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"Go Set a Watchman" Examines Why Racism Exists

Go Set a Watchman is unmistakably Harper Lee’s voice.To be sure, the providence of Go Set a Watchman is in question, and the work should be considered not as the book Harper Lee would have written and released today, but should instead be thought of as a curious time capsule of the United States in the 1950s. In many ways, Go Set a Watchman is a much more complex book than To Kill a Mockingbird. The world of the 1950s was not ready for such a book, which might explain why it was shelved for so long. While the US might still not be ready for it, it should also be required reading. Today, GSaW reminds us of the complexities of race and racism. Today, in the wake of Black Lives Matter, it is a story worth revisiting.

Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and was the inspiration of that story. As literature, TKaM is a better work. Thematically, GSaW takes us to more ambiguous territory. Many, many have argued that Go Set a Watchman should not be read as a sequel to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Those who say that miss the point of why we read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the first place. We teach it, and read it as kids, because it clearly tells us the simple truth that racism is wrong and that people should be treated equaly in a court of law. It tells us that racism is a black and white issue. Go Set a Watchman tells us that even the construction of that binary is wrong.

I actually prefer to read Go Set a Watchman as a sort of parallel universe (or at the very least a book with familiar, characters that we all know, but who we don’t know at all). While many of the characters and references of Go Set a Watchman are similar to the original story, there is one important divergence. In To Kill a Mockingbird the black man that Atticus defends, Tom Robinson, is found guilty. In Go Set a Watchman, Robinson is acquitted. This acquittal allows us to imagine why Atticus defends Robinson in the first place. It also allows us to examine race in a more nuanced way.

Scout, Jean Louise, returns home to Alabama from New York and the people that she once knew are now unknown to her. In fact, that sort of “what once was, was never what we thought it was” works incredibly well as the propellant of this character driven story for a 21st century reader already familiar with the original work (albeit from childhood). In fact, the uncanny novel pivots on this (un)familiarity. The reader, in turn, returns to Alabama to find an ice cream shop where the Finch family once lived, and a god who no longer is perfect. Atticus is a father that even Jean Louise doesn’t recognise.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the book that we want as children.  It tells us that racism is unacceptable, and we must staunchly stand against it. Go Set a Watchman is a book that explores how people grapple with their own conscience. The work asks what happens when one’s way of being, their way of life, benefits from structural racism.

The insidious nature of racism permeates Lee’s second book. Go Set a Watchman explores a divide that separates a generation. We ask how Atticus could defend a black man in the original TKaM because of the simple fact that Robinson was an innocent man who happens to be black, and not because of a belief in a racial equality that considers social circumstances. We ask, despite Addicus’ straight compass, how would he not be able to make that jump to believing in creating a more just society writ large. This is a question many people still don’t know how to to reconcile when considering affirmative action programmes, incarceration rates, and police harassment.

What exactly is equality? Is it making sure everyone has the tools they need to succeed given their social, economic and cultural circumstances, or is it giving them the same opportunities but without considering their specific needs. If we ask two people of vastly different heights and abilities to change a lightbulb and expect them to use the same tools to achieve the same goal, is that equality?

From Scout’s perspective, the point of view of the original novel, Atticus was taking a stand against racism. This was the point of view that generations took. Like Scout, that perspective taught us that racism is wrong. Even the colour blind Scout, who is destroyed by the racism she comes home to, holds tendencies that are racist. So might some readers. That’s what makes it uncomfortable to us.

Moreover, the novel, grapples with the tension between states rights and federal government, which still has not been resolved in the 60 years since Go Set a Watchman was written. When will those who most benefit from racism give up some of their own privileges to benefit others and society at large? Go Set a Watchman forces readers to complicate issues of racism, and to examine their own privilege and conscience.

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