Killing Mockingbird

December 11, 2015

From the November-December 2015 issue of News & Letters

The publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman is the source of such consternation that in their state of discomfiture, commentators are contorting language and logic to dismiss and denounce it. Despite what one might surmise from the statements of those who are outraged by the resurfacing of Lee’s first, previously unpublished, novel, she is neither dead nor dotty.

If literature, like all art, is, at its best, meant to point to who we are and challenge our notions of who we think we are, the measure of our ability to take up this challenge and to read critically can be found in the news, as well as, and this is very much to the point, in our hearts and our everyday comings and goings.

America deals officially with race with To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In our current historical moment, Black people’s response to the living experience of America is the simple statement Black Lives Matter. It is a mantra, a prayer, an incantation whose power may be judged by what’s reported in the news. A simple statement of what would seem self-evident, it is defiant, definitive, affirmative.

As James Baldwin said in 1963 in a talk to teachers, “[T]he crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society…The paradox of education,” he goes on to say, “is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which [s]he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for [oneself], to make [one’s] own decisions…But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.”

So Black parents are right when they protest the inclusions of both Huck Finn and Mockingbird because of its repeated use of the “n” epithet. In fact, the national reading of both novels is a ritual misreading whose function is to assuage tender feelings of whites when looking at race, reaffirm white supremacy, enshrine law and American culture as fundamentally good and to instruct as to America’s inviolable sacrosanctity. The reading is meant to be the end of any discussion.

On a national level, too, many readers have not allowed themselves the maturity to read the satire in Twain’s Huck Finn. When an explosion occurs and the news bearer is asked if anyone is killed, he responds “No” but that a n——r was killed. Those who respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All lives matter,” have blinded themselves to the humanity of Black people.

Mark Twain became increasingly pessimistic. A sort of The Prince and the Pauper, but set in Missouri in 1830, Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson would do well as a replacement to Huck Finn, until such time as his more subtle challenges to our country on notions of white and black can be read and understood universally.

In a strange twist, this peculiarly willful myopia, dare I say evil, is strangely and devastatingly realized in the adamant non-conjuring of the Black body. Muslim has become the new Black. Latino is the new Black. Courtesy of presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, who clarified his “anchor babies” statements, we now understand that Asian is the new Black.

All of this points to the need for a discussion about performing blackness and the spectacle of blackness, which, it has been painfully exhibited, remains immovable, but has been changed and challenged by the Obama presidency, as well as by many of us in our daily affirmative actions.

Go Set A Watchman is not an unfinished manuscript. Lee’s decision to have it published now might well be seen as the act of a hoary sage. Why should we not see it as the deliberate arrangement of a writer who can no longer stand to have her second novel read as a fairytale? Lee is 89 and in her life’s last chapter. The final chapter came too soon for Sandra Bland, for Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, little Andy Lopez and Tamir Rice. I would like to think that Lee feels we can no longer afford the luxury of fairytales whose cost is blood.

-C. Safos

One thought on “Killing Mockingbird

  1. “Killing Mockingbird” revealed the power of literature to challenge our thinking, as Safos says, including fixed notions of gender way before that became a popular issue.
    The recent brouhaha over To Kill a Mockingbird also showed how culture can be a form of self-estrangement. Culture, as something iconic and fixed, projects from within one’s own thinking a scale of “coolness” or currency which is taken as something objective and external like an art critic’s notion of the perfectly shaped novel. This pure culture taken in isolation becomes separate from life and is, as Hegel put it, an inversion of thought and reality.
    Look at the stupid arguments over Lee’s first draft sullying her legacy as a great writer. In fact the draft, Go Set A Watchman, which, from what I’ve heard, was more autobiographical, undermines some of the way reality has been packaged in Mockingbird. It showed how totally racism pervaded that 1930s world, even in the heroes. These works are packaged, as Safos says, to “enshrine law and American culture as fundamentally good.” Mockingbird came out in 1960 and Lee didn’t expect it to sell more than a few thousand copies. However, the book has never been out of print.
    What really inspired some people to be heroes, including some whites, was the Black masses in that period, beginning from the mass self-organization in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which totally transformed the question of freedom in the American mind from one of us vs. them (the Russian statist totalitarianism) to something that had to be worked out within this country. The movie “Bridge of Spies,” which I just saw and is likewise about law, gives you a feel for this period. The foundation for the transformation was not the law, as King so eloquently put it from a Birmingham jail, but new human relations. The most fundamental moment of new human relations is reciprocal recognition.
    The “current historical moment” captures that, as Safos puts it, in the “simple statement Black Lives Matter” as “Black people’s response to the living experience of America.” If culture arises in the context of that very deep objective drive for one’s humanity to be fully recognized as mattering, that universal comes out in people who think for themselves and not in the self-alienating consuming and packaging of culture. Safos, in the context of today’s movement, recovers Twain’s supreme irony and sarcasm in Huck Finn ad Pudd’nhead Wilson.
    Let me say a bit more about the pitfall of pure culture. Recently, I saw “Straight Outta Comptom” which showed how much the hip-hop music of the 80s reflected the real life experience of Black youth growing up in Southern Los Angeles. Yet here, too, the external, self-alienating measure set up was how totally one could project how little one cared about anything, how little anything mattered except immediate gratification. That currency certainly found a market especially among alienated white youth, who made some of these hip-hop artists millions. The money commodity, as an inert thing with power over others, is the ultimate external self-alienating measure.
    Yet the life experience of these artists did include a deep critique as in exclaiming the police have the “authority to kill a minority.” This has reappeared today, but not shaped by a nihilistic non-caring attitude. There is, indeed, a particularization of universal humanism in the persistent and deeply objective positive assertion of one’s humanity as reflected in today’s “defiant, definitive, affirmative” statement “Black Lives Matter.” Count me as a fan of the voice and perspective on the Black world in “Killing Mockingbird.” I hope we see more of it in the paper.

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