My husband and I recently watched the documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t remember ever reading To Kill a Mockingbird but have watched portions of the movie multiple times. My local library didn’t have the book so I read Go Set a Watchman, the book that was published 55 years after Lee wrote it. Although the book has been criticized for not being as polished as Mockingbird, I found it worth reading and am glad it was published.
Sometimes timing is everything. If I had read Watchman when it was first out a couple of years ago, I don’t think it would have touched me in the same way that it does today. But coming after the election of a man who plays dog-whistle politics, it reflected my own feeling of betrayal by people I thought shared my belief that racism is wrong. It captured my own feeling of disconnectedness from the culture and politics of my time.
In Watchman, the 26 year-old Jean Louise (Scout), returns to the small town of Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week visit. At church, the music director messed with the familiar doxology by changing the tempo to make it more upbeat – evidence that the people up North were even trying to influence worship services. Then the minister, Mr. Stone, preached a sermon on a Bible verse that provided the title to the book: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth” (Isaiah 21:6).
The pivotal event in the book began when Jean Louise found out that her father, Atticus, and her childhood sweetheart, Henry, were going to a Citizens’ Council meeting. She followed them to the meeting and watched from the balcony as an “ordinary, God-fearing man” gave a very racist speech to the Council, frequently using the offensive ‘n’ word. He ranted about blacks mongrelizing the race. He told the Council that God intended for the races to be separate. He spoke about preserving segregation and most hypocritically, of preserving “Christian civilization.”
Jean Louise was devastated to see her father and boyfriend sitting at the table listening to such vile racist speech. By being there and listening, her father seemed to be condoning it. Her father was the one man that she had ever “fully and wholeheartedly” trusted and she had always looked up to him as a true gentleman. In letting this racist man speak to the Council, she felt that he had failed her and “betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”
Discovering that the man she idolized did not share her conviction that racism is wrong made Jean Louise wonder how she could have ever missed the clues when she was growing up. She realized “that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.”
Later, Jean Louise’s aunt Alexandra hosted a coffee for the ladies of Maycomb. Jean Louise had no idea what she would talk to them about. She listened to the idle chatter of Hester, a woman who didn’t seem to have an original thought; she merely repeated what her husband told her. Hester claimed that blacks up North were using Gandhi’s tactics – communism – to get a hold of the country. To herself, Jean Louise thought:
I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard.
Jean Louise chatted with another friend, Claudine, who wondered what it was like to live in New York. The friend had visited once but couldn’t imagine living there with blacks, Italians and Puerto Ricans. Jean Louise told her that she didn’t even notice them. Claudine told her she must be blind. Jean Louise realized she had in fact been blind to not “look into people’s hearts.” In growing up around blacks, she never got the idea that she should despise them or fear them or mistreat them. She thought to herself, I need a watchman to lead me and tell me what he sees and to teach me the difference between this kind of justice and that kind of justice.
When Jean Louise spoke to her Uncle Jack about her disillusionment, he told her that the South was not ready for the political philosophy being pushed on it – the end of segregation and changes in the country’s attitudes about the role of government. The resentments were much as they are today:
The have-nots have risen and demanded and received their due – sometimes more than their due.
You’re protected by old age by a government that makes you save because it doesn’t trust you to provide for yourself in old age.
Uncle Jack told Jean Louise that “every man’s watchman is his conscience.” She had confused her father with God and attached her own conscience to his. Seeing him do something that was the complete antithesis to what her conscience said was right made her feel physically ill.
Near the end of the book, Jean Louise decided to leave Maycomb but Uncle Jack asked her to stay. He told her there were people on her side. He said “we need some more of you.” Jean Louise said “I can’t fight them” and “I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.” But Jack told her, your friends need you when they’re wrong, not when they’re right. He encouraged her to stay and make a difference.
Betrayed. Bewildered. Confused.
This is how you feel when people you thought you knew and thought you could trust to do the right thing betray the values you thought you had in common. It is how you feel when you realize that you see the world differently than the people you grew up with or work with or socialize with. How can they condone racist behavior? How can they remain silent when someone says something so bigoted and outrageous? You’d like to understand how in they world they see the same things you see but fail to see or care about the injustices of racial stereotyping and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.
The Swinging Pendulum of Social Justice
When I was in college, one of my professors told the class that throughout history progress has not been linear; it’s more like a pendulum swinging from one side to the other. When people on one side get uncomfortable with the rate of progress, they swing the pendulum the other way. In Watchman, the people of Maycomb resisted the efforts of the NAACP to end segregation and to change the jury selection process. In 2016, voter suppression efforts were implemented across the country.
I was born at the end of the Civil Rights Era so I was not aware of how bad things were at the time. Unlike Jean Louise, I grew up in a small white town in the Midwest. I had no direct exposure to racial issues. But I learned to sing “Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they’re all precious in His sight” and I believed it.
In my 50 plus years, I watched as racial stereotypes of the 1950’s and 60’s were broken. I watched African-Americans become more successful – financially, politically, academically, and professionally. Interracial relationships became acceptable. As a nation, we have made great progress, but we still have a long way to go. Racism, and prejudice still lurk below the surface. Inequalities of opportunities and outcomes still persist.
Eight years ago, I voted for the first black president. My Christian friends called Obama a socialist and the anti-Christ. I had a conversation with a loved one who told me that Obama was trying to force something into law because that’s what “they” do. I couldn’t understand why she would believe that. So much hostility has been directed at our black President and First Lady, it is hard to believe that racism does not play a role. The current president-elect repeatedly tried to delegitimize the President with the lie that Obama was not born in the U.S.
Then blacks started protesting the senseless deaths of black men, many at the hands of law enforcement. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. A new racial movement began – Black Lives Matter. And many whites, unwilling to listen to their concerns, countered with “All Lives Matter.” When famous athletes kneeled during the national anthem to call attention to racial issues, whites became angry that they weren’t showing proper respect for symbols of our flawed country.
History has shown that when people get uncomfortable with progress, they swing the pendulum in the opposite direction.
I am a watchman
It’s been 60 years since Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman. Watchman reminded me that history really does repeat itself. Throughout history, people have resisted social progress, often by spreading fear. Jean Louise’s uncle was a wise man. Those of us who believe in racial equality can let our friends know when they’re wrong. We can stand up for the rights of people of all races. This nation needs more people to be a watchman – a social conscience pointing out the difference between the kind of justice freely given to white men and the kind of justice that women and minorities have always had to fight for.
In Isaiah 21:6, a watchman was posted at the city wall to look out and report what he sees. I’m also watching and listening. I’ll tell you what I see. I see that racial prejudice still exists. I see that blacks are still not treated with the same dignity and respect as whites, even when they’re smarter and more capable. I see that blacks live in fear of being arrested for something they did not do, or worse, that their children will not survive to adulthood. I invite you to climb inside the skin of a black person and walk around in it.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. – Harper Lee
Today the United States is once again divided on issues of religion, immigration, race, globalism, and the role of government. Many people blame “others” for their own worsening socio-economic status. Yesterday Dan Rather asked how people would describe the age in which we find ourselves. One woman wrote that we’re in the One Step Back phase of progress. I agree. Thankfully, we’ve taken many steps forward in my lifetime. Now we’re regressing as people try desperately to get back to the way things used to be. But those of us who believe in social justice should see this as a temporary setback, as a call to activism. Let’s stand on watch and tell the world what we see. Let us be the social conscience of this country.