From the Atticus Finch Naysayer in the New York Times

“Why Should We March?” March on Washington fliers, 1941. A. Philip Randolph Papers, Manuscript Division (8–8)
Courtesy of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

Friday night, I was surprised to find that a short interview I’d given on To Kill a Mockingbird after the death of its author, Harper Lee, ended up in The New York Times. I’d been warned that they were interviewing a lot of people and my words probably wouldn’t make the cut.

But then emails flooded my inbox, telling me to pull up the article. There I was, near Oprah, Scott Turow, and Adam Gopnik, saying that I thought Atticus Finch was a terrible example of a lawyer fighting for racial justice. I was a lone discordant voice among songs of praise.

Here’s the full text of my interview, from which the Times pulled the quotations. It’s not very eloquent, but at least it's complete:

If you carefully read the book, all along it’s been apparent that Atticus Finch is not a warrior for racial justice. Harper Lee never wrote him that way, and I don’t think she meant him to be that way. He is a good father and cared about his children; he took a job that no one else would take, so he does his duty; he defends his client because he’s protective and paternalistic — but not because he believes in racial justice.

Like I’ve said before, “To Kill a Mockingbird” taught white people how to think about race, and it did so badly. If white people want to learn about race and racism, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is not the right book. But for some reason it has become the book that white people turn to. My guess is that the book makes white people feel good about themselves. Hearing my students say they wanted to grow up to “be like Atticus” always troubled me. That was the reason I wrote about the book in the first place.

I don’t think Harper Lee ever meant “To Kill a Mockingird” to be read the way it turned out being read. Perhaps the problem was the movie — it simplified the story so much, and it became difficult to see Atticus as anything other than a two-dimensional hero instead of the complex character she actually wrote. The words on the page are complex, but what people want to see when they read that book is that they can be just like Atticus. But Atticus was not someone who was actively working for racial justice in the criminal justice system. Working for racial justice is a lot more difficult, and a lot scarier, than what Atticus Finch did.

I’ve taught new lawyers in exclusively southern law schools for years. I’ve heard “I wanted to come to law school because of Atticus Finch” more times than I want to remember. And every time, I was disappointed. They want to grow up to be a white man who slut-shames a sexually and physically abused impoverished girl to save a black client he didn’t want to take on in the first place?

One fellow law professor who’d heard my argument before at a presentation on my research (back when I wrote such a thing as “research”) asked, “Well, what would you have had him do?” The man was suggesting that Atticus Finch’s hands were otherwise tied. That perhaps there was no civil rights movmement for him to join in the late 1930s. That he could not have helped in other ways.

The man was wrong.

Marion Post Wolcott. Negro Man Entering Movie Theatre by “Colored” Entrance.
Belzoni, Mississippi, in the delta area. October 1939. (Library of Congress)

The great thing about To Kill a Mockingbird is that, at moments, there are breaks in the simple facade and the truth of the racial injustice shines through.

Here’s my favorite scene in the book.

One Sunday, Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper, takes the Finch children to church with her. The book, set in 1936, depicts a world of commonplace segregation. Church is no different. There’s white church and black church.

(You might notice that these customs survive today. If you are white, you might ask yourself why.)

When the group arrives at Calpurnia’s all-black church, one woman, Lula, confronts them and challenges the presence of the white children. Scout, the young girl, narrates:

“What you up to. Miss Cal?” said a voice behind us.

Calpurnia’s hands went to our shoulders and we stopped and looked around: standing in the path behind us was a tall Negro woman. Her weight was on one leg; she rested her left elbow in the curve of her hip, pointing at us with an upturned palm. She was bullet-headed with strange almond-shaped eyes. straight nose, and an Indian-bow mouth. She seemed seven feet high.

I felt Calpurnia’s hand dig into my shoulder. “What you want, Lula?” she asked, in tones I had never heard her use. She spoke quietly, contemptuously.

“I wants to know why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church.”

“They’s my comp’ny,” said Calpurnia. . . .

“Yeah, an’ I reckon you’s comp’ny at the Finch house durin’ the week. . . . You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here—they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?”

Lula is furious with Calpurnia for breaching a compact: for letting white people into one of the few safe spaces for Black people in the town of Maycomb. Lula’s anger isn’t personal toward the Finch kids. It’s not about them, personally, at all. It’s about how during the week Black people in Maycomb have to bow and scrape when white people pass by. They get one day—one room—where they are free. They get their church. And Calpurnia broke the rules.

Harper Lee wrote that scene. I admire her for it.

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Katie Rose Guest Pryal

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Novelist (Entanglement, Chasing Chaos, Fallout Girl), Essayist (Catapult, The Establishment, Motherwell, Women in Higher Education), & Attorney (the good kind)