Atticus Finch is not a racist.
Let me clarify: The Atticus Finch character in To Kill a Mockingbird is not a racist. Now that Go Set a Watchman has been published, there are revisionist readers going back to discover traces of racism in his behavior. They say, "Atticus did not want to take Tom Robinson’s case – clearly, he felt black people were inferior." "Atticus asked Scout to consider things from the lynch mob’s point of view – clearly, he was a secret fan of lynch mobs." "Atticus had Jem work for the racist Ms. Dubose – clearly he felt she had a point." (This idea is unintelligible in the context of the novel). "Atticus hired Calpurnia as a cook – clearly, he would have been a slaveholder if he could have been." If you read To Kill a Mockingbird, you cannot think these answers are true. Atticus didn’t want Tom Robinson’s case because he hoped such a case would never come before him, and because he didn’t want his children to go through what they went through – he would have admitted this last was a selfish desire, but can you blame a single father for wanting to protect his children? Atticus was willing to be torn apart by the lynch mob himself – and, guess what? Had he been lynched, he still would have wanted his children to understand things from their point of view – to see how people can be so blinded by prejudice that they are no longer able to do the good they normally do.
There is no instance in the novel where Atticus treats African-Americans as worthy of less respect than whites in his community. He says any white man who cheats or mistreats a black man is trash. He even defends May Ella Ewell for kissing a black man, arguing that it was a natural feeling for her. He demands the jury do its duty in setting Tom Robinson free, calls upon them to do so in the “name of God.”
Is Atticus perfect? No. Could he have done even more for the black community? Yes. Would the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird have admitted this? I believe so with all my heart. I even believe it with a heart that is somewhat broken by the quotes shared from Go Set a Watchman in which Atticus apparently defends segregation, racial inequality and the Ku Klux Klan. That is a DIFFERENT Atticus. That is an entirely different version of the man who was willing to lose his life, his livelihood, and his family to defend the cause of a black man, and do so to the best of his ability, instead of going through the motions to accept the inevitable. He is genuinely distraught when Tom Robinson is killed, because he cares about him.
I love Harper Lee. I am sure that her book is great, and I’m sure had she made the efforts to edit and rewrite it, Atticus would be different. Perhaps he would have wrong attitudes Scout would confront, but he would not and could not be a racist who believed African-Americans were an inferior race and be at all consistent with the character we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee challenges us with the question of how to look at people we love when they disappoint us by choosing the wrong – and that’s a great question to ponder. But, the Atticus who disappoints Scout in Go Set a Watchman cannot be the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.
From the first day I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I have desired to be the same person at home as I am on the public streets, just like Atticus. I’ve desired to stand up for the right and for the oppressed at any cost. And, Jesus is the one who enables me to hold to that stance. I don’t need Atticus Finch or any made-up character to bring that life about in me. But, if I have a choice, I want to hang on to a hero, to keep my Atticus with me. We have so few heroes left. And, I mourn the day that Atticus is no longer sitting in his room reading, getting up in the middle of the night to check on us, and firmly dedicating himself to standing up for the poor and the marginalized at all costs. I mourn the loss of someone who has meant so much to so many, and I can’t help but doubt that Harper Lee really desired this turn of events to take place.
As I read reviews of the novel this week, I was brought back to the ending lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, some of the most beautiful in all of literature. It says, about Atticus, “He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” I was filled with sadness that, now, for the first time, for many people Atticus will not be there when we wake up in the morning. His place will be filled by a dark and strange caricature who seeks to confirm our deepest fears that no one is truly who they seem to be, that each of us are devoured by a dark fear that corrupts even the best of motives. Instead of believing that redemption is possible for all of us when we have the courage to defend the right, we are left to wonder if redemption has ever really reached any of us, or if we are all left alone to struggle ahead and hope for the best.
Harper Lee is a genius, and clearly she loves her fellow human beings and wants nothing less than full equality for all. I agree with all my heart. I disagree, however, that this new/old version of Atticus Finch will help us get there. But, I imagine MY Atticus saying that the choice is up to each of us. Perhaps he would say something like: “You never really needed me, anyway. What you really need is fear of God and love of your neighbor. You need to believe in the best in each one of us, and be aware of the worst. You need to do what I could only do in your dreams in real life. Write the message of justice, compassion and righteousness on the pages of your life, and let them be the living reality that defines your future and that of your children.”
Forgive me for imagining Atticus saying that, and then turning out the light in my room, going into the room next to me, and sitting down to read again. Forgive me for imagining that he’ll still be there all night, and he’ll be there when I get up in the morning. And, in that morning, I pray the world will be a better place.
Because, you see, for me, Atticus is the true mockingbird. He was made-up, brought into existence out of love, and existed in the pure world of fiction, and his only purpose in life was to sing a song of courageous love that made me wish for more and believe I could be more. Today, I feel like my mockingbird’s been killed, and it feels like a sin. So, I’m going to blindly hold on to him, and hope that, somehow, his song can outlast the night.