchman as well; but if so, it may not be because he has fundamentally changed. Perhaps it is only that his complicity with the structural racism of society is made obvious enough that readers can no longer avoid it, and this is bound to make readers take an uncomfortable look at themselves.

Can you argue for legal justice while accepting economic and social injustice?

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2 thoughts on “The Coziness of Structural Racism

  1. joellemann

    I really appreciate this post, Professor Sands-O’Connor. Thanks for sharing. All of the controversy over this novel has really had me thinking about the importance of sequels and how they increase the complexities of reader-character relationships (or at least shed light on those relationships).

    Thanks for this. I hope all is well.

    Sincerely,

    Joelle Mann

    Like

    Reply

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