If the last years have taught us anything, from the murder of Trayvon Martin on February 6, 2012, to the first anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, August 9, 2015, it could be that being a supportive ally or advocate like Atticus Finch is very different than fighting for one's dignity, like Black Lives Matter. I am still stunned, because I am a believer, that the legal justification for both of their deaths meant for many people that their deaths were justified.
Confession. I read more book reviews than books. The New York Times review of Ta-Nehisi Coats Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his 14 year old son, was reviewed in the New York Times as naïve about the progress that has been made for racial justice in this country, Barack Obama and all.
The same reviewer, seriously brilliant and important reviewer, reviews Go Set a Watchman with the compliment to her opinion about Mr. Coats lack of realism about progress in police relations and racial justice in general. She assumes an improbable innocence and clear-cut hero in Atticus Finch who is somehow perverted by this new, older text.
I'm not claiming to know whether Harper Lee really wanted this earlier text published. I'm not claiming it truly reflects the same character.
What we have had before us in Atticus Finch is the character middle school English class has taught us to love as our only hope if we are not ourselves politically powerful, a powerful ally who believes in the letter of the law. We all know of these men and women, who can heroically defend a confessed criminal, an unjustly accused, or as a conservative Republican defend the right to marriage between people of the same gender. That is about the law as it defines our society, and I do not deny their heroism or the importance of their publicly held convictions. Like Atticus Finch, they often fail, as in the murder cases of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
Respect for the letter and intent of the law is a different thing than what we believe about which people are like us, and which human beings we should make a part of our families. It is a different thing than asking of ourselves which people we believe are human in the same way we are and capable of the emotional and intellectual qualities we believe define our humanity. These values are as much informed by which classes of people society frames as protected and good, as by our self-defined community's values.
Respect for the letter of the law as it applies to all is a high ideal, and one that should continue to expand our capacity to understand what dignity and justice might include. It is a good.
It is a different good than the epiphanies that shatter our illusions about one another across our society's boundaries. It is a different good than self-determination, the rights we Americans say are inherited by birth to determine one's destiny that people of color and the poor of all races are denied in our current political system. It is those fundamental rights that are being fought for today, and their primary site of action is rarely the advocate or ally, even if the final legal win will usually be claimed by one of them.
We continue to locate the legitimate conversation on race in communities that are diverse racially or predominately white, because we are more comfortable with the innocent advocate speaking on behalf of someone else than we are with the revolutionary, which is what self-determination will always sound like. Ironic, if we consider that we are a nation founded on a great story of revolution against the most powerful (and good) empire of the time.
Here is what we have before us. The writing of a Black man to his son as it relates to his personal experience of justice under the law is naïve. The writing of a fictional White male character who is a hero to a particular slice of advocate culture in this country as racist is unacceptable. What a powerful illustration of where we stand as a nation.
In 2015, we still have to be gentle if we imply that black people and any marginalized group of people can speak their truth entirely to their own communities and challenge those who witness that conversation to believe them. We have to be funny or disarming to have any chance of being heard, when these truths should devastate and activate the heart of a true advocate, but this is often not the case, because it is perceived as an attack on the integrity or goodness of the intent of the law and the advocate. The law or the nation and the advocate must be first and foremost innocent, this narratives teaches, and as we know psychologically this is often where the impulse to advocacy starts, a deeply held desire for innocence and goodness. It becomes a serious unravelling of identity, personal and national, to contest this innocence.
I find myself in many different locations in conversations like these. I come from an immigrant community that could easily take the race segregation language of Dallas, TX, in the 1970's and line it up nicely with ideals of caste, which would keep us safe from marrying "out" even if we were raised in Texas. Like grown up Scout we all rejected that rubbish about whom we should marry, but most of us have not spent much time considering what that means for those whom the same logic writes as a criminal class.
It is my religious faith, and the practices of the traditions I inherit and claim as an Asian-American, Anglican Christian, by which I mean a faith rooted in historical realities, which compels me to confront my complacency; check for self determination as opposed to speaking for or silencing; and give thanks to the God I worship for the sometimes very harsh reminders that this isn't about me and my comfort. We are playing in the areas of truth and dignity, holy Gospel, things-as-they-are-shattering ground.