'"[Speaking to Ralph Ellison I said] I want you to know that Invisible Man, especially the part about 'I yam what I yam,' really changed my life for the better" ... 'I felt foolish for being who I was. But as I walked away, Ellison touched my shoulder lightly and said, "That's the greatest compliment an author can ever receive.'"
A dear friend of mine once told me that when his parents, an interracial couple, lived in Washington, D.C., and attended the movies together, his dad would sit in the balcony, which was for "Colored Only," while his mother sat in the orchestra.
His father, a black man from Virginia, and his mother the daughter of a Russian Jew from Odessa loved one another and raised three children together. They remained married until his father's death in 1977, a total of 41 years.
You can imagine my surprise (I had met this elegant and educated woman many times), when he told me before his mother's death, he suddenly found himself faced with a slew of racial slurs and commentary from his mother, aimed directly at the Caribbean/ Jamaican nurses who came to take care of her at his home, and indirectly at him. I remember him telling me it's an interesting position to be in when you have to wonder whether your white mother has actually, in fact, hated you and your blackness her whole life!
I was reminded of this very conversation this summer when Harper Lee's new novel Go Set A Watchman emerged, when Atticus Finch fell from grace and when almost every major newspaper, magazine and social media site practically disowned him for his racist commentaries. Truth be told, of the media and American people, few were kind or understanding of Atticus.
In this vein, an article in the WSJ, "Don't Mourn Atticus Finch", the author states it would be sad now to let children read To Kill A Mockingbird or watch the movie and then have someone point out that this hero they witnessed is actually racist.
Or would it? What if it actually helped us with our pain or had the potential to help with years of pain? Just as Huckleberry Finn is used as a diverse tool in first understanding and then fighting racism, Atticus Finch should be used as our primary tool today in understanding our own racism.
Let's be honest, racism is not an easy topic. And, the truth is, America isn't ready for honesty and authenticity just yet. America isn't ready for a discussion on such. We are too close to it all, chronologically speaking.
The truth is also that we as Americans are superficial, to some degree, too immature. We want perfection. We want to deduce people and natures to good or bad, black or white, one or the other. It's less messy. There is no allowance for complicated or flawed. And there is no room for imperfection, either.
Like Huck Finn in Huckleberry Finn and McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, people are quickly reduced to a few racist comments, as though that could explain or take away their heroism. Did my friend's mother who gave birth to him, loved him, bathed him, walked him to school everyday, hugged him when he cried, helped him with his homework really in fact hate him? I believe not.
We need to remind ourselves that tragic flaws are what make heroes rounded (ask Aristotle, since he coined the idea). Tragic heroes are not perfect but the question is can they overcome their flaws and do good in spite of these imperfections? Thus even though Huck mentions the N- word, does that make him any less the hero of the novel? In fact he is more a hero because he learns along the way, because he educates himself through trial and error, because he is not born this way, because he is well-rounded with flaws. So why do we accept him and shun Atticus Finch?
Is it connected to shame, perhaps?
The researcher Brene Brown, an American author, and public speaker (also a research professor at the University of Houston) is a renowned scholar on the topic of flaws, perfectionism, shame, vulnerability and courage. She implies we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. IF this is true, then the opposite perhaps is also true: we can only hate others as much as we hate ourselves.
Right now, those who hate Atticus Finch don't hate him because he's racist. They dislike him because he's imperfect and because he signals to them and us, mirror-wise, that we are imperfect too. Or maybe they don't hate him but just want distance from him perhaps. We see a more rounded version of him and we scatter. Where is our false perfected idol gone?
Brown acknowledges in her novel The Gifts of Imperfection "that "we are terrified to imagine we are flawed individuals" in any way. And Atticus isn't helping our cause here by showing how human even he can be -- and obviously flawed.
Do we show understanding, take these comments into context appropriately? No, we do not. We are disgusted. Moral courage, integrity, quiet dignity -- elements of Atticus we admired previously and traits he still owns are cast aside. It's not important who he was as a whole or who he is in a more fully detailed picture in this new novel. Instead, we care only what he amounts to in two to three racist comments. Atticus then is a racist. What is important and significant here is that he is not perfect. He is deeply flawed.
Brene Brown highlights that:
Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.
What does this say of America then? Does it imply that we are incredibly childish and immature in our black-and-white thinking? Or might it imply that we are frightened if Atticus is guilty of owning racist thoughts, if he's not perfect then perhaps he mirrors our own thoughts; and since we need to be deemed as perfect we must, therefore, disassociate with him?
Meanwhile, to those who have read the new novel, some are aware that Atticus is still Atticus. We are informed that, "Integrity, humor and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch." We are also told that "...even his enemies loved him." Why can we not believe that we can be imperfect and acceptable all at the same time?
I can only conclude that there is nothing more damaging than perfectionism. And it's a flawed belief we attach ourselves to so directly and so damagingly. Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there's no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal, like idealism.
As Brown points out the whole point is we need to strive towards progress to learn, to grow, and to become better versions of ourselves. Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Thus perfectionism is a hustle. We, as Americans, turn our backs on Atticus Finch who is a good man, a kind man, a decent man precisely because of some sheepish mentality, and also because we worry about what others will think if we stand by him, defend him (will they think us racist)-- even though ironically we are far from perfect ourselves. Perhaps America has become too politically correct to correct itself, roll up its sleeves, and begin the arduous task of dealing with our own imperfections before pointing out others.
We have become so overly-sensitized, so politically correct in our speech when we tiptoe around racism that we, like the Emperor, strut around with no clothes on, the epitome of those we would attack.
Remember these lines?
A soft husky voice came from the darkness above: "They gone?"
Atticus stepped back and looked up. "They've gone," he said. "Get some sleep, Tom. They won't bother you any more."