Last year a bookish friend gifted me with a brand new copy of Go Set A Watchman. I’m not sure why she chose me to gift it to, but I am exceptionally glad that she did because it made me haul out my copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, which I had not yet attempted to read.
2016 was not a great reading year for me. I squeezed in a couple of easy reads between my travel plans and life in general, but I didn’t get through too many. Finally in December I decided to give the previously discarded To Kill A Mockingbird another try. I’d set it aside before because it was kind of heavy and 2016 was an otherwise light year (if you disregard all that stuff where the free world elected an oppressive twat as their leader) so heavy reading didn’t quite fit.
I finally picked it up though. And wow. Have you read Mockingbird? It’s undoubtedly exceptional.
It has left me in a bit of a fog though.
I’m no scholar, so perhaps I am wrong, but I cannot help but feel that both Mockingbird and Watchman were written by a woman who was clearly trying to come to terms with her own whiteness and the undoubtedly unjust privilege that comes with that. Perhaps I recognise it because I feel it myself, but I cannot help but notice that without being preachy, Harper Lee exposed and questioned so much ugliness in the black/white dynamic of America. And she did so most likely at a risk to herself.
So I have to ask: If this book was so popular (30 million copies sold, boasts the cover of my copy of Mockingbird) then surely it must have had some sort of societal impact. Surely people cannot read books like this and remain unaffected.
Or perhaps the question should be: If people are affected by this kind of art, why does it still feel like it is not enough? Would society in general be worse if these minds did not exist and share their musings with us?
Is it possible that it will ever be enough?
When Watchman came out it was followed by bad reviews. I know Harper Lee herself wasn’t enthusiastic about it going to print, and I can even understand why. Watchman is completely out of Mockingbird’s league. It is almost as if it were written by a lesser version of Harper Lee. Or perhaps it even reads as if it might be fan fiction. And yet the heart of the questioning white girl is still there. And I cannot help but feel a lot of love for that girl. I imagine I will most likely be criticised for it, but so much of race dynamics relies on white people choosing to better themselves, and I do choose to do so, though I undoubtedly fail at times. I cannot help but have great respect for someone like Harper Lee who struggled with it on her own, driven by her own conscience more than by a massive collective conscience which we are fortunate enough to be able to turn to for guidance today.
I read the other day that parents are calling for Mockingbird to be removed from the American school curriculum because it is derogatory to black people. It is. Of course it is. But that’s kind of the point. It is a narrative that seeks to expose and understand those dynamics. Studying that and encouraging those kinds of conversations amongst young people strikes me as so exceptionally important. It shouldn’t be thrown away because of its use of the n word. The heart of it is so much more than that.
To my white reader friends: I encourage you to read these two novels and catch the heart of the justness that they try to communicate. And while you do so, marvel at the fact that an author, lost to us now, could have created something so long ago and still have it be relevant to today’s society.
And then think: what can I do to make this less relevant?