Claire L Bell
Claire L Bell

Racism and prejudice: How to kill a watchman

Just over a year ago, Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird , was published. I remember the furore with which it hit the world. Newspaper headlines were thick with the tale of how this old manuscript had been found in a safe by Harper Lee’s lawyer, how Lee was now frail and unsound of mind and the lawyer had published against Lee’s will. On and on it went, with speculation, gossip and hearsay.

The story of the book trumped the story in the book.

At the time I didn’t ask myself why. I’m not a big fiction reader, preferring non-fiction, and so a year went by before I got around to reading it. I read it this weekend in one sitting and as I read I felt a fury well up in me, not at the content of the book, but at the fact that the real story of this book had been so blatantly ignored by the media who had devoted pages and page to covering its release.

So what is the book about?

The Guardian believed that “instead of clattering towards virgin territory, [the book] carries us, bewitchingly, deep into the past.”

The Wall Street Journal commented that “For the millions who hold [Mockingbird] dear, Go Set a Watchman will be a test of their tolerance and capacity for forgiveness. At the peak of her outrage, Scout tells her father, ‘You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible. I don’t doubt that many who read this novel are going to feel the same way,” sneers the journalist.

The Telegraph, the bastion of British conservative newspaperdom, didn’t even bother to find out, publishing a piece headlined “Why I Won’t be Reading Go Set a Watchman”, arguing that “what [readers] discover will make many of them sad”.

Business Insider, another UK publication, also dedicated a whole article to the musings of a journalist who refused to read the book: “I don’t want to see one of American literature’s greatest heroes turned into a racist,” she wrote, adding that ‘Gregory Peck is a total babe in the 1962 film adaption as a socially conscious lawyer, complete with three-piece suit and glasses. Racism just wouldn’t become him’.”

So for those of you who may not remember, To Kill a Mockingbird is about a white laywer in Alabama who comes to the defence of a black man who has been unfairly charged with rape. It’s about the white hero, taking on the system, and winning.

Go Set a Watchman is set about 20 years later when the white hero has become old, arthritic, and when his daughter – who had always put him on a pedastal – comes face to face with the fact that her liberal dad actually thinks that black people are less educated, that they don’t have the same values, that yes, they should have equal rights, but… in moderation.

 Says Atticus Finch to his daughter Scout:
“Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ‘em? Do you want this town run by – now wait a minute – Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby. Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered you know.”

Atticus Finch, you see, doesn’t have a problem with black people, as long as they are not running the country and holding the purse strings. Sound familiar?

Go Set A Watchman is a radical book not because it turns a white saviour into a racist – but because it reveals that he always was. That underlying Atticus Finch’s belief in the rule of law and equal rights is a deep-seated, unexamined bigotry with which he is content, and which he believes to be right and true and justified. In the grand scheme of things Atticus Finch is still a liberal, he’s just an awkwardly familiar liberal: the one you see in the mirror.

As I reflected on Finch and the media establishment’s ploy to protect the moral legacy of this old white hero by refusing to engage with the content of this book,  I found myself thinking about one of my Benoni High School teachers who, as a teen, I had regarded as a liberal. Two years ago, I interviewed her for my book, Lost Where I Belong, in which I examine the legacy of apartheid on our hearts and the difficulty of transformation.

I asked what she had thought about apartheid during my school days, and she had replied: “We were good little products of our government, but we weren’t racist. Black people just weren’t a part of our lives. People may have become racist by events that happened after, rather than before. Before we didn’t have anything to be racist about.”

It made me reflect on how hard it is for humans to live with other humans. We can have high ideals and low ideals and fail on them both every day. And we’re certain to fail, over and over, unless we’re prepared to have difficult conversations, and unless our media is prepared to get involved in some of these gritty discussions, instead of polarising us or assuming a moral high ground, so out of reach from so many of us.

Interestingly, the newspaper that published the most decoy hype about Go Set A Watchman was the British newspaper The Guardian – the so-called bible of the liberals. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Perhaps they did just what Scout did when she realised the truth about her father. She vomited and then tried to run away.

She didn’t get very far though, and to its abiding credit, in its last scene, Go Set A Watchman challenges Scout to confront her own high-minded, “turnip-sized” bigotry:
“You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas. You better take time for ‘em honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.”

Read more essays on racism and prejudice at Unpopularessays.com.

  • Barry Saayman

    “I found myself thinking about one of my Benoni High School teachers who, as a teen, I had regarded as a liberal. Two years ago, I interviewed her for my book, Lost Where I Belong, in which I examine the legacy of apartheid on our hearts and the difficulty of transformation. I asked what she had thought about apartheid during my school days, and she had replied: ‘We were good little products of our government, but we weren’t racist. Black people just weren’t a part of our lives. People may have become racist by events that happened after, rather than before. Before we didn’t have anything to be racist about.’” – Claire L Bell

    The way I understands it, a selective memory, denialism, blaming/guilt projection – on the government or anybody else – and rationalisations are all normal human defence mechanisms and the default human reaction to deal with painful events, thoughts or feelings – or should I rather say the default human reaction to avoid dealing honestly with painful events, thoughts and feelings.

    Making use of human defence mechanisms does not make anybody less human – the former teacher’s reply makes her in my opinion human. She is either acutely or vaguely aware of her discomfort about her past behavior, thoughts and feelings about the culture conflicts around her and she probably don’t know which way to turn. It is not easy to chance tack after being intolerant of diversity for a lifetime.

    All whites fear to be labelled a racist should they admit that culture denialism is not solving the threatening realities of current day South Africa. Anglo cultural assimilation/appropriation is failing and they don’t know why. Most South Africans are unaware of sections 143(1)(b), 211, 212, 219(1)(a) and 235 of the Constitution, 1996 and that it is perfectly o.k. for those that share “a common cultural and language heritage” to admit that they are different and cannot change not even with the best will on earth.

    Bullying by social justice crusaders on social media and otherwise has ruined more than one life – the norm is therefore dishonesty, virtue signalling and among others blaming. “Go Set A Watchman” is according to indications a sad story. However “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” is equally sad.

    Many self-styled South African liberals are in fact faux liberals or so-called Anglo American liberals. They are in other words conservative free market fundamentalists and for many decades the willing protagonists of the English language media serving the interests of their mining magnate owners.

    Without professional help this uncooked situation has the potential to make many people very sick and hammering them with “more essays on racism and prejudice” is not in any manner whatsoever helpful if these essays don’t propose an informed and constructive way forward.

    From where I stand I see no cultural differences between African Americans and white Americans – they share the same language, religion etc. “Whiteness studies” in SA should duly acknowledge the South Africa context, if the local proponents wish to be relevant and not merely the parrots of others.

    We as humans cannot run away from our own inner conflicts. It must be resolved to regain emotional well-being.

    Guilt and shame are potent destructive emotions and guilt and shame snobbery is therefore wrong and deadly for many South Africans. Some will lean to hate themselves and others will immigrate in an effort to feel better and that will not solve their problem. Victim-hood and senseless self-flagellation are debilitating. Abroad they will face the very same situation amplified for being part of the oppressive white majorities of the global north that are extremely intolerant of diversity.

    The way I understand it – only those South Africans with a high emotional IQ and the ability to be brutally honest with themselves and the determination to, come what may, speak their minds will be able to grow and move forward. Those that abuse their human defence mechanisms to feel better without realising it stagnate. They are liabilities to themselves and society at large.

  • MICHAEL JONES

    I am also Benoni boy, love seeing my home town’s people prospering. This comment is so true “We were good little products of our government, but we weren’t racist. Black people just weren’t a part of our lives. People may have become racist by events that happened after, rather than before. Before we didn’t have anything to be racist about.” many white people were not racist in apartheid, it was just convenient not to have black people in our lives but the last 22 years have made many more white racists than the whole of apartheid did, it was not the skin but rather the people (ANC / government) and what they do and dont do and unfortunately all are black.