Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature

To Avoid Hitting a Mockingbird

I know this isn’t a folk music related post, but having just finished Harper Lee’s long, long awaited second (or first) novel, Go Set a Watchman, I feel the need to talk about it. Like most high school children in Queensland in the 1990’s, To Kill a Mockingbird was part of the curriculum. I honestly can’t remember if I read the book or just cheated and watched the movie, but the theme of the story certainly stuck with me.

Be warned that if you haven’t read Go Set a Watchman already, I will be spoiling it for you.

As a teenager, I admired Atticus. He was a stern but fair man of principles, the type of father-figure that children of the 70s and 80s could only dream about. Doing the right thing in the face of social angst was something that stuck with me, even to the point where sometimes it didn’t matter so much if it was right, but more that the well-to-do folk didn’t like it.

As a novel, Watchman is a journey of painful self-discovery for Scout, rather than a simple observation of the goings on around her. The idea that people can just be put into the category of bad-racists and good non-racists is challenged in the book. In some ways I think this was a more powerful message than the ‘shining knight defending the peasants against the selfish and ignorant mob’ style of Mockingbird. What struck me as so strange about this book from 1957 was that it could well have been written about a modern day New Yorker going back to their Trump supporting town in Ohio.

I have to wonder why, if the suggestions that Watchman was an early-draft Mockingbird are true, the book didn’t get published in the 1950’s in its original form. After all, racial segregation did not end in the US until 1964. If this book was finished in 1957 it could have added significantly to the debate, maybe Mockingbird was thought to be a milder message and would thus have a better chance of acceptance.

Wikipedia has a good summary of what happened in the US between the end of the civil war and the institution of legally enforced equality in 1964. I have had the good fortune to travel in the South of the US more than the average Australian and it was a sobering experience to walk through the relatively new display next to the Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania back in 2014. The small but enlightening display is focused on recording the lives and treatment of African slaves.

I have also been to Williamsburg in Virginia and seen the depiction of life as a slave in pre-revolutionary America, to Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina where the history of African American emancipation is played out in the tiny slave huts that spread out from the plantation owner’s mansion. Driving through Augusta Georgia, and some parts of Charleston, South Carolina, it was clear that some forms of segregation are still lingering. On one of the trips to the US I was reading Uncle Tom’s cabin, so seeing these places in person definitely enhanced my understanding of the world that these events happened in. I didn’t have to drive far out of Charleston to find a barbeque restaurant with revisionist Southern propaganda on the tables.

While Mockingbird is about Scout seeing her father stand up for the legal rights of an African American, Watchman is about Scout coming home from New York to find that her father is a racist. The end of Watchman is a slap in the face, literally and figuratively. After being confronted with Scout’s father’s confirmed racist view she prepares to flee the town in disgust but a slap in the face from her uncle puts her back in her place. I cannot condone violence against women and could not reconcile Atticus’ views.

The sentiment that did stick with me was that we cannot combat racism and bigotry in our society by running away from it. In 1930’s America it was African Americans, in 2016 Australia it is Muslims. In the media, on Facebook and in our parliament we have people spewing the same vile racist views (yes I know Islam is not a race). Atticus argued that it is better to have these views out in public, rather than behind masks (or hoods), but I fear that the ears of impressionable youth, or ignorance don’t benefit from a diversity of views.

What can you do with a populace that isn’t capable of choosing between a rational humanitarian tolerance and hate-fuelled xenophobia? Scout’s uncle begs her to stay in the town because it needs more people like her, but I fear that people like Scout cannot do much but stand by and witness the carnage. The voice of reason seems to be whispered by the few into a howling gale.

I am not naïve, I know that the move from a society where few people are privileged and many people are in poverty is not easy. We have been failing at it for centuries, look at the French Revolution, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, the destruction of the British Monarchy. All bloody, all just passing the reins to a different bunch of crooked thugs. But it felt like with the establishment of equality in law, the living wage, education and healthcare for all despite their wealth, that we had started to head somewhere good. Now we see that if you take away the shackles, we go back to killing and demonising each other quicker than you can say “Make America Great Again”.