At Tuesday night’s event, one of the more outspoken members of the audience was a white woman in her mid-sixties. (BTW: A majority of the audience fit this description.)
A self-described retired, high-school English teacher, someone who spent years teaching Mockingbird to generations of students, this woman began the evening by sharing with Hakim Bellamy that she had seen him in the role of Tom Robinson in the Albuquerque Little Theatre production of the play, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In fact, she went to the considerable trouble and expense of taking all six of her grandchildren to see the production because she wanted to introduce them to Atticus Finch, a beloved figure for this teacher and for so many of us who came of age in the late fifties and early sixties.
When Bellamy asked whether the play had endeared the children to her hero, the woman’s expression was bemused.
The children were shocked, she said, that Atticus shot a dog, and on the way home could talk of nothing else.
Funny, yes, and instructive, sure: The children wouldn’t have been impressed by a white lawyer’s defense of an innocent black man. They’ve seen that sort of situation play in many television programs and movies. For them, it’s a commonplace for lawyers of one race to defend clients of another. What they haven’t seen are rabid dogs wandering the streets of a small southern community! They don’t have any experience with rabies and infected dogs. From their perspective, Atticus Finch isn’t much different than Dr. Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who, earlier this summer, killed a Zimbabwe lion named Cecil.
The most telling moment of the evening came later, though, when the same retired teacher tried to explain her reverence for the character of Atticus. Now that she’s read Go Set a Watchman, her misty memories of a saintly father figure have been hopelessly sullied.
“Were you devoted to the book version or the movie version?” someone asked. She didn’t have to think long: “I used to believe my life would be perfect if only Gregory Peck were my father and Spencer Tracy my grandfather.”
“Imagine my disappointment,” Hakim Bellamy replied. “I used to daydream about having Bill Cosby as my dad.”
Of course, we all laughed, but the moment was fraught and clearly illustrative of a larger point: For many years, most of America assumed that BIll Cosby the man was somewhat synonymous with the character he played, Cliff Huxtable, the kindly OBGYN who never seemed to go to work. Regardless of race, we all wanted a spot on the couch at his house because kids at the Huxtables had the full attention of a devoted and entertaining dad.
Now, the millions who revered Cosby are particularly hard-pressed to come to terms with continuing news coverage. The number of women who have come forward to accuse him has grown to more than fifty, making it likely that the comedian and television personality is a longtime, serial rapist.
What’s the takeaway? People are complicated, and as we all know from our own personal experience, many of us are not what we seem to be. Why is this lesson so difficult to learn?
One of the best discussions of the book is in a blog written by Ursula Le Guin. In “A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman,” she says, “I think that by seeing Atticus as first saint [in Mockingbird], then demon [in Watchman], we refuse to let him be a man, and also refuse to hear what the author was trying to tell us about being a Southerner.” I couldn’t agree more.
More on being a Southerner in the next installment