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Why an “evil” Atticus Finch is good for us

In Discrimination, Education, Multiculturalism, Prophetic, Racial Justice, Radical Welcome on July 12, 2015 at 12:26 am

by Ryan P. Sirmons

I’m glad that Atticus Finch turns out to be less-than-ideal in Harper Lee’s upcoming sequel to her 1960 book To Kill a Mockingbird. Michiko Kakutani’s review of Go Set a Watchman has revealed that the sainted Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a segregationist. The man who counseled his children for racial justice and humanity shifts in his old age to a Klan-rally-attendiatticus-finchng person who is concerned about ‘Negroes’ attending the same schools as white children. This revelation has caused outrage around the internet, coffee shops, and living rooms. Careers, sermons, moral certitude, and high school inspiration have all come from Atticus Finch. Even a clothing line is named after him. But because we’ve grown up and become disillusioned with our former hero like Jean Louise (known to us as Scout), we can now have the conversation about whether it is truly best for the white, male, and debonair Atticus Finch to be the portrait of racial justice. We can discuss who really should be representing those who have been historically oppressed in our society.

Nobody likes being disillusioned. We were told as children to look up to certain people in our lives and try to model our lives on them. People like George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Neil Armstrong were heroes of my childhood (not to mention Robert E. Lee, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Finding out that these heroes have character flaws excites an existential crisis in our own lives. We ask, “Why did I follow that person all my life if he or she turned out to be wrong about this or that?” Yet becoming disillusioned helps us to see the very human nature of a person, with gifts as well as flaws, that we all have. Facing head-on an existential crisis and seeing the good and the bad, the flaws and the gifts, helps us develop empathy and courage to act despite not having the qualities we think we need in order to act. It might remind us that we, too, are capable of leading things despite our own flaws.

Atticus represented a type of benevolent moral dignity that powerful white men could exhibit in the twentieth century American South. He was strong, certain, and used his authority as an attorney for the good of racial equality and the emphasis of mental illness. Yet we forget that the book is told from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl who is entirely smitten with her father. Everything he does is cast in a righteous light. Shouldn’t we have been surprised during our ninth grade reading of this book that in Atticus we have no real moral failing? He’s just too good. He’s the scandal-free George Washington. He’s akin to a high-brow comic book hero, but without a mortal flaw that almost stops him from doing good. It is no wonder that Harper Lee waited so long to share this story with us: she needed to wait until America grew up so it could, like Jean Louis, deal with her disillusionment about her parent. The backstory of Atticus presumably reveals, if Kakutani’s review is accurate, that he was a white Southern man who held typical views of other men of his generation. Of course those men did good things, too. But to try and maintain them as saintly good men today is folly. America needs to wake up and realize that Atticus cannot be our hero. Atticus cannot be the agent of change we need to include all our sisters and brothers in a united country. The old South from which he came is a figment of our imagination, idealized in a childlike light out of which we need to shake our national discourse.

Of course change is certainly helped along by allies of those oppressed who are in the majority. I’m a straight white male; almost any cause to which I lend my voice is as an ally. Yet it would be problematic if my voice was still in the leading position of authority after the initial work is done. The voices that do not represent the (white male) voice of the majority need to come out of cultures and norms formed differently than mine, using words, language, and music I don’t understand and wearing clothes I never would consider “respectable.” It’s possible I might resent this, not accepting it as responsible. In some ways I already resent this, as I begin to recognize that I may need to sit on the sidelines of political and moral leadership because I am a white male who knows other voices need to be heard. Based purely on speculation as the book doesn’t come out until Tuesday, I think this is what happened to Atticus. He becomes embittered as the people he once championed find their voice and no longer need him to be their savior. I think this is happening across America as we grow up.

  I feel that the dream of America is one where diverse cultures and voices can share in leading our people. We need new immigrant voices, the voices of black and brown people, women and LGBT people, to be in positions of leadership. Atticus Finch, and those of us from his background, cannot be the voice of a new America in which cultural difference is a symbol of our unity. An “evil” Atticus is the person who resents this change and challenge to his authority. An “evil” America is one that attempts to preserve this privilege, just as a child attempts to preserve the sanctity of its hero. It is the child who, like me, clung to a Confederate flag at eight years of age because I truly thought it was a symbol of my heritage. Its racial past never crossed my little mind. I even declared gray my favorite color because it was the uniform color of the South’s noble heroes who I grew up hearing and reading about. I’ve grown up now and see that the romantic dream of the South never existed, and that battle flag I bought in a gift shop in Michigan was revived mid-twentieth century as a symbol of privilege and hate. Even Robert E. Lee learned to get over it and advised a Confederate widow to “[d]ismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring [your children] up to be Americans.” It’s been disillusioning for me to grapple with my own inherent racism, sexism, and privilege. But in doing it, I am able be part of a new way for America.

Scout grows up and becomes Jean Louise. She leaves Alabama and moves to New York City. No doubt she encounters different cultures and racial empowerment in the heady 1960s. Upon her return to her roots she recognizes that her father fails to be the hero she may have thought the South needed. This suggests a realization we as a country need to have. Jean Louise, and women like her, will need to become the leaders and the voices for change. Tom Robinson’s children need to be the new leaders, using their language and customs to have equal ownership of the country they change. It’s sad but true that we need a real, rather than idealized, Atticus Finch to remind us of our responsibility to empower those who are oppressed. It gives me a hopeful joy that Ms. Lee thinks we have the maturity and capability to be disillusioned with Atticus. It’s a vote of confidence from the writer of our (dare I say it) former “national novel” that we can begin to write a new chapter for equality in our country. Ms. Lee has, most likely, signaled that we can pass the torch of national leadership from Atticus to Jean Louise and Tom Robinson. It doesn’t hurt, either, that we grew up knowing Jean Louise as Scout. She can’t be lionized as Atticus was. We know her faults and her prejudices. Despite this she can now be a national leader, imperfect, but herself. This can pass to all new leaders and free us from hero-worship to empathy and camaraderie. This gives me hope for the children I see, and the child my multiracial wife is expecting, for an America that can be free – free from hero worship, free from monoculturalism, and free to have a voice to be heard.

With thanks to the Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear. Our conversations on the need for leadership from underrepresented people, and that those in the majority should step aside to help this happen, helped fuel this thought.