By Audrey Elisa Kerr
Midway through To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s first published novel, a lynch mob arrives at the local jailhouse in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, to lynch Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. It is the 1930s, and both Robinson and his lawyer, Atticus Finch, are aware that there is no greater crime against the American South than imagining the rape of white women, and there is no greater assault to the southern preoccupation with white women’s gentility than the figure of the black male body. Nine-year-old Scout Finch, the daughter of Atticus and the protagonist of the novel, stands in the midst of the mob, which is made up of God-fearing neighbors, fellow church congregants, and townspeople. Politely addressing one mob leader, Mr. Cunningham (but in earshot of the larger crowd), Scout notes that the Cunningham’s son—who is her classmate—can be a good kid, but he also has significant weaknesses: she even had to beat him up once, a choice she regrets. She then turns the conversation to the fact that Cunningham is in debt to Atticus (currently, he is paying him in hickory nuts), but she has learned from her father that there is no shame in this. When Cunningham can no longer ignore Scout’s moral battery, he kneels, addresses her kindly, and instructs the crowd to disband: “[T]he men shuffled back to their ramshackled cars. Doors slammed, engines coughed and they were gone.”
When reading Mockingbird, perhaps we should have paid more attention to this scene; arguably, it is the principal preparation for Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s recently published, original version of the Maycomb story. What Scout’s diatribe suggests is that the central difference between white women’s agency and black civil rights is that women’s liberation includes a domestic nexus: it is a battle waged against the archaic and oppressive views of fathers, uncles, suitors, and townspeople. Women’s “enemy,” generally speaking, also desires their preservation—albeit embedded in dangerous patriarchal traditions. Black civil rights, in contrast, is a movement against those who disavow one’s right to full humanity.
And this is precisely where Go Set a Watchman begins: Scout—now referred to by her given name, Jean Louise—returns to Maycomb from New York to visit her aging father. When her suitor, Henry Clinton, greets her at the train, he “grab[ed] her in a bear hug . . . kissed her hard on the mouth, then kissed her gently.”
“Not here, Hank,” she murmured.
“Hush, girl,” he said, holding her face in place, “Ill kiss you on the courthouse steps if I want to.” For the next 260 pages, Jean Louise is managed and instructed by Henry to not be “such a damn child” and to learn how to “catch a man.” He routinely tells her to “hush” and “shut-up”; he even suggests that she try “losing her identity” to keep a man.
Moreover, Jean-Louise’s Aunt Alexandra, who now lives with and cares for Atticus, lectures her relentlessly about her failure to behave in a way that upholds her family’s status and breeding. At a luncheon given shortly after her arrival, Aunt Alexandra and local women talk openly about the importance of being good, subordinate, southern women; they also discuss their lust for a good “nigger trial” and the anthropological feebleness of black people. In part, the status of these white women, who know they cannot be equal to white men, is secured in knowing that at least they will never be as downtrodden as blacks. Whereas the young Scout stood up to such banter, 26-year-old Jean Louise retreats into animated internal dialogues about the dystopia that is Maycomb.
In what I find to be one of the most consequential scenes in Watchman, Jean Louise shows up at the home of Calpurnia—the black woman who took of her when she was growing up—after Calpurnia’s grandson has been arrested for accidentally hitting and killing a white man. The home is filled with black family members and friends who greet Jean Louise with a flurry of “yessums” and “no’ums,” hands folded mindfully in front of them. When Jean Louise kneels before Calpurnia, the old woman is fully aware that despite her maternal care for and nurturing of Scout over the course of more than fifteen years, Jean Louise is a white woman, and now a part of the Other. Sitting in a “haughty dignity,” she looks straight past Jean Louise and states simply that a crime was committed, and her grandson must pay. In her own home, surrounded by black people—and with the invisible presence of the NAACP lingering around Maycomb—Harper Lee divulges that intersectional oppressions produce pockets of pain in locations we thought we knew.
“Tell me one thing, Cal,” Jean Louise says, “Did you hate us?”
For Calpurnia , now elderly and standing on the edge of a world poised for change, love and hate are not easily delineated. They are equally complicated for Jean Louise, lost in her own arrested love for her racist father and chauvinistic, bigoted suitor.
As her distress over southern racism and her quest for her feminist “place” reaches their climax, Jean Louise seeks out her uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, previously the voice of reason, with a single query: why have so many white men in Maycomb found refuge in supremacist groups? In an obscure oration of riddles, her uncle offers her a lecture on the utility of white sovereignty. When Jean Louise resists his twisted logic, he slaps her across the face and pours liquor down her throat. His down home remedy works. By the time she is returned to her father to receive a final exegesis against integration, she has been sufficiently quelled. In the end, she stays in Maycomb. Harper Lee is emphatic in her suggestion that white men, both literally and metaphorically, beat doctrines of subordination and segregation into their most available audience: white women. And in this regard, sexism and racism become kindred tropes throughout the novel.
In Mockingbird, Atticus Finch states, “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something . . . whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” By Watchman, though, the simmering discontent of blacks and the audacity of integrationist thought has caused Atticus to shift to the right, upholding his earlier positions, but asserting his right to a “separate but equal” world.
If you visit any of the reader comments that follow the plethora of recent articles about the Confederate flag , you’ll find commentary that seems to be lifted out of the mouths of Atticus and Jack Finch: doctrines advancing human subordination run so deep in American consciousness that Jean Louise may be the only one shocked by it. Mockingbird and Watchman are titled in ways that direct us back to race and gender equality as disruptions—agitations—that those who sit in the seats of power (the watchmen) must control.
But, even as Watchman concludes, we want to imagine that Jean Louise and Calpurnia continue to struggle with struggle – with defining their allegiances, with parsing through love and politics, and with delineating the space between the self and the other. The story concludes without us knowing the fate of either woman, however, if they continue to critically navigate their gendered and racialized spaces – if they permit the uncomfortable dialogs and calculated unrest to tussle the fabric of their town – then we can conclude that, in Harper Lee’s Maycomb, the disempowered have been watchmen all along.
After all what is a watchman, but a reliable presence, a vigilant observer and -- only when necessary -- the one willing sound the alarm that will awaken the souls of others?
Audrey Elisa Kerr is a writer and professor of English literature at Southern Connecticut State University. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyElisa
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