Facing the prejudices within
A reflection on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman
By Amy Uelmen
The metro train in Washington is not usually a talkative space. But one evening this past summer I happened into a particularly talkative car. A lady had struck up a conversation with a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, commenting on the t-shirt she wore with the name of an organization for people with disabilities, and said, “They do great work.” The young woman, in town for the annual conference, proudly shared that she had just been elected as the youth representative for the board.
After that lady got off, a group of four or five behind us were conversing somewhat loudly among themselves. I did not hear the word they used that so bothered the young woman, but she ventured forth to explain to the group her involvement in the organization and express her concern and dismay: “I want to tell you this word has been used to put people with disabilities down. Please don’t use it.”
Taken aback, one of the men immediately ceded: “We are obviously in the wrong, and we apologize.” The car fell completely silent.
The young woman got off a couple of stops later, and the group immediately proceeded to berate her incessantly for the next ten minutes: “I should have given her a dollar to just shut up; she better grow up; she will hear much worse in life,” and so on.
I struggled within — should I say something in her defense? I worried that it would just make things worse … The person beside me was also visibly uncomfortable. As I was getting off at my stop, I left it to a comment to her under my breath: “We have a long way to go.”
As I walked home, I wondered what kept the group from being gracious, not just with their lips, but in their hearts? What kept them from stepping into this young woman’s shoes, to appreciate her courage, to take in stride her communication limitations, and to welcome the opportunity to learn something new? I think it may have been because they felt shamed.
In that shame, they felt they had something to prove — to themselves and to the rest of the Metro car: that they were not insensitive in the way that she had called them out to be. Perhaps this sense of shame is one dimension of what kept their hearts locked to a more empathetic and humble response. How might we do better?
I received an unexpected answer to my question a short time later, when I devoured in one sitting the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman. Atticus Finch, the beloved icon of integrity and justice portrayed in Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is toppled from his revered pedestal, as his now twenty-six year old daughter, Jean Louise, “Scout,” grapples with the ugly face of racism and racial tension as manifested in her small Alabama town in the 1950s.
A masterful artist, in the first third of the book, Lee pulls you completely into her world. Through the interactions and dialogue among the characters and vivid selective memories, you get to know them and sense that you might even understand something about them. Perhaps for this reason Jean Louise’s awakening to the ugly reality that sears through the heart of the novel is so devastating and so shocking.
What I found especially striking is Lee’s depiction of how intertwined are the dynamics of race and class — and how these interactions condition and limit in incredibly complex ways the capacity of people to understand each other across these lines. No one in this novel is left off the hook. In fact, those who see themselves “blind” to the impact that race and class have had in our society have no special access to justice or compassion — on the contrary. All idols are smashed, and we are each left with our own “watchman,” our conscience, prickling with the uncomfortable thought — with whom do I align in this story, and what do I think now of the limitations revealed in this position? It is a book that will be under my skin for some time.
Returning to my encounter on the Metro, Go Set a Watchman led me to a number of insights on how to face with more honesty the ways in which we fail to understand and inadvertently hurt each other across a host of differences — whether because of ignorance or blindness, or simple thoughtlessness.
First, as Dostoyevsky put it: “Beauty will save the world.” As an art form, the novel itself created a space to work through some of my own biases and perhaps even the shame that these produce. Reading a novel is not being publicly called out. Interacting with the characters provided the simultaneous distance and intimacy I needed to face some of my own demons and limitations when it comes to race and class.
Literature, like music and other art forms, can help us not only to unlock our empathetic imaginations, but also to find healing for the shame that we might feel as we work through our blind spots.
Second, I think I can say without a spoiler alert that the narrative extends a profound invitation to appreciate the intentions of others and the complex journey which may have brought them to hold the positions that they do. At the same time, an important distinction can be drawn between trying to understand another person and agreeing with their position. The narrative is careful not to collapse this exercise into naive or platitudinous pleas to all just try to get along. On the contrary — it suggests that the conversations that unfold on this sacred ground of trying to understand each other, precisely in our deep differences, are what hold the most promise to unlock our hearts to reasoning together about the deepest meaning of justice, equality, and protection of the dignity of each person.
Finally, and related — in a time when our social and political life is intensely polarized, with a consequent uptick in name-calling, and specifically in deployment of the word “bigot,” one of Lee’s characters introduces a very helpful definition of this word.
“What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.”
In the novel, Jean Louise had every reason to condemn the wrong of racism. In the encounter that I witnessed on the Metro, the man’s first response was correct: “We are clearly in the wrong.” And that is what makes Go Set a Watchman so deeply challenging: it stands as an invitation to recognize, even in the midst of what we see as clear “wrongs” that generate real harm in our society, that we can still open our hearts to try to understand why others see the world in a certain way or react in the way that they do. And this, I believe, is our best hope for laying the foundations for our steps toward racial and social justice.
Amy Uelmen teaches at Georgetown
University Law Center.