Atticus and Me

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” the summer between 8th and 9th grade. It was a hot, Southern summer and my mom and I went into a bookstore to look for some indoor reading. She bought me the book, and I took it home and devoured it.

I was transformed, both in a moral and literary sense. I would never forget the idea that standing up for the right thing, even when you know you are going to lose, is noble.  And, in no small part due to that book, I became an English major. (I had entered college as a pre-law student, but once I realized that I couldn’t be Atticus Finch, I gave that up.) Even today, when I’m asked to list my favorite novels, Harper Lee’s book is on the shortlist.

We even have a cat named “Atticus”.

So when I heard about “Go Set a Watchman”, a sort of sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, being released I was ecstatic. But this weekend, when the first chapter was released, my heart ached a bit. Because, as it turns out, Atticus Finch might not be such a good guy after all.

The New York Times, in reviewing the book, writes, “Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?””

In other words, Atticus is more like the racist uncle no one likes to talk about than the crusader for civil rights that my 13 year-old self imagined.

“Honey, can we change the cat’s name?” (The answer to that was, “no”.)

As I’ve sat with it, though, I wonder if a legion of Atticus Finch fans having to come to terms with his racism isn’t the best possible thing for us all.

I’m wondering that during a season in which Americans are wrestling with what contemporary racism looks like. And I’m wrestling with that myself as a person who tries my best to be an ally in the fight against racism. Because the reality is that all of us, even the best intentioned of white allies, need to wrestle with the racism inside our ourselves.

In college I began to be involved in anti-discrimination work, and I learned an incredibly important but difficult truth: we all wrestle with unlearning our prejudices.

I may not have grown up in Atticus Finch’s Alabama, but I did grow up in the South not so many decades after the Civil Rights Act. In the 4th grade I colored a Confederate flag handout in class, oblivious to how wrong that seemed until I got into my New Hampshire-native mother’s station wagon waving it at the end of the school day.

In high school I watched as a classmate drew a large Confederate flag on the chalkboard, complete with “the South will rise again”, and waited patiently for our African-American math teacher to arrive so he could see his reaction. And in high school I realized that though it was exactly five miles from the end of my driveway to the place where Zora Neale Hurston wrote, no one had ever asked us to read, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.

Like it or not, I am formed by that. That is what I learned. And that is what I have now tried for years to unlearn.

My guess is that Atticus Finch, fictional as he is, learned his racism too. I do not say that to excuse it; it is never acceptable. But I say that to say that racism is a social disease, one that spreads easily and infects us long before we realize we are sick. And one to which, sadly, many choose not to admit that they may have been exposed.

One that Atticus Finch carried. Even if he did the right thing sometimes. Even if, for so many of us, he was our adolescent hero.

But in the end, Atticus Finch was not Dr. King, or Bayard Rustin, or Rosa Parks, or Medgar Evers. That’s okay because that’s not the role of an ally anyway. An ally is not a hero. An ally is a supporter.

Instead, Atticus was the character who inspired many of us atticus-finchin our younger years to try to do what was right. He made us take a hard look at ourselves, and ask ourselves whether we could be courageous. Perhaps his greatest legacy as a character, with all that has now been revealed and with all that our country now faces, would be for all of us to be willing to take a good, hard, honest look at our hearts once again.

Atticus, I don’t need you to be my hero anymore. But I still need to learn from you. I need to learn that even the allies we idolize are not without their flaws. And even the best allies have so much to learn, and so much to unlearn. Including me.

86 thoughts on “Atticus and Me

  1. You are so very right in your points here. Characters of moral strength are so important to hold as heroes or heroines because they shape who we are. Like you, I named my cat after Atticus Finch and also intend to study law so that I can play my part in aiding the world to be a better place. How nice to know that I am not the only one who puts my hopes into a fictional character!

  2. Many of my air force years were served in the deep south – Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico. Perhaps that experience is why we decided to raise our children to be colorblind. Apparently we were successful. They brought black friends home, who were welcome. But we are/were only one family (they are adults). Congress can pass laws until we are all blue in the face, but none of them will change the mindset of a people. I can’t venture a guess how many generations will pass before we can declare ourselves an unbiased people.

    Congratulations on being freshly pressed. It’s no meager accomplishment.

  3. You said a lot of great things here! My friend recently told me just because someone does one nice thing for a black person does’t mean they’re not racist. I laughed but it’s totally true!

  4. So true. Being an ally that has to unlearn prejudice has to be the hardest but most rewarding thing – it’s all down to reeducating yourself, really.

  5. Well said! I agree with you. Racism is now accruing to the world more than ever. This is just so abominable. It is like an epidemic which is afflicting many regions. And a legion of anti-racist people can stop this. By the way, it’s good to find an inspiring icon through books,though the character may not be perfect. But as according to an adage, “even the pearl has flaws”.

  6. I love this piece. I have Go Set A Watchman on hold at my library. I felt like you felt when I first read To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus was a role model, a perfect father, and a respected person in his community. To read that he is now shown to be racist is very disappointing. But, with some thought, I think I’m happy about Ms. Lee’s decision to make Atticus more well rounded, even if I’m not particularly happy about the shape. All of our heroes are flawed in some way and I suppose we should know about those flaws. Because, overcoming those flaws to be the man he was in the first book, is, I think, what makes him, if not a hero, at least someone to be respected. At least he tried. Which is more then we can say for some.

  7. Your thoughts make me so thankful for this truth, for me, for you and for Atticus.

    “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭5:8‬ ‭NIV‬‬

  8. Well written! I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird but would love to in the future. Atticus Finch sounds like something happened to him between his innocent childhood and his racist adulthood. If only there was a second book before Go Set A Watchmen to properly explain and show exactly what happened. I know that most readers probably like to have their own ideas about what happened. I am like that at times but not always.

    • Oh I would love you to read my take on Harper Lee and “To kill a Mockingbird” when I saw this post I wanted to shout how much I relate and that we both relate to Atticus. More or less though since I was writing about “Tru and Nelle” (Capote and Lee) I knew as a child the characters “Scout and Dill” were Capote & Lee. You have to read the book. It was a must for us all in HS!

  9. I too appreciate your blog, it is actually my 1st read of someone else’s blog since I decided to start working on my own blog. As a Comanche Indian, living within a mostly assimilated family, originally from Oklahoma but now living in Texas (where most people think I’m Hispanic/Latina), I have felt the brunt of racism, mostly from those thinking I’m Hispanic/Latina but I also grew up in a small (mostly White) town out in the country…..racism was alive and well, therefore being a part of the environment I grew up in. The Blacks in the town DID actually live on the other side of the train tracks, a metaphor I have heard many times growing up. I have lived most of my life interacting and loving “closet racist”, even have a dear friend that will say (privately of course) that she will ONLY be involved or marry someone White….preference of course (sarcasm). I remember all too well as I grew up the little comments, that are very seemingly innocent, that reinforce the thinking that “those people” are so different. It took me falling in love with an outstanding Black man in my mid-life to shatter the perceptions and misperceptions of things I had heard, over and over, growing up. It has taken years to undo many of the things I thought we true…..and it is still a work in progress.

    I love and respect those that attempt to think of us all as humans but I’m just not buying the whole “colorblind” thing which many say they are but I think we are still too much of a race conscious society in the U.S. to truly be that. We describe people using what we assume someone’s ‘color’ may be, however, it is becoming more difficult to “figure” out with more mixing of races, which frustrates some. There was a fantastic TED Talks presentation by a young Black lady, Mellody Hobson, that says we shouldn’t be saying we are color blind but saying that we are color brave. We should be honest enough to say we DO see ‘color’ but it doesn’t matter, that we will accept someone acknowledging their difference but loving those differences. We have so much to learn.

    Anyway, I do love your post and I think it is very thought provoking. I too loved To Kill a Mockingbird, although it’s not an easy movie to watch sometimes. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • it’s not just an American/black issue. Here in UK we have our prejudices, particularly with regards to immigrants. I’m sure you are all aware that there is a huge problem with illegals forcing themselves into all sorts of dangerous transport situations to get across from France to UK. My husband & I have frequent ‘discussions’ – I am firmly for & feel deep,y for anyone trying to make a better life, whilst realising that there is a massive financial impact for us as a country. I get that husband is trying protect/preserve a way of life (he is nearly 70 so grew up in a different era). He isn’t racist as I am mixed race (which obviously means our children are too), we have friends from all cultural backgrounds. I have an absolutely lovely & close Bulgarian friend & I get increasingly embarrassed for her when I here some very vitriolic comments (mostly coming from the older generation) that are aimed at ‘bloody (or worse) foreigners’. She is often reluctant to speak when on the bus as she has a distinctive accent, this makes me seethe as she is so proud that she & her family are British citizens, having been here, working & contributing to our economy as professionals (both university lecturers) for over 15 years. Sadly I can’t ever see a time when ‘others’ won’t be regarded with suspicion and/or hatred. It’s a sad indictment to all of us who belong to one race – the human race.

  10. Finishing your article, I could see a parallel between United Stated and my country. The former has quite a history with racism and the latter with hypocrisy-xenophobia.

  11. “…even the allies we idolize are not without their flaws.” Well put, and really, that is the driving point of the book. Scout has always idolized Atticus, and “Go Set A Watchman” is an account of how she learns to separate her own conscience from his.

    That being said, I sat down rather gingerly to read it, because I’d heard the rumors, but I figured that if it was good, I’d be happy that I read it, and if it made Atticus look bad, I could always throw the book out a closed window (As Pat Solitano does so hilariously in “Silver Linings Playbook”) and pretend it never happened. And I’m glad I read it. From my interpretation of Atticus’s words, at least, he didn’t come across as a racist. As it was pointed out at the end, the horrible things that were said at the meeting all came from the mouth of one man, and Atticus certainly didn’t approve of him. It seemed to me that Atticus wasn’t so much trying to keep the Black population “down” as he was worried that the NAACP were trying to rush things that should (and apparently were) happening at a more natural pace.

    While some of his thinking may have been misguided, and certainly some of the quotes, when taken out of context, look rather horrible, I found that when I looked at it from a wider viewpoint of what we already know about Atticus’s character, my respect for him was not diminished.

    I found “Go Set A Watchman” to be a beautiful love story, and a sensitive portrayal of how people can hold different points of view without losing respect for one another.

  12. So true. Being an ally that has to unlearn prejudice has to be the hardest but most rewarding thing – it’s all down to reeducating yourself, really.

  13. I think it is still important to point out that it is admirable to do the right thing, to defend the innocent, regardles of our personal biases. We can fight our entire lives against our prejudices but when the time comes to do the right thing we have to put those aside and just don’t let them influence our good judjement. That is to be simpathetic but also is to be professional and objective. So still Atticus lesson has the same value and I would think that even more, knowing that he acted in the correct way despite of himself.

  14. I so love the book To Kill a Mockingbird. Is the sequel really that bad? I cant believe Atticus would turn out just like that in the sequel. But somehow, it has a lot of reality in it.

  15. Subtlest review I have read so far. Most of the reviews I stumbled upon in goodreads were devastated on how Atticus have turned into the cliche of bigotry. You sought on the humanity side of Atticus rather than him as a character maneuvered by author’s shift of mentality. This is the other side of the coin that I would root for. Brilliant entry!

  16. Wow,this is amazing and so true, a friend of mine and I prefer to find hero’s in books because most real people have flaws that impact society negatively, such as the racism itself. It’s like an airborne virus that’s spread throughout the world and it’s just not right.

    Thanks for posting this,I’m greatly inspired

  17. I read To Kill A Mockinbird some four to five years ago, and even if i have no seen the racism in USA with my eyes i have seen the discrimination in india and i was able to relate to it. i loved that book and atticus is still my hero.
    Thank You for giving me a trip down memory lane

  18. I was profoundly touched by this piece.You edged into a part of me that I don’t normally take out and examine.That,to me,is the mark of writing,and like the creative arts,it speaks in ways that,although we may not like it,we ,nonetheless,need it.
    All the very best in your life as a English major,and as a writer.From Kernowsmith.Pianist across the Pond.

  19. Two things:
    1) doesn’t everyone keep missing the fact that Henry (I think) said Atticus attended the meeting with the KKK to see what they had to say? Not to support them but to hear the other side of the story. He didn’t follow them, he listened, observed, learned…and never went back.
    2) All those things he says, could they not be his way of finally shattering Scout’s unhealthy worship of him? I read it as him challenging her just to see how far she will go to fight for what she knows is right. He says he’s proud of her. I reckon he was just pushing her.
    Just because he plays the Devil’s advocate doesn’t mean he truly believes what he’s saying.
    “I’ve killed you, Scout. I had to.” – in making her believe he was some racist he broke the spell that bound her to him like a theist to God. She’s no longer Scout; she’s Jean Louise: “it’s bearable, Jean Louise, because you are your own person now.” Atticus “descend[ed] to human level” by seeming like a racist.
    We’ve all fallen for the same trap, essentially. Read between the lines though and you can see it was a kind of manipulation…but with good intent.

  20. When I read Watchman I was a bit put off at first. But the more I thought about the book the more sense it all made. In Mockingbird we must remember we saw Atticus through the eyes of a little girl. In Watchman we see him through the eyes of an adult. He is complex with many sides. These sides are at times in conflict. To defeat prejudice of any kind we have to be ready to deal with the complex.

  21. Loved your post, but I wonder whether you’ve read “Go Set a Watchman” yet. Like you, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a big piece of the person I have become. At 45, much of how I live my life is based up not he lessons of Atticus Finch in TKAM. When I read the early reviews of the book, I almost didn’t read it. But, having finished it last night, I’m glad I did.

    Is Atticus Finch a racist? I’m not so sure he is. I’m not saying that what he’s said isn’t absolutely racist, but I think there’s more to it that MAY BE taken out of context. Like in TKAM, we’re taught not to judge someone until we’ve walked around in their skin for a while, GSAW gives a similar lesson of not judging a person until you truly understands his motives.

    I don’t think everyone will come away with this new book with the same “experience,” but I’d encourage you to read it and form an independent position in the absence of the views of others…if you haven’t already. I thought I was going to hate this book, but I ended up loving it because it made me thing and taught me lessons in much the same way as TKAM taught me lessons.

    Beautiful article. Thank you for sharing your views.

    P.S. If you’ve not read the book, I posted my review of it on my blog today. No spoilers.

  22. My “To Kill a Mockingbird” was “Lord of the Flies.” Your post inspires me to write more thoughtfully.
    I am now an avid follower!

  23. What a refreshing take on the revelation of Atticus’ racism. I completely agree with your take on it and how readers should view it. Because, if it’s not something you agree with, then learn from it. Learn how to deal with it and how you will deal with it when you encounter it in real life, in a real person. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Reblogged this on Eccentric and Bent and commented:
    In my youth, and up until now, I had never read “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I rejected the “classics” because they rejected me and my lived experiences. They were typically written by people on the other side of the tracks. They wrote about the view from the good side of town while my spiritual ancestors came from the Bottoms and the Hollers. I was and am a voracious reader but I read on my terms. I devoured Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Wole Soyinka, Octavia Butler and the like. I endured the casual bigotry of Mark Twain, Stephen King and Elmore Leonard because I enjoyed the way they wove their tales. I read E.A. Poe because I love a dark mind. I read JD Robb/ Nora Roberts because I enjoy the magic she adds to her worlds. I read Sunshine Taylor Reddick/ Stormy Reddick because she is a kickass Sci-Fi writer following in the footsteps of Octavia Butler and Tannarive Due. So I am neither surprised nor disappointed in what folks are discovering in Atticus Finch. What I am curious about is how so many intelligent folks were able to divorce this character from his era. As an outsider looking in, I wonder if this is why they can’t see the casual bigotry and, in some cases, the outright racism of their contemporaries. Is this why they disregard the reports of POC who have been victimized by bigotry? Are they, like me, so invested in seeing themselves in the protagonist that they cannot fathom a flawed multi-faceted character who may harbor ill feelings about those lower in the hierarchy? Maybe this new book in the Finch canon brings up uncomfortable feelings about self. I don’t know because as I’ve stated I never read the book. The only comparison I have is the ongoing saga of Bill Cosby.
    I watched all of his TV shows. I ate jello pudding pops because he endorsed them. I dreamed of going to an HBCU because of his influence. I disagreed with many of his speeches on Black Americans. And I now believe that he is a serial sexual abuser. I was able to divorce the man from the characters he played. I can enjoy the entertainment without turning the man into a false idol. He came from the era of respectability politics. While I do not respect Bill Cosby, I enjoy Cliff Huxtable.
    I say all of this to say, we all look for ourselves in the characters we fall for. But those characters are just sketches of life in a particular time and space. They are reflections of us but they aren’t us. Reality is much more complicated. As such, we should never be surprised when they reflect our own ugliness back at us.
    By the way, because of the uproar of the new Finch book I will be picking up both tomes. I want to see if there was casual bigotry that was overlooked in the first book that should have clued folks in to the fact that Atticus was as rabidly racist as his era.

  25. Reblogged this on I'm a messed . and commented:
    My taste for films and books has always been eclectic. I am always willing to try a different genre, critic a different technique and thrive in unique point of views. But when I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, everything was different. It was like the very first time I understood a story, the very first time I watched a movie. And if this piece of literature was a movie, it would be like one of those indie films who made it to Sundance Film Festival. (I know there’s already a movie)
    The point is, no more films or novels can satisfy me. Even if their plots were interesting, everything felt mediocre. Unlike the story of TKAM, it is always on point, extremely simple, but it will never be common/inferior.

    *Well said to the author of this post

  26. Pingback: Go Set A Watchman Read in a Parallel Universe | Barefoot Whispers

  27. This is great! I hope you read my blog post called “Harper Lee and Truman Capote…collaboration or not?” In my post I wrote how I related to Atticus and Scout & Dill were Tru and Nelle..I would be honored if you would read my short insight…😎

    • I’m interested in reading your post on Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Have you read Mockingbird by Charles Shields? Shields gives lots of insight into Lee’s past and their relationship. I found it fascinating to read in tandem with both TKAM and Watchman.

      • Hi Mary

        Are you not able to find it to read it? Its dated Aug 11, I made sure it’s still there and it is. I also made sure I fixed some slight ‘housekeeping’ issues. The dumb spelling errors that drive me nuts after I type too quickly.

        I hope you’ve read it already if not please do so & let me know what you think. It’s very short. I would love to write a whole book on a fascinating couple that hasn’t been done. Although a lot of people told me they didn’t know these two were as close as they were, so I thought that was pretty cool.

        Hope to speak with you later.

        Thank you Mary!

        Donna McGuinness

  28. I have developed a bit of an obsession with all things related to the great novel To Kill a Mockingbird lately. It started with the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman, which was actually a first draft of the book that came to be TKAM. In that context, it’s not so much of a disappointment that Atticus has racist views in Watchman, as an interesting look into Harper Lee’s thought process in trying to write about the racism in her beloved Southern town. You may be interested in a biography of Harper Lee entitled Mockingbird and written by Charles Shields. Shields gives us Lee’s history, and you will find that the views of Atticus in Watchman echo those of Lee’s own father, on whom the character of Atticus was based. Your point about the prejudices within all of us is well taken. One of the best things about TKAM is how it forces us to look at ourselves and our attitudes towards the people around us. As an English teacher, I studied TKAM with numerous students over the years, and I never tire of reading it.

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