Atticus Has Left the Building


America's white-centered historical narrative is on thin ice.

With people spray-painting rebukes on statues of John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee across the South, who would have thought the first icon to be pulled off his pedestal would be Atticus Finch?

Until a few days ago, Atticus was the moral pillar of fictional Maycomb, Alabama. His children are endangered when he defends a black man falsely accused of rape. He tells his tomboy daughter Scout, "You never really understand a person ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

That was in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's beloved 1960 novel of Depression-era children encountering racial injustice. Now comes Go Set a Watchman, written in 1957 but only published this week, in which an older Atticus says, "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?" Scout has grown into 26-year-old Jean Louise, and returns home from New York to find disillusionment.

Real people are full of contradictions. Genteel racism is harder to confront than the crude variety. In Mockingbird, when Mayella Ewell broke a taboo by kissing a black man, it was taken out on him to prove that he was lower even than poor white trash. Modern racists seldom admit to being bothered by a mixed-race president, but they act to thwart him every day.

The climax of Mockingbird is the attack on Scout and Jem, whereas Tom Robinson dies offscreen. I was struck as a child by the beauty of actor Brock Peters. Only later did I realize the injustice of his character's requisite saintliness. In another Sixties movie, In the Heat of the Night, it was a breakthrough when Sidney Poitier slapped a white plantation owner back.

While millions fretted over Jem and Scout, real black children were being attacked, like the four little girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963. This un-romanticized reality is familiar to anyone not swathed in myths of whiteness cleansed of the supporting brutality. The whitewashing continues today: new social studies textbooks in Texas downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War and are silent on the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic, "The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions."

One of my mottos as an activist is "It's not all about you." For whites to insist on being at the center of everyone else's story is pathological. We are too eager to declare problems solved, like the biblical false prophets who "have misled my people by saying: Peace! when there is no peace. Instead of my people rebuilding the wall, these men come and slap on plaster." (Ezekiel 13:10)

Removing the Confederate battle flag does not rebuild black communities destroyed by white mobs. It does not restore the lives of lynching victims. It does not repay those cheated by redlining and vote suppression. It does not bring justice to adults or children murdered by police. It does not clear away the Spanish moss from paternalistic media narratives.

Chauncey DeVega describes in Salon how America is poisoned by the toxic masculinity embraced by Dylann Roof and other mass murderers, rooted in aggrieved privilege and rape fantasies and fueled by gun manufacturers (see the ad for Bushmaster assault rifles with the tag line, "Consider your man card reissued"). Yet some people appear to be bothered more by a smartphone in the hands of social media activist DeRay Mckesson (@deray), and mock him with hashtags like #gohomederay.

Despite the noise, social media activists are exposing white supremacist violence, whether from lone wolves or police departments, and organizing to demand accountability. Others are gathering support for black and brown women filmmakers (@AFFRM). They bypass traditional industry gatekeepers. They are not bound to follow another's blueprint. As Alice Randall writes in The Wind Done Gone, "It's easier to live where fewer dreams are buried."

We can live with our disillusionment. We can confront our history's uglier ghosts even as we fondly recall fictional heroes. And we can heed our neighbors of color who have had enough martyrdom.

DeRay is not going home, and Atticus has left the building.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade and Bay Windows.

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