Harper Lee has in the past said she would never publish another novel.
I always viewed her as the author who had the proverbial one great book in him or her, wrote the book, and in good conscience decided not to "cash in" on the book's success. And why should she have published another novel? Mockingbird is a universally recognized classic, still making her a steady income (according to court papers relating to a lawsuit against her former book agent, she received $1,688,064.68 in royalties in the first six months of 2009 -- that's $9,249 per day), and she was never likely to write anything that would be as good. Her decision showed integrity and a certain complacency with who she was.
Her philosophy seemed to be: wallow in the glory of one great book, without muddying the waters with second-rate follow-ups.
This all changed with the publication of Go Set a Watchman.
The circumstances under which the novel was published are interesting and raise concerns about whether it really has been her decision to publish the novel.
Also, newsworthy was the much-publicized fact that Atticus Finch is portrayed as a racist.
Atticus Finch, whose film character was voted by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the greatest film hero in the history of film (other heroes in the top ten, for your curiosity: Indiana Jones (number 2), James Bond (number 3), Rick Blaine (number 4) from Casablanca, Clarice Starling (number 6) from The Silence of the Lambs, Rocky Balboa (number 7), and Ellen Ripley (number 8) from Aliens). I would imagine if there was a poll of greatest 20th century heroes in literature, he would also be number one or at the top of the list there, too.
When non-black America thinks of the great books of social justice in the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird is likely to be on any short list. This is probably because it is reasonably brief and easy to read, as well as being well written and featuring a heroic, semi-mythical white man. (The fact that a great movie was made from the book also doesn't hurt). But there are many other books of more serious literary provenance written by African-Americans that should be at the top of the list, to name just a few, Black Boy, Native Son, The Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, several books by James Baldwin, The Color Purple, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and just about anything by Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison, but especially her masterpiece, Beloved, none of which have received as much cultural acceptance as Mockingbird.
Lee's novel has a slightly saccharine taste and, being written by a white Southern woman, perhaps also has a patronizing tone.
In any event, I have always loved the book and movie. Like many lawyers, I want to be like Gregory Peck-Atticus Finch, meaning someone who is not showy, or overly standoffish, but who does the right thing, even in the face of social pressure and personal danger. Lawyers are hated because they are viewed as making a lot of money and looking down on their clients, which is some times true. But lawyers have also made real and positive changes to our society, and Atticus Finch has always stood as someone worthy of emulation, even though he is unsuccessful in his attempt to gain Tom Robinson's freedom (interestingly, in Watchman, Robinson is acquited).
What does it mean to find out that as an old man, he too was a racist? Was he also a racist at the time of Mockingbird, but he was portrayed as viewed through rose colored glasses by an adoring daughter, who kept the ugly parts out of sight, or perhaps he truly was noble and right-minded at the time of Mockingbird, but had somehow changed over the intervening years. Perhaps both portrayals are "true," in that in a racist society, racism colors everyone's views of race, and everyone (even basically good people) ends up adopting racist views to some degree. Racism even effects our basic and everyday language. As Martin Luther King said,
"Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high and clean. Well I want to get the language right tonight.
"I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out: ‘Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful!'”
Watchman is at the top of the best seller list and has garnered a remarkable amount of publicity, some of which I will cover below.
Also, since we are on the topic of literature, I will look at some of the great literary expressions of racial justice, by authors such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Amiri Baraka.
What Was Harper Lee Thinking, or - Where Have You Gone Atticus Finch?
To start with, Atticus as we remember him, with his Gregory Peck good looks and unprepossessing, old fashioned glasses, saying things like:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
"They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions... but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. Y ou rarely win, but sometimes you do."
"The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."
What a good man.
And now, the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman:
"Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?"
"The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as people."
"Scout, you probably don’t know it, but the NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards down here waiting for things like this to happen…. We’ve got three or four in the state now. They’re mostly in Birmingham and places like that, but circuit by circuit they watch and wait, just for some felony committed by a Negro agains a white person—you’d be surprised how quick they find out—in they come and… well, in terms you can understand, they demand Negroes on the juries in such cases. They subpoena the jury commissioners, they ask the judge to step down, they raise every legal trick in their books—and they have ’em plenty—they try to force the judge into error. Above all else, they try to get the case into a Federal court where they know the cards are stacked in their favor. It’s already happening in our next-door-neighbor circuit, and there’s nothing in the books that says it won’t happen here."
Certainly less inspiring...
How do we reconcile Gregory Peck with the above quotes? One explanation is that the two were never intended to co-exist. It appears that Go Set a Watchman was the first draft of what later became To Kill a Mockingbird, which was heavily edited by legendary editor and friend, Tay Hohoff. Because of the heavy involvement of Hohoff, there always was some speculation that one reason that Lee would never write another novel was because she didn't completely write Mockingbird on her own - Hohoff was not just an editor, but rather a collaborator. The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' details the relationship between Lee and Hohoff.
Some have also argued that there is value in the nuanced character:
After the initial shock, some writers and literary critics see added value in a more complex, and flawed, version of Atticus. If “Mockingbird” sugarcoats racial divisions by depicting a white man as the model for justice in an unjust world, then “Watchman” may be like bitter medicine that more accurately reflects the times.
“If Atticus Finch is not quite the plaster saint that he is in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ there could be something rich and fascinating about that,” said Thomas Mallon, a novelist and critic, who had read only the published excerpt from “Watchman.” “The moral certainties in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are apparent from the first page, and in that sense, I don’t think it’s a great novel that deals with the tormenting questions of race in America, but maybe this new one is, if it’s more nuanced.”
Racism, inequality and the persecution of minorities in the United States have again surfaced in the national conversation. Last week, the South Carolina legislature took down the Confederate battle flag from its statehouse grounds after days of emotional debate. Protests have erupted around the country after police shootings of unarmed black men.
“Watchman,” which was completed in 1957, is landing in the middle of the debate, like a literary artifact out of a time capsule from a period when the country was divided over many of the same issues.
“We could turn this into a plus in our national conversation about racism and the Confederate flag. It turns out that Atticus is no saint, as none of us are, but a man with prejudices,” said Charles J. Shields, author of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.” ....
“‘Go Set a Watchman’ is much more forcefully about civil rights. It’s much more political, but that tells us what was in front of Harper Lee’s brain at the time,” said Mary McDonagh Murphy, a filmmaker who recently released a new version of “Hey, Boo,” her documentary about Harper Lee. When she submitted the novel nearly 60 years ago, Ms. Lee was told to rewrite the book from young Scout’s perspective and to turn it into a coming-of-age story. “My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout,” Ms. Lee said in a statement. “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Ms. Lee said in a statement that was released by her publisher in February.
Ms. Lee wrote “Watchman” when, like Jean Louise, she was living in New York and occasionally traveling home to Alabama to visit her aging father, the lawyer A. C. Lee, who is commonly cited as the model for Atticus in “Mockingbird.” In letters she wrote at the time to a friend in New York, she describes feeling unmoored by his physical decline and impending death (“I found myself staring at his handsome old face, and a sudden wave of panic flashed through me”).
She also recounts feeling like an outsider in her hometown because of her stance on civil rights: “I don’t trust myself to keep my mouth shut if I feel moved to express myself, thereon it will get out all over Monroeville that I am a member of the N.A.A.C.P., which, God forbid. They already suspect this to be a fact anyway.”
While A. C. Lee was moderate by the standards of the times, he supported states’ rights and held segregationist views, according to Mr. Shields. Later, after the publication of “Mockingbird” in 1960, his views softened, and he started campaigning for redistricting in the county to protect disenfranchised African-American voters, Mr. Shields said....
Lee Siegel in the New Yorker wrote in February 2015, even before the books publication, and without knowledge that Atticus would be portrayed as racist:
It’s understandable, of course, to feel protective toward the author of a book that has cherished status in the imaginations of so many people. Appearing in 1960, in the roiling dawn of the civil-rights movement, “Mockingbird” was the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of its day. Its central black character even bore the name Tom, and, just as Stowe’s character saves a white girl from drowning, Lee’s Tom Robinson helps a lonely, impoverished white girl with her errands because he pities her. It is intolerable to think that figures of authority—Lee’s lawyer, her publisher, and all those who stand to gain from a sequel to the phenomenally lucrative “Mockingbird”—might be manipulating and exploiting the creator of a work of art that itself is about how an official mendacity abets a system of inequality. That the aged and infirm Lee either cannot or will not speak publicly about the sequel has only reinforced the suspicion of shady doings.
Yet beyond the social context, and even if people’s darkest fears are confirmed, it’s hard to see what harm the publication of the book, somewhat oddly titled “Go Set a Watchman,” would do. If the novel is inferior to “Mockingbird,” Lee’s classic of American literature will not suffer. William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” was not invalidated by the deservedly forgotten “Pylon.” The posthumous publication of Ralph Ellison’s disappointing “Juneteenth”—reorganized by one of Ellison’s friends—has not diminished the power or importance of “Invisible Man.” Like those other works, “Mockingbird” has created its own inviolable space; the sudden appearance of a second-rate work from Lee would hardly discredit the book that made her famous in the first place. The worst that could happen would be for a mediocre “Watchman” to make it seem that “Mockingbird” was a fluke. In that case, “Mockingbird” would be all the more remarkable.
Toward the end of his life, Willem de Kooning, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, was declared mentally unfit to manage his estate, and his executors began to sell off at high prices a stream of works that many critics considered greatly inferior to de Kooning’s earlier work. Their fears were similar to those aroused by the announcement of “Watchman” ’s publication. De Kooning’s value as an artist—not to mention the monetary value of his art—has not been tainted in the slightest degree.
But perhaps the comparisons to de Kooning, and to Faulkner and Ellison, are overblown. Perhaps the more apt comparison would be to novelists like Pearl S. Buck and James Michener, writers who once occupied a now defunct space somewhere between literary and popular fiction. Though “Mockingbird” won a Pulitzer Prize, like Buck’s “The Good Earth,” it is not typically considered part of the “serious” canon of literature. It might seem insulting to call a beloved book like “Mockingbird” middlebrow, but such works—“Gentleman’s Agreement,” “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” “Exodus,” and “Fear of Flying,” to give a few examples—are the ones that shape public consciousness. If you concede that Lee’s book belongs in that category, then the publication of an inferior sequel would be nothing new. With such a book, what matters more than the style and sensibility of the author is that it crystallizes its moment. Considered in this light, “Mockingbird” is not primarily a work in Harper Lee’s oeuvre, so to speak. Rather, the author is a footnote to her achievement, a humbling fact that may even help account for Lee’s near-reclusiveness.
That an inferior sequel would not have the power to undermine the status of “Mockingbird” seems fairly obvious, particularly given that the so-called sequel was actually written before “Mockingbird.” But the uproar over “Watchman” doesn’t seem to be subsiding, even as “Watchman” itself remains shielded from public view. On the face of it, the situation seems absurd, yet there are cultural currents afoot, beyond the book’s iconic power as a social document, that give the absurd situation a rational aspect and keep it going. One is the fear of the helplessness of old age. Lee, who is eighty-eight years old, has no family to protect her. She is relying, truly, on the kindness of friends who could well be behaving like strangers now that large amounts of money are at stake. The spectacle of an author—and a beloved American author at that, one who has abided in our deepest feelings since many of us read her in childhood—being taken advantage of in old age is chilling at a time when so many people are living long lives. There is a collective anxiety about how we will survive as our faculties weaken, and as our existence becomes depopulated of friends and family and even familiar faces.
The ascendance of money as the dominant social value adds to the concern over Lee’s true situation. In every corner of the culture, money has increasingly become the sole criterion of success. Museums falter, dance companies close their doors, mid-list authors are cast adrift, newspapers and magazines contract, decent public servants are repelled from political life—all because they cannot meet an ever more draconian bottom line. And here is the author of the great American novel of cruelty and decency, of racial hatred and the sympathy that blurs racial difference, perhaps being robbed and degraded, all for the sake of the almighty buck. L’affaire “Watchman” is the perfect emblem of every cultivated person’s nightmare: the ongoing devaluation of art and literature in an impossibly overheated, aggressive, and exacting marketplace; and the callous trashing of the past.
Or is it? The indignant outcry over the fate of “Watchman” could just as well prove the opposite. It could mean that the very possibility of Lee’s distress possesses the power of her masterpiece. Somewhere in the hysteria that has greeted news of the sequel there is an acute awareness of artistic value, of the past and of what we owe the past, and of an individual’s precious singularity. When all the hysteria dies down, and those fine sentiments come to the fore, “Watchman” might well receive the same gift that Atticus Finch gave to Tom Robinson, and which Lee, in such a trivial context, once gave to me: the benefit of the doubt.
Another New Yorker article also deals with the circumstances of the book's publication and Lee's present circumstances. According to the article, Lee lived in New York City (for some of the time in a rent controlled apartment on the Upper East Side) from 1949 until 2007, when a severe stroke brought her back to Monroeville, Alabama, where she was born. She currently lives in an assisted-living facility.
The article also discusses Lee's relationship with her attorney, Tonja Carter, who has a durable power of attorney and apparently was instrumental in bringing out Watchman.
Joe Nocera talks in an editorial about what he bluntly calls a "The Harper Lee 'Go Set a Watchman' Fraud":
[T]he Rupert Murdoch-owned publishing house HarperCollins announced just this week that it had sold more than 1.1 million copies in a week’s time, making it the “fastest-selling book in company history.” “Watchman” has rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, where it will surely stay for a while. And the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal not only excerpted the first chapter on the Friday before publication, but it also gave its readers a chance to win a signed first edition of the book. Talk about synergy! ....
So perhaps it’s not too late after all to point out that the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.
The Ur-fact about Harper Lee is that after publishing her beloved novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in 1960, she not only never published another book; for most of that time she insisted she never would. Until now, that is, when she’s 89, a frail, hearing- and sight-impaired stroke victim living in a nursing home. Perhaps just as important, her sister Alice, Lee’s longtime protector, passed away last November. Her new protector, Tonja Carter, who had worked in Alice Lee’s law office, is the one who brought the “new novel” to HarperCollins’s attention, claiming, conveniently, to have found it shortly before Alice died.
If you have been following The Times’s cleareyed coverage, you know that Carter participated in a meeting in 2011 with a Sotheby’s specialist and Lee’s former agent, in which they came across the manuscript that turned out to be “Go Set a Watchman.” In The Wall Street Journal — where else? — Carter put forth the preposterous claim that she walked out of that meeting early on and never returned, thus sticking with her story that she only discovered the manuscript in 2014.
But the others in the meeting insisted to The Times that she was there the whole time — and saw what they saw: the original manuscript that Lee turned in to Tay Hohoff, her editor. Hohoff, who appears to have been a very fine editor indeed, encouraged her to take a different tack. After much rewriting, Lee emerged with her classic novel of race relations in a small Southern town. Thus, The Times’s account suggests an alternate scenario: that Carter had been sitting on the discovery of the manuscript since 2011, waiting for the moment when she, not Alice, would be in charge of Harper Lee’s affairs.
That’s issue No. 1. Issue No. 2 is the question of whether “Go Set a Watchman” is, in fact, a “newly discovered” novel, worthy of the hoopla it has received, or whether it something less than that: a historical artifact or, more bluntly, a not-very-good first draft that eventually became, with a lot of hard work and smart editing, an American classic.
The Murdoch empire is insisting on the former, of course; that’s what you do when you’re hoping to sell millions of books in an effort to boost the bottom line.
But again, an alternative scenario suggests itself. Lee has said that she wanted to write a “race novel.” Though her first effort had some fine writing, like many first-time novelists she also made a lot of beginners’ mistakes: scenes that don’t always add up, speeches instead of dialogue, and so on. So she took a character who was a racist in the first draft and turned him into the saintly lawyer Atticus Finch who stands up to his town’s bigotry in defending a black man. He becomes the hero of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Which is also why it’s silly to view the Atticus Finch of “Go Set a Watchman” as the same person as the Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as many commentators have done. Atticus is a fictional character, not a real person.) Lee still wound up with a race novel, which was her goal. But a different and much better one.
In one of her last interviews, conducted in 1964, Lee said: “I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing… is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this — the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.”
A publisher that cared about Harper Lee’s legacy would have taken those words to heart, and declined to publish “Go Set a Watchman,” the good idea that Lee eventually transformed into a gem. That HarperCollins decided instead to manufacture a phony literary event isn’t surprising. It’s just sad.
Below are selections form the New Yorker's cynical (but insightful) review of the book:
The heavily hyped appearance of Harper Lee’s new or very old, or, anyway, indistinctly dated, novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (HarperCollins), reflects an ambitious publishing venture—complete with slow, striptease-style press leaks and first chapters and excited pre-publication surmise—in which all the other apparatus of literature, reviewers included, is expected to serve, and has. Not since Hemingway’s estate sent down seemingly completed novels from on high, long after the author’s death, has a publisher gone about so coolly exploiting a much loved name with a product of such mysterious provenance. It may well be that what the procurers of the text have said about it—that it is an earlier novel set in the world of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” only recently discovered, and published with the author’s enthusiastic assent—is so. But, if it is, the procurers seem oddly reluctant to be terribly exact about their accomplishment. The finished book that has now emerged, with a charming retro cover, showing a lonely engine on a twilight Alabama evening, has not a single prefatory sentence to explain its pedigree or its history or the strange circumstance that seems to have brought it to print after all this time, as though complete novels with beloved characters suddenly appeared from aging and reclusive and apparently ailing writers every week of the year. (This in a book that includes a fourteen-line note on the type.) And then the story that has been offered about it in the papers—a story that seems to change significantly as time goes by—presents certain difficulties to the reader’s understanding of the book.
The excitement is, in a way, a salute to America’s literary memory: in what is supposed to be an amnesiac society, the memory of a fifty-five-year-old novel burns so bright that an auxiliary volume is still a national event. Of course, the memory is assisted by the universal appearance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in eighth-grade curricula, but most of what appears in eighth-grade curricula vanishes quickly from memory—has basic biology or beginning algebra ever held our minds as Scout and Atticus have? The reason for that extraordinary hold is made plain, at least, by the incidental beauties of the newly discovered book, which are real. Though “Watchman” is a failure as a novel (if “Mockingbird” did not exist, this book would never have been published, not now, as it was not then), it is still testimony to how appealing a writer Harper Lee can be. That appeal depends, as with certain other books of the time—“The Catcher in the Rye,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “A Death in the Family”—on the intensity of the evocation of coming of age, and of the feel of streets and summers at that moment. Harper Lee did for Maycomb (her poeticized version of her home town, Monroeville, Alabama) what J. D. Salinger did for Central Park—made it a permanent amphitheatre of American adolescence. One realizes with a slight, shamed start that we would now condescend to this kind of effort as belonging merely to a Y.A., or young-adult, novel. It’s not that we don’t have books like it anymore; it’s that we segregate their shelving—both John Green and Judy Blume have kept alive the tender evocation of an adolescent world, but they have been relegated to a smaller, specialized niche.
Though the new book is, to be blunt, a string of clichés, some of them are clichés only because, in the half century since Lee’s generation introduced them, they’ve become clichés; taken on their own terms, they remain quite touching and beautiful. The evocation of Maycomb, with which the new book begins, and which recurs throughout its pages, is often magically alive....
Southernness, however much it is now the material of cliché, is still the most pleasing thing about the book—the kind of easy, Agee and McCullers Southernness (as against Tennessee Williams’s more Gothic version) that was as much a part of the postwar American novel as Jewishness, of which it was the alternative construction. Jews (in Bellow, Malamud, early Roth) were urban, worried, and compellingly neurotic; Southerners (in Capote, McCullers, Harper Lee) were rural, carefree, and absolutely crazy. As always with such things, neither construction makes sense unless you see the missing central panel that both are reacting to: the Wasp ascendancy, only just about to be called so—that average American whiteness from which Southern drinking and Jewish schmalz alike could seem welcome refuges.
The element that intrudes for us now on these Southern vistas—where are all the black people, and why are the few we see treated the way they are?—was certainly a vital part of the story, but it was only a part of the story. Reexperiencing this kind of Southern eccentricity is to be reminded how persuasive and touching it could be. The Southern Pastoral, in which the children play barefoot in the pastures and the summer is always called summertime, remains one of our strongest forms...
The question is how to preserve this pastoral idyll, and that’s where things get sticky, in several senses. The view that both Uncle Jack and Atticus offer, and which Jean Louise/Lee doesn’t endorse but does take seriously, is that this superior civilization of the agrarian South is being stampeded by Yankee industrialists and the N.A.A.C.P.—all the Outside Agitators—into undue disorder. (One night, Henry Clinton and Jean Louise see a group of blacks driving a fast car, and Henry implies that this is what happens when you let the Supreme Court tell the South what to do.)
So the idea that Atticus, in this book, “becomes” the bigot he was not in “Mockingbird” entirely misses Harper Lee’s point—that this is exactly the kind of bigot that Atticus has been all along. The particular kind of racial rhetoric that Atticus embraces (and that he and Jean Louise are careful to distinguish from low-rent, white-trash bigotry) is a complex and, in its own estimation, “liberal” ideology: there is no contradiction between Atticus defending an innocent black man accused of rape in “Mockingbird” and Atticus mistrusting civil rights twenty years later. Both are part of a paternal effort to help a minority that, in this view, cannot yet entirely help itself.
Atticus is simply being faithful to one set of high ideals in the South of his time. “Jean Louise,” Atticus says in the midst of their argument, “have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?” Not long afterward, he adds, “Jefferson believed full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly. A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man.” Blacks are fully human, Atticus allows (nice of him), just not yet ready to vote. Elsewhere, Uncle Jack explains to Jean Louise the metaphysics of the Civil War, which supposedly had nothing to do with slavery or emancipation: didn’t she know “that this territory was a separate nation? No matter what its political bonds, a nation with its own people, existing within a nation? A society highly paradoxical, with alarming inequities, but with the private honor of thousands of persons winking like lightning bugs through the night? . . . They fought to preserve their identity. Their political identity, their personal identity.”
These were the ideas of the Southern Agrarians—that extraordinarily accomplished and influential set of writers and critics who embraced the modernism of Yeats and Pound and Eliot, exactly because it seemed to them a protest against modernization of all types, while they dreamed of a reformed “organic” society in the South, with that “identity,” that cult of “private honor,” still accessible. (It is good to be reminded of a time when “identity politics” belonged to the right.) Writers like Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren—though deluded about the concentration-camp society of the prewar South as it really was—had a worked-out and potent ideology, and one readily assented to by people who should have known better. Had they foundered, as their white-supremacist successors do today, in cheap nostalgia, they would not have had much influence, but they made a brilliant marriage with modernism, and that gave them immense academic authority at a time when little magazines moved big boulders, or seemed to. Theirs was among the most powerful intellectual movements of the thirties and forties, along with, predictably, the companion Jewish one in New York.
And so beneath Atticus’s style of enlightenment is a kind of bigotry that could not recognize itself as such at the time. The historical and human fallacies of the Agrarian ideology hardly need to be rehearsed now, but it should be said that these views were not regarded as ridiculous by intellectuals at the time. Indeed, Jean Louise/Lee herself, though passionately opposed to what her uncle and her father are saying, nevertheless accepts the general terms of the debate as the right ones. Asked her response to “the Supreme Court decision”—one assumes that Brown v. Board is meant—she says that she thought, and still thinks, “Well sir, there they were, tellin’ us what to do again.”
And it should also be said, out of human sympathy, that to demand that people reject their traditions and their understanding, however misconceived, of their own history—to insist that the Atticuses of this world go to reëducation camp—is foolish. The problem is not people who think wrong thoughts, since we all think what will, retrospectively, turn out to be wrong thoughts about something or other. The problem is people who give their implicit endorsement to violence or intolerance in the pursuit of wrong thoughts. And, as far as one can tell, Harper Lee never intends Atticus to be taken for that sort. Atticus’s central commitment is to the law, and that commitment is never questioned. We are meant to see Atticus as someone with skewed convictions about Jefferson, but not as someone who would participate in a cross burning or in fire-hosing protesters.
The Southern Agrarians—it was part of their complexity—didn’t see themselves as racists; quite the opposite. (Robert Penn Warren certainly more than made his peace with the civil-rights movement.) They saw themselves merely as cautious and watchfully conservative about the pace of change. That the pace of change had to be accelerated because it had been held back by terror for so long was not a truth that they wished to be told, or to see. Atticus’s attitude seems entirely authentic, his heroism and his prejudices, as so often with actual human beings, part of the same package. Credibility is the ethic of fiction, and he is a credible character.
In any case, as with most social upheavals that are allowed to work their way through a society, the things that Atticus and the Agrarians feared may have happened, but they didn’t happen because of the Supreme Court. Atticus and his friends vastly overestimated the power of liberal ideology and badly underestimated the power of their other enemy, capitalist commerce. The Monroeville Walmart Supercenter has doubtless altered Monroeville more than all the fiendish Yankee conspiracies to undermine the Tenth Amendment. Certainly the supremacists’ hysterical fears of anarchy, as much as the fondest hopes of civil-rights utopians, have been left unrealized. Hysteria about change is rarely earned by the change when it comes.
Yet here is where the questions of the book’s provenance begin to arise, and they, too, get a little sticky. The emotional force of “Watchman” depends entirely on the reader’s sharing Scout’s shock at the revelation of Atticus’s new friends and new affiliation, and, since Atticus is scarcely dramatized at all before his fall from grace, the reader already suspicious about the pedigree and the background of the book becomes doubly so. If you don’t know Atticus as a hero—and in this book you really don’t, except by assertion—why would you care that he seems to defect to villainy, however well he defends it? Taken as a composite from both books, Atticus may be a credible hero, but you have to read both books to know that. The charm of the flashbacks that ornament “Watchman” is real for those who know Jem and Dill and Cal from “Mockingbird”—but what effect could Lee have expected them to have on readers who don’t? Indeed, the book as a book barely makes sense if you don’t know “Mockingbird.” If “Watchman” is a first novel, even in draft, it is unlike any first novel this reader is aware of: very short on the kind of autobiographical single-mindedness that first novels usually present, and which “Mockingbird” is filled with, and very long on the kind of discursive matter that novelists will take up when their opinions begin to count.
It is, I suppose, possible that Lee wrote it as we have it, and that her ingenious editor, setting an all-time record for editorial ingenuity, saw in a few paragraphs referring to the trial of a young black man the material for a masterpiece. But it would not be surprising if this novel turns out to be a revised version of an early draft, returned to later, with an eye to writing the “race novel” that elsewhere Harper Lee has mentioned as an ambition. (The manuscript might then have been put aside by the author as undramatic and too abstract.) It is sad, though, to think that the preoccupations of this book, however much they may intersect our own preoccupations of the moment, might eclipse her greater poetic talents, evident here, and so beautifully fulfilled in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” ....
As mentioned above in Joe Nocera's editorial, Rupert Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal and HarperCollins (the publisher of the book), so it is not surprising that the Wall Street Journal should review the book more favorably and less cynically than other venues. Below is the Wall Street Journal review, which provides an excellent summary of the book as well as a charitable assessment of the book's good points:
Although it is set in the mid-1950s, around 20 years after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it is not a sequel.... Properly speaking, “Go Set a Watchman” is a practice run for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it existed before anybody could have known that small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch would become a symbol of the nation’s moral conscience.
... “Go Set a Watchman” is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.
There’s little hint of darkness as the novel begins. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch,better known to us by her childhood nickname Scout, is returning to Maycomb, Ala., for a two-week vacation. For the past five years, Jean Louise has been living in New York City trying to make it as a painter. Her older brother Jem—I regret to report—has died of a heart attack. But her father, Atticus, is still hanging on. Seventy-two and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, he is cared for by his priggish, busybody sister Alexandra....
“Go Set a Watchman” is told in the third person, but it stays close to Jean Louise’s perspective and contains the familiar pleasures of Ms. Lee’s writing—the easy, drawling rhythms, the flashes of insouciant humor, the love of anecdote. The most charming early passages concern Jean Louise’s irreverent but affectionate depictions of life in Maycomb, where “if you did not want much, there was plenty.” FDR’s New Deal brought the town its first paved street, Ms. Lee recounts, located by the schoolhouse and “resulting in skinned knees and cracked crania for the children and a proclamation from the principal that nobody was to play Pop-the-Whip on the pavement. Thus the seeds of states’ rights were sown in the hearts of Jean Louise’s generation.” Some of the flashbacks to the halcyon 1930s take up whole chapters and feel clumsily integrated, but it’s interesting to see the glimmerings of a Pulitzer Prize winner. One brief reminiscence relates Atticus’s tireless defense of a black man falsely accused of rape—though in this telling his client is acquitted.
There’s no big, dramatic event like the Tom Robinson trial to motor “Go Set a Watchman.” But the blight of racial strife is still the heart of the story. Jean Louise’s visit takes place shortly after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision—“the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality,” as Atticus sarcastically calls it—and, like most of the South, the town is in upheaval over the prospect of enforced integration. Jean Louise thinks little of it until she sees Henry and her father attending a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, where local whites convene to spew racist bile and organize resistance to the federal government.
Jean Louise is appalled by the possibility that the men she most admires could belong to such a group, but when she confronts Atticus, he defends the council as a necessary reaction to the overreach of the government and the meddling of the NAACP. Blacks have “made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways,” he grants, but they’re not at all ready for full civil rights: “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”
Yes, that is correct: Atticus Finch, standard-bearer of justice and integrity and one of the few unambiguously heroic figures in American literature, was originally conceived as a segregationist. Jean Louise can’t believe it either, and as her furious arguments with both Henry and Atticus unfurl—“You deny that they’re human,” she shouts at her father—the focus of the novel shifts from the issue of civil rights to the story of a young woman’s painfully evolving relationships with the men in her life. Her discoveries make a future with Henry seem impossible. More, they reduce Atticus from a god to “the status of a human being,” and she must find the courage to love him anyway, hypocrisies and all.
Readers will find themselves facing the same trouble. On one hand, this abrupt redefinition of a famed fictional character is fascinating. Atticus’s ideas about gradualism and states’ rights were commonplace in the midcentury South—a similar attitude is expressed in William Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust” (1948), for instance. His provincial convictions and bigotries actually make him a truer, more representative figure than the bespectacled icon of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Yet for the millions who hold that novel dear, “Go Set a Watchman” will be a test of their tolerance and capacity for forgiveness. At the peak of her outrage, Jean Louise tells her father, “You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible.” I don’t doubt that many who read this novel are going to feel the same way.
Literary Views of Justice
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great novels on social justice; To Set a Watchman less so.
Amiri Baraka said, “Art is a weapon in the struggle of ideas." He also said:
“A man is either free, or he is not. There cannot be an apprenticeship for freedom.”
“The attempt to divide art and politics is a bourgeois which says good poetry, art, cannot be political, but since everything is… political, even an artist or work that claims not to have any politics is making a political statement by that act.”
In line with these thoughts, I will provide selections and quotes from great artists dealing with police brutality or other racial injustice (and I will end with several poems by Baraka).
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) wrote perhaps the most succinct and famous poem on racial injustice:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hughes also wrote two poems specifically about police brutality, both of which get posted frequently on prisoner websites:
Who But the Lord?
I looked and I saw
That man they call the Law.
He was coming
Down the street at me!
I had visions in my head
Of being laid out cold and dead,
Or else murdered
By the third degree.
I said, O, Lord, if you can,
Save me from that man!
Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!
But the Lord he was not quick.
The Law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!
Now, I do not understand
Why God don’t protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I’ve no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
Hit me! Jab me!
Make me say I did it.
Blood on my sport shirt
And my tan suede shoes.
Faces like jack-o’-lanterns
In gray slouch hats.
Slug me! Beat me!
Scream jumps out
Three kicks between the legs
That kill the kids
I’d make tomorrow.
Bars and floor skyrocket
And burst like Roman candles.
When you throw
Cold water on me,
I’ll sign the
Another of Hughes' most famous poems is "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which doesn't overtly deal with racism, but hints at it with its references to the Nile, the Mississippi and New Orleans, all places where slavery was present.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I've known rivers
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Countee Cullen (1903-1946), another great black poet, wrote the following poem dealing with racism in Baltimore, foreshadowing the tensions that came to the surface earlier this year with the death of Freddie Gray:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
Nikki Giovanni (1943- ) wrote the following poem about an incident in which she and a Black Panther friend were harassed by a police officer.
Black Power (For all the beautiful Black Panthers East)
But the whole thing is a miracle - See?
We were just standing there
Talking - not touching or smoking
When this cop told
Move along buddy - take your whores
And this tremendous growl
From out of nowhere
Pounced on him
Nobody to this very day
How it happened
And none of the zoos or circuses
Within fifty miles
Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), who was white, wrote the following poem about the notorious "Scottsboro Boys" cases, where nine African American teenagers were accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931. According to the wikipedia article, "The landmark set of legal cases from this incident dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial. The cases included a lynch mob before the suspects had been indicted, a frameup, all-white juries, rushed trials, and disruptive mobs. It is frequently cited as an example of an overall miscarriage of justice in the United States legal system."
The South is green with coming spring; revival
flourishes in the fields of Alabama. Spongy with rain,
plantations breathe April: carwheels suck mud in the roads,
the town expands warm in the afternoons. At night the black boy
teeters no-handed on a bicycle, whistling The St. Louis Blues,
blood beating, and hot South. A red brick courthouse
is vicious with men inviting death. Array your judges; call your jurors; come,
here is your justice, come out of the crazy jail.
Grass is green now in Alabama; Birmingham dusks are quiet
relaxed and soft in the park, stern at the yards:
a hundred boxcars shunted off to sidings, and the hoboes
gathering grains of sleep in forbidden corners.
In all the yards: Atlanta, Chattanooga,
Memphis, and New Orleans, the cars, and no jobs.
Every night the mail-planes burrow the sky,
carrying postcards to laughing girls in Texas,
passionate letters to the Charleston virgins,
words through the South: and no reprieve,
no pardon, no release.
A blinded statue attends before the courthouse,
bronze and black men lie on the grass, waiting,
the khaki dapper National Guard leans on its bayonets.
But the air is populous beyond our vision:
all the people's anger finds its vortex here
as the mythic lips of justice open, and speak.
Hammers and sickles are carried in a wave of strength, fire-tipped,
swinging passionately ninefold to a shore.
Answer the back-thrown Negro face of the lynched, the flat forehead knotted,
the eyes showing a wild iris, the mouth a welter of blood,
answer the broken shoulders and these twisted arms.
John Brown, Nat Turner, Toussaint stand in this courtroom,
Dred Scott wrestles for freedom there in the dark corner,
all our celebrated shambles are repeated here: now again
Sacco and Vanzetti walk to a chair, to the straps and rivets
and the switch spitting death and Massachusetts' will.
Wreaths are brought out of history
here are the well-nourished flowers of France, grown strong on blood,
Caesar twisting his thin throat toward conquest,
turning north from the Roman laurels,
the Istrian galleys slide again to sea.
How they waded through bloody Godfrey's Jerusalem!
How the fires broke through Europe, and the rich
and the tall jails battened on revolution!
The fastidious Louis', cousins to the sun, stamping
those ribboned heels on Calas, on the people;
the lynched five thousand of America.
Tom Mooney from San Quentin, Herndon: here
is an army for audience
to a gobbet of tobacco, spat, and the empanelled hundred,
a jury of vengeance, the cheap pressed lips, the narrow eyes like hardware;
the judge, his eye-sockets and cheeks dark and immutably secret,
the twisting mouth of the prosecuting attorney.
Nine dark boys spread their breasts against Alabama,
schooled in the cells, fathered by want.
—Mother: one writes: they treat us bad. If they send
—us back to Kilby jail, I think I shall kill myself.
—I think I must hang myself by my overalls.
Alabama and the South are soft with spring;
in the North, the seasons change, sweet April, December and the air
loaded with snow. There is time for meetings
during the years, they remaining in prison.
In the Square
a crowd listens, carrying banners.
Overhead, boring through the speaker's voice, a plane
circles with a snoring of motors revolving in the sky,
drowning the single voice. It does not touch
the crowd's silence. It circles. The name stands:
In an online article, Mark Karlin writes about the "stark racial divisions in reactions to Ferguson police shooting" and quotes from black poet, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000):
Years ago, I heard a speaker discuss how the history of the United States cannot be viewed through a focused lens unless one considers the legacy of slavery, the suppressive humiliating period of Reconstruction, the plantation ghettos of cities in the north and south, and the criminalization of being a black male. All of these require an open racism among many whites and a sub-conscious racial bias among many persons who think of themselves as liberals.
Yes, there are black males who have made it in the world of the white ruling elite, such as the president of the United States and the attorney general. However, there are two major caveats to consider in this regard.
First, it is clear that even though Barack Obama has the academic pedigree, intellectual capabilities and irrepressible desire to accommodate whites by not pressing on the pedal of assisting African-Americans who have - as Eugene Robinson notes in a commentary on BuzzFlash today - been left behind, he is still vilified by a large segment of the white population in the United States because he is black.
Second, the number of black men and women who have made it through the racial barrier, while significant, is miniscule in relation to the number of blacks (and other people of color) under siege by police and a criminal justice system that works on the principle of guilty until proven innocent for most non-whites. This is why the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Yes, there is a class issue in race bias, but the racist backlash to President Obama's presidency (symbolized most blatantly by the "birther" accusations that morphed into the war on "Obamacare") indicates that the white racial prejudice of thinking blacks more violent, more disinterested in working, more dangerous to society has long been - and still is - an institutionalized racism that permeates the US economic and criminal justice system....
As the events in Ferguson - joining a long list of daily acts of police-sanctioned racial brutality, harassment, arrests and murder - indicate, the racial gap in the United States about what constitutes justice and freedom is still as wide as the Grand Canyon.
The Pew Poll does raise a glimmer of hope in the wider recognition among young people - as compared to the older population - of the racial implications of the Mike Brown shooting:
By a wide margin (55% to 34%), adults under 30 think the shooting of the unarmed teen raises important issues about race. Among those 65 and older, opinion is divided: 40% think the incident raises important racial issues while about as many (44%) think the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
That is a foundation to build upon in a moment of mourning, police militarization and racial rancor among those in the US who have been stigmatized, stalked by police and economically left behind, but only if ignorance is counteracted by an active uprising of social justice.
The poet Gwendolyn Brooks described in a famous lyric how truth is not always welcome. It makes demands upon us to change, to encounter the uncomfortable. Supposing, Brooks ponders, our lack of self-knowledge one day encounters the enlightenment provided by the shining clarity of the sun?
Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?
Brooks does not think we would welcome what we had so long sought:
Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.
The murder of Mike Brown and the disastrous aftermath of police oppression in Ferguson, Missouri, reminds us all that we cannot continue as a union in a state of "snug unawareness" if we are to achieve the equality that is part of our national narrative, but is still parceled out with institutionalized racial selectivity.
Here is the complete poem, which does not obviously deal with race, but as the above article implies, the "darkness" can be interpreted as an unwillingness to deal with the ugliness of racism:
And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?
Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?
Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.
The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.
Richard Wright (1908-1960) who wrote the great novels, Black Boy and Native Son, also wrote the following two powerful poems.
I Have Seen Black Hands
I am black and I have seen black hands, millions and millions of them,
Out of millions of bundles of wool and flannel tiny black fingers have reached restlessly and hungrily for life.
Reached out for the black nipples at the black breasts of black mothers,
And they've held red, green, blue, yellow, orange, white, and purple toys in the childish grips of possession.
And chocolate drops, peppermint sticks, lollypops, wineballs, ice cream cones, and sugared cookies in fingers sticky and gummy,
And they've held balls and bats and gloves and marbles and jack-knives and sling-shots and spinning tops in the thrill of sport and play.
And pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters and sometimes on New Year's, Easter, Lincoln's Birthday, May Day, a brand new green dollar bill,
They've held pens and rulers and maps and tablets and books in palms spotted and smeared with ink,
And they've held dice and cards and half-pink flasks and cue sticks and cigars and cigarettes in the pride of new maturity...
I am black and I have seen black hands, millions and millions of them
They were tired and awkward and calloused and grimy and covered with hangnails,
And they were caught in the fast-moving belts of machines and snagged and smashed and crushed.
And they jerked up and down at the throbbing machines massing taller and taller the heaps of gold in the banks of bosses,
And they piled higher and higher the steel, iron, the lumber, wheat, rye, the oats, corn, the cotton, the wool, the oil, the coal, the meat, the fruit, the glass, and the stone until there was too much to be used,
And they grabbed guns and slung them on their shoulders and marched and groped in trenches and fought and killed and conquered nations who were customers for the goods black hands had made.
And again black hands stacked goods higher and higher until there was too much to be used,
I am black and I have seen black hands, millions and millions of them
Reaching hesitantly out of days of slow death for the goods they had made, but the bosses warned that the goods were private and did not belong to them,
And the black hands struck desperately out in defence of life and there was blood, but the enraged bosses decreed that this too was wrong,
And the black hands felt the cold steel bars of the prison they had made, in despair tested their strength and found that they could neither bend nor break them,
And the black hands fought and scratched and held back but a thousand white hands took them and tied them,
And the black hands lifted palms in mute and futile supplication to the sodden faces of mobs wild in the revelries of sadism,
And the black hands strained and clawed and struggled in vain at the noose that tightened about the black throat,
And the black hands waved and beat fearfully at the tall flames that cooked and charred the black flesh. . .
I am black and I have seen black hands
Raised in fits of revolt, side by side with the white fists of white workers,
And some day-and it is only this which sustains me
Some day there shall be millions and millions of them,
On some red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon!
Between the World and Me
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me....
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore's lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull....
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear--
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned....
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun....
There is a lengthy post on the Post 45 blog that discusses black author Richard Wright's views on law and the police, which are summarized in its first few paragraphs:
Toward the end of his life, after a long exile in France accompanied by intermittent harassment by American internal security agencies, Richard Wright was asked whether he felt reluctant when he had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to renew his United States passport. Wright's reply was without anguish: "I don't think it has caused me too much hardship. I live quite comfortably. In any case the American Negro is the most vociferous defender of the Constitution. That's exactly what we want: enforcement of the Constitution."
Wright, whose reply was almost guaranteed to appear in his ever-growing FBI file, may not have had much latitude in expressing a public opinion toward the Pledge. But clearly, Wright thought past the interviewer's question, and past the Pledge itself, which makes no mention of the United States Constitution. The deflection illustrates a familiar but fundamental aspect of postwar American culture: public controversy about questions of constitutionality and the role of the Supreme Court. In the postwar period the Supreme Court wrought major cultural changes long overdue in American jurisprudence, delivering such watershed decisions as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966). For Wright to have thought of constitutionality when reminded of the State Department's requirement that he recite the Pledge, suggests that the Court, in contrast to the executive or the legislature, represented what Wright thought of as the ideal version of American power, its friendliest, or its least autocratic, incarnation. For Wright, the America to which he could pledge allegiance was a judicial America, one engaged in the process of living up to its Constitution.
However, when Wright imagines encounters with American law in fiction, he does not think of the highest courts. Instead, his stories are consistently preoccupied with the most intensive and widely distributed form of state power, the police. For Wright's protagonists, the police are always the state that can be seen, and what his characters see are rampant transgressions of constitutional principle. Wright's characters were not alone in their fear of the police. Over the course of Wright's lifetime, progressive reforms increasingly sought to stem police lawlessness, and a major national program of review, the "Wickersham Commission," was appointed by President Hoover in 1929 to study the problem. The copious report established that the use of violent interrogation was widespread in police stations through the United States. Public opinion recoiled from the thought of the rubber hose, the phone book to the head, and other forms of nonlethal torture, along with more insidious methods, including prolonged interrogation, isolation, and holding suspects without arraignment....
Esquire Magazine in its July 1968 issue, published soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King, interviewed James Baldwin (1924-1987) about the state of race relations in the U.S. Below is an extract:
Q. What would you say ought to be done to improve the relationship of the police with the black community?
BALDWIN: You would have to educate them. I really have no quarrel particularly with the policemen. I can see the trouble they're in. They're hopelessly ignorant and terribly frightened. They believe everything they see on television, as most people in this country do. They are endlessly respectable, which means to say they are Saturday-night sinners. The country has got the police force it deserves and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he's going to stop him; and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it's one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that's how black boys die, because the police are scared. And it's not the policemen's fault; it's the country's fault.
Q. In the latest civil disorder, there seems to have been a more permissive attitude on the part of the police, much less reliance on firearms to stop looters as compared with last summer when there was such an orgy of shooting by the police and the National Guard.
BALDWIN: I'm sorry, the story isn't in yet, and furthermore, I don't believe what I read in the newspapers. I object to the term "looters" because I wonder who is looting whom, baby.
Q. How would you define somebody who smashes in the window of a television store and takes what he wants?
BALDWIN: Before I get to that, how would you define somebody who puts a cat where he is and takes all the money out of the ghetto where he makes it? Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn't really want the TV set. He's saying screw you. It's just judgment, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He doesn't want it. He wants to let you know he's there. The question I'm trying to raise is a very serious question. The mass media-television and all the major news agencies-endlessly use that word "looter". On television you always see black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us. And no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you're accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it's obscene.
In the below extract from an article in The Telegraph, Toni Morrison (1931- ) discusses her views on race:
The day we meet, Morrison herself is in a mood for laughter – occasionally at herself but, on a more serious note, at the rationale of cruelty, as if what it deserved most were ridicule. I have come to ask about her latest novel, God Help the Child, which she began in 2008 and returned to when she decided that the memoir she was contracted to write was not something she wanted to do.
In the book, a very black woman, who has been raised by her mother to believe she is ugly, turns her blackness into a source of strength. But it’s all superficial, and over the course of the novel she finds herself shrinking, losing her womanhood, until she can learn how to rise above appearances. Beside the question of “skin privileges” – the superior treatment by black people of the light-skinned among them – every character is touched by child abuse.
And there’s a particular view of racism, not hammered home but abundantly clear. One of the protagonists becomes a postgraduate economics student because he finds the African-American Studies department fails to address a simple proposition: that “most of the real answers concerning slavery, lynching, forced labor, sharecropping, racism, Jim Crow, prison labor, migration, civil rights and black revolution movements were all about money.”
Is that what Morrison thinks? “I know it,” she says. “Race is the classification of a species. And we are the human race, period. But the other thing – the hostility, the racism – is the money-maker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.” Slavery, she suggests, “moved this country closer to the economy of an industrialized Europe, far in advance of what it would have been.” Even now, she points out, “they don’t stop and frisk on Wall Street, which is where they should really go”.
Last summer Morrison came to the Hay Festival and made three appearances over three days. In the course of those conversations, she touched on this issue a number of times, spinning it out, examining it, not tub-thumping but the opposite, as if there were still nothing conclusive to say. The question of race, she reflected, “is not static. You just have to swim in it for a bit.”
Since then, Eric Garner has been strangled by white policemen on Staten Island, Michael Brown has been shot by white policemen in Ferguson, Walter Scott has been shot by a white policeman in South Carolina. “People keep saying, 'We need to have a conversation about race,’” she says now. “This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back,” Morrison says finally. “And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, 'Is it over?’, I will say yes.”
The following poem is by former poet laureate of the United States, Rita Dove (1952- ). She was inspired by George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin.
It is difficult/to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there./Hear me out/for I too am concerned/and every man/who wants to die at peace in his bed/besides.
-- William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”
Move along, you don't belong here.
This is what you're thinking. Thinking
drives you nuts these days, all that
talk about rights and law abidance when
you can't even walk your own neighborhood
in peace and quiet, get your black ass gone.
You're thinking again. Then what?
Matlock's on TV and here you are,
vigilant, weary, exposed to the elements
on a wet winter's evening in Florida
when all's not right but no one sees it.
Where are they – the law, the enforcers
blind as a bunch of lazy bats can be,
holsters dangling from coat hooks above their desks
as they jaw the news between donuts?
Hey! It tastes good, shoving your voice
down a throat thinking only of sweetness.
Go on, choke on that. Did you say something?
Are you thinking again? Stop! – and
get your ass gone, your blackness,
that casual little red riding hood
I'm just on my way home attitude
as if this street was his to walk on.
Do you do hear me talking to you? Boy.
How dare he smile, jiggling his goodies
in that tiny shiny bag, his black paw crinkling it,
how dare he tinkle their laughter at you.
Here's a fine basket of riddles:
If a mouth shoots off and no one's around
to hear it, who can say which came first –
push or shove, bang or whimper?
Which is news fit to write home about?
I quoted from Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) at the beginning of this post. He is an interesting, if at times antagonistic, artist, whose life is summarized by the New York Times obituary last year:
Amiri Baraka, a poet and playwright of pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others, died on Thursday in Newark. He was 79.
His death, at Beth Israel Medical Center, was confirmed by his son Ras Baraka, a member of the Newark Municipal Council. He did not specify a cause but said that Mr. Baraka had been hospitalized since Dec. 21.
Mr. Baraka was famous as one of the major forces in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which sought to duplicate in fiction, poetry, drama and other mediums the aims of the black power movement in the political arena....
Mr. Baraka, whose work was widely anthologized and who was heard often on the lecture circuit, was also long famous as a political firebrand. Here, too, critical opinion was divided: He was described variously as an indomitable champion of the disenfranchised, particularly in the racially charged political landscape of Newark, where he lived most of his life, or as a gadfly whose finest hour had come and gone by the end of the 1960s.
In the series of alternating embraces and repudiations that would become an ideological hallmark, Mr. Baraka spent his early career as a beatnik, his middle years as a black nationalist and his later ones as a Marxist. His shifting stance was seen as either an accurate mirror of the changing times or an accurate barometer of his own quicksilver mien.
He came to renewed, unfavorable attention in 2002, when a poem he wrote about the Sept. 11 attacks, which contained lines widely seen as anti-Semitic, touched off a firestorm that resulted in the elimination of his post as New Jersey’s poet laureate.
Over six decades, Mr. Baraka’s writings — his work also included essays and music criticism — were periodically accused of being anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic, racist, isolationist and dangerously militant.
But his champions and detractors agreed that at his finest he was a powerful voice on the printed page, a riveting orator in person and an enduring presence on the international literary scene whom — whether one loved or hated him — it was seldom possible to ignore.
“Love is an evil word,” Mr. Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones, the name by which he was first known professionally, said in an early poem, “In Memory of Radio.” It continues:
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn’t like to go out on that kind of limb.
Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let’s Pretend/& we did/& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!
Among reviewers, there was no firm consensus on Mr. Baraka’s literary merit, and the mercurial nature of his work seems to guarantee that there can never be.
Writing in The Daily News of New York in 2002, Stanley Crouch described Mr. Baraka’s work since the late 1960s as “an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.”
In contrast, the critic Arnold Rampersad placed Mr. Baraka in the pantheon of genre-changing African-American writers that includes Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston.
Everett Leroy Jones was born in Newark on Oct. 7, 1934. His father, Coyette, was a postal supervisor; his mother, the former Anna Russ, was a social worker. Growing up, young Leroy, as he was known, took piano, drum and trumpet lessons — a background that would inform his later work as a jazz writer — and also studied drawing and painting.
After studying briefly at Rutgers University in Newark, he entered Howard University. During this period, partly in homage to the African-American journalist Roi Ottley (1906-60), he changed the spelling of his name to LeRoi, with the emphasis on the second syllable.
Though by all accounts a brilliant student, he came to regard the university’s emphasis on upward mobility for blacks as distastefully assimilationist — “an employment agency” where “they teach you to pretend to be white,” he later called it. Losing interest in his classes, he was expelled before graduating.
He joined the Air Force.
“It was the worst period of my life,” Mr. Baraka told Essence magazine in 1985. “I finally found out what it was like to be disconnected from family and friends. I found out what it was like to be under the direct jurisdiction of people who hated black people. I had never known that directly.”
To stave off loneliness and misery, he read widely and deeply, stocking the library on his base in Puerto Rico with books — philosophy, literary fiction, left-wing history — the likes of which it had almost certainly never seen.
After three years, he was dishonorably discharged: Some of his reading material had made the Air Force suspect that he was a Communist. The irony, he later said, was that he did become a Communist, but not until long afterward.
He moved to New York, where he took an editorial job on a music magazine, The Record Changer, and settled in Greenwich Village amid the heady atmosphere of the Beat poets.
He befriended their dean, Allen Ginsberg, to whom, in the puckish spirit of the times, he had written a letter on toilet paper reading, “Are you for real?” (“I’m for real, but I’m tired of being Allen Ginsberg,” came the reply, on what, its recipient would note with amusement, was “a better piece of toilet paper.”)
In 1958 LeRoi Jones married a colleague, Hettie Cohen. Together they founded a literary magazine, Yugen, which published his work and that of Mr. Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac. With the poet Diane di Prima, he established and edited another literary magazine, The Floating Bear.
He also started a small publishing company, Totem Press, which in 1961 issued his first collection of verse, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” ....
His early poems were praised for their lyricism and for the immediacy of their language — throughout his career, he said, he wrote as much for the ear as for the eye.
Mr. Jones considered himself a largely apolitical writer at first: Like that of many Beats, his poetry was concerned more with introspection. But he was radicalized by traveling to Cuba in 1960, the year after Fidel Castro came to power, to attend an international conference featuring writers from an array of third world countries.
As a result, he later said, he came to believe that art and politics should be indissolubly linked.
His political awakening was soon manifest in his work. His first major book, “Blues People,” published in 1963, placed black music, from blues to free jazz, in a wider sociohistorical context.
Writing in The New York Times Book Review, the folklorist Vance Randolph said, “The book is full of fascinating anecdotes, many of them concerned with social and economic matters,” going on to commend its “personal warmth.”
Mr. Jones came to even greater prominence in 1964, when his one-act play “Dutchman” opened Off Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village.
Experimental, allegorical and unabashedly angry, “Dutchman” was set aboard a New York City subway train. There, Lula, a young white woman, strikes up a conversation with Clay, a young middle-class black man. As the play unspools, she goads him, with apparent liberal righteousness, into releasing the anger that, as a black man, he must surely be harboring.
When Clay finally explodes, Lula stabs him to death as other riders passively look on. After disposing of his body with casual impunity, she sits back, smiles and, as another black man boards the train, makes pointed eye contact with him before the curtain falls.
“Dutchman” won the Obie Award, presented by The Village Voice to honor Off and Off Off Broadway productions, as the best American play of 1964.
Mr. Jones’s other early plays include “The Slave,” a violent, futuristic fable about an American race war, and “J-E-L-L-O,” a farcical reworking of Jack Benny’s television show in which Mr. Benny and his friends are assaulted and robbed by Rochester, his newly militant black valet.
For all the acclaim that followed “Dutchman,” Mr. Jones largely disdained his newfound celebrity, turning down the scriptwriting offers that poured in from Hollywood. (A film version of “Dutchman,” with a screenplay by Mr. Baraka and starring Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr., was released in 1967.)
He turned instead to academia, teaching at Columbia, Yale and elsewhere. At his death he was emeritus professor of Africana studies at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he had taught since 1979.
Mr. Jones was further radicalized by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. Soon afterward, having come to believe that marriage to a white woman was ideologically untenable, he left his wife and their two daughters and moved to Harlem. (In 1990 his former wife would publish“How I Became Hettie Jones,” a memoir of their time together.)
In Harlem, Mr. Jones founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater, which staged many of his plays, and an associated theater school.
By the late ’60s, after the theater and school had folded, he had moved back to Newark, converted to Islam and adopted the Bantuized Arabic name Imamu (“spiritual leader”) Ameer (“prince”) Baraka (“blessed”), which he would later alter to Amiri Baraka.
Some critics felt that Mr. Baraka’s work from then on was the worse for his radicalism. In his 1970 essay collection “With Eye and Ear,” the poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth wrote that Mr. Baraka “has succumbed to the temptation to become a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort,” adding, “His loss to literature is more serious than any literary casualty of the Second War.”
By Mr. Baraka’s own later acknowledgment, his writings from this period contained elements of unvarnished anti-Semitism. In “For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet,” published in his book “Black Magic: Collected Poetry, 1961-1967,” Mr. Baraka wrote: “Smile, jew. Dance, jew. Tell me you love me, jew,” continuing: “I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got the hitler syndrome figured.”
In 1980 Mr. Baraka, who had by then renounced black nationalism as exclusionary and become, in his words, a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist,” repudiated those views in an essay in The Village Voice titled “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite.”
But the issue came sharply to the fore again in 2002. That September, shortly after he was appointed the New Jersey poet laureate, Mr. Baraka gave a public reading of “Somebody Blew Up America,” a poem he had written in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. In it, he suggested that Israel had prior knowledge of the attacks:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Mr. Baraka was roundly criticized, and New Jersey’s governor, James E. McGreevey, called on him to step down. He declined.
In 2003, after it was determined that the state Constitution had no provision for firing the poet laureate, the New Jersey General Assembly voted to abolish the position outright.
Mr. Baraka sued. In 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that New Jersey officials were immune from his suit; later that year, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the case.
That court battle echoed Mr. Baraka’s periodic brushes with the law throughout his adult life. In 1967, he was found guilty of illegal weapons possession during the racially charged Newark riots that year; he later won a new trial, at which he was acquitted.
After divorcing his first wife, Mr. Baraka married Sylvia Robinson, a poet later known as Amina Baraka. In 1979, during an altercation with Ms. Baraka in New York, Mr. Baraka was arrested and charged with assault and resisting arrest. Sentenced to 48 weekends in a halfway house, he used the time to work on a memoir, “The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones,” published in 1984.
Mr. Baraka’s pugnacity was again in the news in 1990, when Rutgers, where he also taught, denied him tenure in its English department. In a widely reported public statement, he indicted unnamed members of the department as “Klansmen” and “Nazis.”
His ire over the years was scarcely reserved for whites. Calling them “backward,” he castigated a series of black mayors in Newark, where he continued to live, for what he saw as overly accommodationist policies, starting with Kenneth A. Gibson, the city’s first, who took office in 1970, and extending to Cory A. Booker, who held the office until he became a United States senator in October.
Mr. Baraka’s life was marked by great loss. In 1984 his sister, Sondra Lee Jones, who called herself Kimako Baraka, was stabbed to death in her New York apartment. In 2003 Shani Baraka, Mr. Baraka’s daughter with his second wife, was shot to death in Piscataway, N.J., along with her partner, Rayshon Holmes.
James Coleman, also known as Ibn El-Amin Pasha, the estranged husband of Shani’s half-sister, Wanda Wilson, was convicted of murdering Ms. Baraka and Ms. Holmes.
In addition to his wife and his son Ras, survivors include three other sons, Obalaji, Amiri Jr. and Ahi; four daughters, Dominique DiPrima, Lisa Jones Brown, Kellie Jones and Maria Jones; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Among Mr. Baraka’s many honors are the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was seen in a small role as a homeless sage in Warren Beatty’s 1998 political satire, “Bulworth.”
Despite a half-century of accusations that he was a polarizing figure, Mr. Baraka described himself as an optimist, albeit one of a very particular sort.
“I’d say I’m a revolutionary optimist,” he told Newsday in 1990. “I believe that the good guys — the people — are going to win.”
Some poems that show Baraka's lyricism, as well as his provocative nature:
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus...
Things have come to that.
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
Nobody sings anymore.
And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands
In Memory of Radio
Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)
What can I say?
It is better to haved loved and lost
Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?
Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake's hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts...
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goddy Knight)
& love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn't like to go out on that kind of limb.
Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let's Pretend
& we did
& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!
What was it he used to say (after the transformation when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn't throw stones?) "Heh, heh, heh.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."
O, yes he does
O, yes he does
An evil word it is,
Notes For a Speech
does not know me. Their steps, in sands
of their own
land. A country
in black & white, newspapers
blown down pavements
of the world. Does
what I am.
in the dream, an oblique
suckling of nerve, the wind
throws up sand, eyes
are something locked in
hate, of hate, of hate, to
walk abroad, they conduct
their deaths apart
from my own. Those
heads, I call
(And who are they. People. To concern
myself, ugly man. Who
you, to concern
the white flat stomachs
of maidens, inside houses
dying. Black. Peeled moon
light on my fingers
her clothes. Where
is her husband. Black
words throw up sand
to eyes, fingers of
their private dead. Whose
soul, eyes, in sand. My color
is not theirs. Lighter, white man
talk. They shy away. My own
dead souls, my, so called
is a foreign place. You are
as any other sad man here
"A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.
Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone's
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air.
We are beautiful people
With African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms
tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.
We have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new
Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred word?
Short Speech To My Friends
A political art, let it be
tenderness, low strings the fingers
touch, or the width of autumn
climbing wider avenues, among the virtue
and dignity of knowing what city
you’re in, who to talk to, what clothes
—even what buttons—to wear. I address
/ the society
the image, of
/ The perversity
of separation, isolation,
after so many years of trying to enter their kingdoms,
now they suffer in tears, these others, saxophones whining
through the wooden doors of their less than gracious homes.
The poor have become our creators. The black. The thoroughly
Let the combination of morality
Is power, the enemy? (Destroyer
of dawns, cool flesh of valentines, among
the radios, pauses, drunks
of the 19th century. I see it,
as any man's single history. All the possible heroes
dead from heat exhaustion
at the beach
or hiding for years from cameras
only to die cheaply in the pages
of our daily lie.
has pretensions toward literature
one toward the cultivation of errors, arrogance,
and constantly changing disguises, as trucker, boxer,
valet, barkeep, in the aging taverns of memory. Making love
to those speedy heroines of masturbation or kicking literal evil
continually down filmy public stairs.
would be silence. To shut up, even such risk
as the proper placement
of verbs and nouns. To freeze the spit
in mid-air, as it aims itself
at some valiant intellectual's face.
There would be someone
who would understand, for whatever
fancy reason. Dead, lying, Roi, as your children
cane up, would also rise. As George Armstrong Custer
these 100 years, has never made
Monday in B-Flat
I can pray
But if I call
in a minute!
WHYS (Nobody Knows
The Trouble I Seen)
If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
who won't let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
they ban your
own boom ba boom
you in deep deep
probably take you several hundred years