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what one might surmise from the statements of those who are outraged by the resurfacing of Lee’s first, previously unpublished, novel, she is neither dead nor dotty.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.