GenXer Revisits To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman in the George Floyd Era

Aspirational Hope or Hiding history?

For white Gen-Xers who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, our ‘memories’ of the civil rights movement- of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the Freedom Riders- are not true recollections but images from grainy black and white newsreel, pre-packaged for us and presented as the ‘bad old days’ of fire hoses and police dogs, before the nation fixed its racial injustices and made a more perfect union.

Sesame Street and the Electric Company’s cast members Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno promoted a message of diversity, love for all and the idea that we had built a just society. ‘Free to Be You and Me’ (both a hit song and show of the era) featured Marlo Thomas and former NFL lineman, Roosevelt ‘Rosey’ Grier who invited us to believe that:

“There’s a land that I see, where the children are free

and I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are”

To get a sense of that tie-dye, banana-bike-seat, wacky pack, MAD Magazine, bazooka bubble gum suburban era, do a Youtube lookup of ‘Free to Be you and me’ and you will get a sense of what young kids were taught had already been accomplished. ‘Free to be you and me’ is now used as a catch-all phrase to ridicule ‘hippie dippie’ idealists.

This 70’s idealism, a response to the assassinations of the 60’s, the catastrophe of Vietnam and the disillusionment of Watergate, was formative for suburban white children who did not yet understand the post-60’s historical context or the subtlety that this world of justice was still a goal. If my neighborhood had been in Baltimore, Dorchester, or the Bronx and if I were black, I would have been more skeptical of the sunny messaging, but for a white suburban GenXer, America in its bicentennial decade felt essentially virtuous. This naivete persists even now and is understandably exasperating to Black Americans who required no special reading assignment in the 70’s, or now, to understand the central role of racism in the American project.

Mockingbird and Watchman

An essential text of this period was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, required on most junior high summer reading lists. A friend in college was so inspired by the book that he went on to go to law school and to become a public defender and even named his son Atticus. A high school friend named his daughter ‘Scout’, the nickname of Jean Louise Finch.

The manuscript of Harper Lee’s first book, Go Set a Watchman surfaced several years ago and was published. Lawsuits to prevent its publication falsely accused Harper Lee’s agent of manipulating Lee but it finally made it to the bookstores in 2015. I held Go Set a Watchman in my hands at the Coop in Harvard Square for a few minutes with trepidation- a book review had both panned the book and teased the notion that the portrait of the Maycomb County that we cherished in To Kill a Mockingbird was shattered by Watchman. I feared that reading Watchman would spoil my childhood remembrance. It took me a week to return to buy the book as curiosity vanquished fear.

Both books are set in the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama in moments of racial unrest: To Kill a Mockingbird in the 30’s and Watchman twenty years later in the 50’s. It has been reported that after reading Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s publisher directed her to start over and to focus on the younger versions of Scout, Jem, Dill, et al. The Publisher’s decision was not driven by racial issues- black or white- but green…green money. Mockingbird’s lovable children and cartoonish Boo Radley would sell more than Watchman. In the end, our commercial culture trumped the truth Harper Lee tried to share, robbing us of Go Set a Watchman for 55 years. Reading it was similar to learning that electric car patents were bought and killed by the oil industry decades ago.

To Kill a Mockingbird felt like a challenging book about racism and injustice when I read it as a child but reading Go Set a Watchman made me realize that Mockingbird is actually a fairy tale with beautifully rendered but one-dimensional characters. The poor, damaged, and blameless Tom Robinson is presented as a victim- not really a hero- but crippled, obedient and guiltless. Mr. Ewell is inhumane, dishonest, and cruel even to his own daughter. Cunningham is just as impoverished as Ewell, but he pays for Atticus’ legal services with firewood and represents the noble poor. Atticus, the patrician white savior, whose calm voice, broad brow of wisdom and love of justice is forever fused with the image of Gregory Peck in the Academy award winning film. His love of the law and justice is surpassed only by his love for his children, ‘Scout’, the lovable tomboy who narrates the tale, and Jem, the athletic, sometimes bossy older brother who will undoubtedly grow into a man of the moral strength of his august father. Charles Baker Harris, ‘Dill’, is their humorous scamp pal, based on Lee’s New York friend, Truman Capote. Boo Radley is the caricature bogeyman into whom the fears and ignorances of the other characters are vectored and concentrated, and that are ultimately proven to be unwarranted. There is nothing to fear in Boo, but plenty to fear in Maycomb.

Go Set a Watchman the first time through was so engrossing to be disorienting; I started rereading the book as soon as I got to the last page, convinced that I had missed some content. During Scout’s visit back to Maycomb from her home in New York, it is revealed that Atticus is in the Ku Klux Klan, that everyone Scout loves and admires believes that ‘negroes are backward and childlike’, that the Yankees are ‘stirring them up’ and that the NAACP is getting ‘way ahead of itself’. I felt like Scout in the balcony of the courthouse watching Atticus, her moral center and compass, participate in a ‘n — — r hating’ meeting.

Watchman depicts the extreme and routine racism of the time and the human complexity of the characters. Fortitude, integrity and compassion are intermingled with fear, stupidity, cruelty and cowardice, and are distributed more evenly through the characters. ‘Negroes’ are victims but are also portrayed as undisciplined. Calpurnia’s son Zeppo has five wives. Frank, another of Calpurnia’s sons, kills a man while driving blind drunk. Calpurnia does not hate Scout, but she doesn’t love her either, or like or trust ‘white folks’ as a rule. Calpurnia rebuffs Scout’s visit to her home in her black neighborhood, far away from her loyal labor in the kitchen of Atticus’ house. Atticus offers free legal defense to Frank, who is clearly guilty of vehicular homicide, not so that Frank can be treated fairly, but to keep the NAACP, and their lawyers, out of Maycomb.

Scout misses her long-deceased brother Jem and is in conflict with everyone in Maycomb. She smokes cigarettes, drinks whiskey (rather than the “cool water” of the ladies of Maycomb in Mockingbird) and has a capacity for emotional cruelty toward the smitten Hank. Hank shows callous indifference for the condition of ‘negroes’ and his opinion meets no objection or surprise from Scout. While Mockingbird beautifully describes the unblemished love story between a daughter and father, in Watchman that devotion morphs into contempt ‘I had to kill you, Scout’ says Atticus. ‘I hate you. You are just like Hitler, Atticus’ says Scout. Dr. Finch, Atticus’ brother, strikes Scout in the face- twice! — and admits that he spent his entire adult life in love with Scout’s sainted and deceased mother. Was their love consummated? In this Maycomb County, it seems possible.

I reread To Kill a Mockingbird after reading Watchman and it is still an engaging book improved by having read its predecessor. ‘A dog’ still ‘suffers on a summer day’ as you are transported back to your own youth with Scout, Jem and Dill. More importantly, with the benefit of reading Watchman, I recognized clues of the more sinister Maycomb that Harper Lee sprinkled into To Kill a Mockingbird, key facts that I had not retained. After the dramatic trial which ends in the wrongful conviction of Tom Robinson on the untrue and cliched charge of his sexually assaulting Mayella Ewell, Tom is being held in prison awaiting sentencing. Atticus pledges to appeal the decision and consoles the Robinson family. Tom Robinson has a lame arm, mangled in an accident years before. Even so, he attempts to escape by running the length of the prison yard to scale a 12-foot barbed wire fence. The likelihood he will make it out of the yard is zero. Nevertheless, this one- armed, Black man in police custody is shot in the back by the guards 17 times and left hanging on the fence. 17 times! Even in the sanitized version of Maycomb County, there is shocking state-sanctioned evil.

Atticus concludes that ‘Tom was tired of white man’s chances and decided to take his own.’ Scout observes that Enfield Prison Farmyard is “the size of a football field”. Atticus parrots the official story that Tom had attacked the guards but tells Tom’s wife, Helen, that “they didn’t have to shoot him that much”. With the benefit of reading Watchman, the wise Atticus now seems complicit and obtuse with this statement. Whether the wrongful execution of an innocent man in prison was by one bullet or 17 is irrelevant. My trust in the purity Atticus’ motivations and actions had evaporated.

Mockingbird in 2020

The current Broadway show ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, written and adapted by Aaron Sorkin has been relentlessly marketed and celebrated in America. Before the pandemic, Jeff Daniels, the star and center of the show in the role of Atticus, was on every talk show, basking in endless praise and adulation. The play represents a doubling down on America’s white savior fairy tale and is a deliberate attempt to obliterate Harper Lee’s original and more important work by throwing it down the memory hole… again. The initial negative reviews for Watchman discouraged its broad readership and the play’s commercial success buried it.

The play is also a shrewd financial enterprise. The same white suburban kids who were required to read To Kill a Mockingbird during junior high school are the exact demographic to spend money on Broadway. Many are now wealthy white ‘progressives’ like Amy Cooper (who weaponized her whiteness on a black birdwatcher), living in New York, San Francisco, Boston, or Chicago, making bags of cash working at hedge funds, private equity firms, investment banks, and techie companies that make the world more unequal than ever at an ever-accelerating pace. They voted for Obama, loved the WillIAm ‘Yes we can’ video, went to Hamilton with the original cast which cost 10k per ticket (a fact they like to drop in cocktail conversation), and donate to worthy or mercenary philanthropic causes that launder their reputations and consciences.

Spending a few thousand dollars on ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for a night that will transport them to the Eden of their youths and reassure them of their virtue and woke-ness, is well worth it. Another benefit is that this demographic can enjoy Sorkin’s overwrought, moralistic, speechifying language that almost sounds like courage and that they enjoyed in their 30’s and 40’s on his shows, The West Wing and the Newsroom, both well-crafted and marketed TV fairy tales about white, progressive, American virtue.

Hope and Heroes in our Era

We do need to make room for hope and heroes in our culture. I stopped watching TV shows a few years ago because the most popular and critically acclaimed among them- Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Succession, Billions were thematically similar in that there are no redeeming characters. The binged-watched shows of our era do not have characters with a mixture of virtues and vices. Instead every character has a collection of awful qualities: venality, cruelty, mendacity, violence, perversion. These modern shows are an artistic reflection of our society’s lack of confidence (let alone faith) in our institutions and the people who run them. There are plenty of reasons for that lack of faith. Our Presidents, priests, policy makers, police, judges, the DOJ, FBI, soldiers, College presidents- and on and on- have all betrayed us.

This bleak cultural landscape needs the light of hope which is why John Krasinski’s ‘Some Good News’ became so popular during the first phase of the pandemic and why applause for front line medical workers became a short-lived habit. We thirst for the opportunity to herald the heroes among us who sacrifice for others, who fight the good fight and who stand for the hard right against the easy wrong. The nurses, doctors, EMT’s, Medical Technicians and custodians fighting the pandemic at great risk to their own lives are heroes as are grocery store workers, bus drivers, truck drivers, farm workers and longshoremen who feed us.

We do need hope and heroes, but we also deserve the truth. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Richard Braynson, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray (this list will sadly grow) are not a surprise to Black people who have always known that the world is closer to Watchman than Mockingbird. Black Americans did not and do not need to read either book to understand racism. The sincere surprise that many rich white progressives feel to systemic injustice is frustrating to African Americans who have attempted to educate the world of their plight but who have been aggressively repressed, and gently deceived, for generations.

A More Complete History or a Rewritten History

Young people today are receiving a more desolate version of America than my sheltered childhood experience- theirs includes the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s execution. The silver lining may be that, if we make a concerted effort, the rising generation might have access to our full history not a sanitized (for any motivation: aspirational, commercial or political) version. But it will not just happen. The rewriting of current events is happening in real time. The Black Lives Matter movement is being smeared as a terrorist organization in an effort to destroy the contemporary strain of African American resistance and activism historically embodied by Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Muhammad Ali. White Americans prefer the peaceful thread of black activism personified by Martin Luther King (especially after he was assassinated) and Barack Obama. The disneyfied ‘I have a dream’ version of Martin Luther King and the always cool, restrained, and well-mannered Barack Obama is challenging enough. I found Obama’s measured, erudite demeanor refreshing and admirable while he was President, especially after the doltish, wisecracking ‘W’ Bush but Obama’s trademark calm response to George Floyd’s murder was maddening.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself”

-George Orwell, 1984

The worst possible outcome of the 2020 post- George Floyd America would be that white America finally internalizes the racial injustice that has been hiding in plain sight for 400 hundred years but then, rather than addressing it, willfully forgets, lulls itself to sleep with an Atticus Finch bedtime story. To read Watchman and decide Mockingbird is closer to reality, to see Michael Brown’s hands up but say the police will reform itself this time, to witness George Floyd’s murder and conclude the cop was just a bad apple, would all be deliberately dishonest. To see the ugly racist reality and cling to the belief that the hopeful 70’s aspirational fantasy was real and not just a memory of a hope, would be purposefully disingenuous. Just because we remember believing in Santa does not mean Santa was real. Observing the overwhelming evidence of raging racism right now, before our eyes, but turning away from it, would be criminal.

Our system explicitly excluded African Americans from the Homestead Act, the GI bill, and from the equity-creating development of the suburbs. These are just three examples of racist policies that created the American middle class, broad based access to home ownership and higher education. They also ensured that the middle class would be white. These injustices, codified in our laws and policies, must be remedied with cash settlements to African Americans. To do less than that would be to attempt to unsee the truth.

Is it possible to deny, hide, or delete an obvious reality? Yes, it is. Until I had read Watchman, my memory had conveniently edited the 17 shots from Mockingbird. I knew Tom had been shot but had somehow deleted the 17 shots. I learned that the GI Bill excluded African Americans only a few years ago. Will white America continue to edit its collective memory? Will we finally learn our history and use our individual and shared loss of innocence as an excuse to give up? Or will we forge a new national covenant based on truth?

The most thrilling element of the current protest movement is that it includes all ages, races and demographics. ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken’ wrote James Joyce in Ulysses one hundred years ago describing Ireland in 1904 under the domination of the British Empire and the repression of the Catholic Church. To awaken from America’s history of capitalist orthodoxy and white supremacy will require nothing short of building a new country which acknowledges that the real Atticus Finches were indeed in the KKK, but where their great grandsons join their black and brown brothers and sisters in the Black Lives Matter Movement, not as a saviors but as an allies, friends and comrades.

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Tim Kirk

Born in Boston, living in Dublin, son, brother, husband, Dad, and Daddo