Learn a lesson from unmasking of Atticus Finch

2015-07-26 16:46

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The release of Harper Lee’s first book in 50 years was first met with joy and then some distress as the character held up as the good guy, Atticus Finch, is revealed to be a racist through-and-through. 

Out of boredom, I read To Kill a Mockingbird at the age of seven and then again and again every one or two years until I studied it as a setwork as a young adult. At no point in my readings in the past 20 years has Finch ever seemed like a good guy. To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly an indictment of white supremacy. 

As author Catherine Nichols notes on Jezebel.com: “It’s about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves.” 

Finch’s racism, revealed once again in plain sight in Go Set a Watchman, is not a surprise. He is a heterosexual white man during one of the most brutal times in recent history: the Jim Crow era. Crow was built in his image and for his benefit. By virtue of his place in the order, Finch is complicit in the brutal white supremacist system of the time, and this is even before Lee’s revelation that Finch is a bona fide racist. 

That Finch was ever cast as good speaks to the desperation of liberal or moderate whiteness to claim goodness when really it’s only better than the vicious majority. It was precisely because he didn’t do anything that even vaguely represented divestment from white privilege that made me dislike him even more. 

Author of The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, pointed out in the New Yorker: “[Finch’s] defence of Tom Robinson is based on segregationist principles — he works for ‘accommodation, not reform’.” 

A similar character exists here in South Africa where whiteness (and white people) that didn’t work in the SA Police Force, SA Defence Force, the Special Branch or any arm of the apartheid machinery would like to believe and convince us/themselves they are good or, at the very least, not as bad as the rest. 

And yet, like it or not, it is simply impossible to enjoy the privileges of an oppressive system and be truly good. 

The idea that we live in times characterised by inequality and oppression, benefit from this and are good is the myth that has kept violent status quos in place. 

I was delighted at Finch’s unmasking. Those traumatised by the revelation that their hero is the enemy must be honest about how Finch being the bad guy also implicates them. 

Nichols says: “The new book gives the impression Lee knew what much of her audience didn’t: that her character’s principles didn’t constitute justice.” 

Follow me on Twitter @GugsM

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