The controversies surrounding Watchman fascinate me for a variety of reasons: First, because I read To Kill a Mockingbird shortly after its initial publication in July of 1960 and have read it several times since; second, because I came of age in Dallas during desegregation and experienced it firsthand; and, third, because I went on to become a novelist myself and someone who, like Lee, is compelled to explore social issues.
I am a forward-looking person, always have been. But reading Go Set a Watchman returned me to a crucial year in my life, my sixteenth year, when I was a sophomore attending South Oak Cliff High in Dallas, Texas. Given that my memories of childhood and adolescence are spotty, I did a little research on the history of desegregation in Dallas, and I learned the following:
In the 1960s, Dallas schools were designated for specific races, white or black, with other minorities typically falling into the “white” category. South Oak Cliff, for example, was designated a white high school when it was built in 1952. Then black families began moving into the developing neighborhoods around the school, and after preliminary court orders forced Dallas to open schools to students of all races in 1965, black students began attending South Oak Cliff. Four years later, in 1970, the school had changed from almost 100 percent white to almost 100 percent black. - See more at: http://oakcliff.advocatemag.com/2011/07/a-gray-matter-40-years-of-disd-desegregation/#sthash.rt30Vekh.dpuf
Memory tells me that in 1968, the racial distribution was approximately 25% white and 75 % black. Thanks to E-Yearbook.com, I was able to find my photo in the 1968 South Oak Cliff Den. (Our mascot was a bear.)
Here’s a screenshot of the page that verifies at least a few of my memories, including the awkward helmet hairdo I preferred that year:
Near the end of my sophomore year, Martin Luther King was killed. What a murderous decade: First, we lost our president, John F. Kennedy, killed in my hometown in 1963; then in April of 68, the Reverend Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. A few months later, Robert Kennedy would be shot dead while delivering a speech in Los Angeles. Death, death, and more death.
I heard the news about Dr. King in class. By the end of the day, rumors of race riots swirled down the halls. I recall standing at my locker as a black classmate sidled up with a warning: Don’t come to school tomorrow. Honestly, I was more befuddled than frightened. I’ve never been one to catch on quickly.
Me and my white friends–we all received similar warnings–but we weren’t really sure what a race riot was, and we were afraid to ask.
Staying at home the next day wasn’t something I considered doing. But I had second thoughts when I arrived at school and saw that the curbs around the building were ringed by news trucks and police cars. All day, we were uneasy, students and teachers, waiting for something to happen, but nothing did, and that’s the takeaway.
Whites were few and far between, and we were fellow students, confused and reluctant, sure, but fellows all the same. I was the only white girl on the sophomore drill team. Everyone called me “Ostrich Oard” because I had skinny, white legs. No one wanted to hit silly old Ostrich over the head. What would be the point of that?
The first indication of Watchman’s real subject comes near the end of Chapter Two, when Atticus, finishing his breakfast, inquires:
“Jean Louise,” he asks. “How much of what’s going on down here gets into the newspapers?”
She isn’t sure what he means, so he offers another opaque statement: “I mean about the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality.”
He can’t even say the words; they’re too upsetting for breakfast-table talk.
Brown v Board of Education: these are the words he can’t say and no one ever does say in the whole of the book. This 1954 landmark decision–wherein the Supreme Court ruled segregated public schools to be unconstitutional–is at the center of the book Lee was trying to write. The shame is that she didn’t write it. To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t that book, great as it was. Neither is Go Set a Watchman.
Now, I can’t help but count the years between the Supreme Court decision and my sophomore year of high school–fourteen years. I was only three years old when the Supreme Court ruled against segregation of the public schools. And I was graduated by the time busing began–in 1971.
One of the best reflections on Lee’s new/old book, appeared in the Huffington Post piece, and it’s called
“Here’s Why You Should Read ‘Go Set A Watchman'” by Maddie Crum.
Perceptive and persuasive, Crum argues that although Watchman “is not a good book,” it is worth reading because it serves to challenge our assumptions about Atticus Finch: “While separate but equal [schools] made it easy for passively noble citizens to advocate for justice for all, a more complete version of equality meant a violent shake-up of a long-standing caste system that in many ways still exists today.”
To recognize and accept the authentically flawed Atticus Finch is to move a foot or two in the right direction, towards a recognition of our own limitations and prejudices. People can change. Atticus Finch does change for the better or would have if Harper Lee had written another novel, say one that took place in the years after desegregation.
More on that Atticus in the next installment.