Like anyone who loves fiction, I have followed with interest the ongoing discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird and its ostensible sequel, Go Set a Watchman, which was published to much fanfare last week. I was a middle-schooler when I first encountered the former, a book “widely regarded as a masterpiece,” according to the New York Times. Although 40 years have passed since then, the questions I have about the novel still linger. They acquired fresh resonance when one of my sons was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird in middle school. Apparently, few if any books had emerged in the interim between my school days and his to replace Harper Lee’s novel on required-reading lists. The dustiness of such lists became painfully apparent as my son described sitting through celebrations of Mockingbird in his majority-white classroom before heading straight to another class in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was being discussed with similar reverence.
Mockingbird, like Uncle Tom before it, often strikes me as a form of literary ointment for white guilt, meant to soothe outbreaks of conscience while dispelling perceptions of how pervasive white supremacy is. Its homespun patter and deep-fried homilies enable many readers to overlook its sketchily drawn black characters—little more than archetypes—and bask in the glow of Atticus Finch’s exemplary moral courage. While Lee portrays whites as complex and beset with realistic ambiguities, she renders blackness as an affliction that can be avoided via the intervention of a merciful God. Miss Maudie, the Finches’ neighbor and one of Maycomb’s enlightened liberals, praises the handful of whites in town who have “enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.”
Some days I can ignore Mockingbird’s mostly pedestrian prose and regard it as a cleverly subversive send-up of white racism, minus Mark Twain’s stylistic flair but dutifully echoing his irreverent tone. I’m gratified, for example, when Lee takes a dusty slave-narrative trope and turns it topsy-turvy by revealing that Scout, her youthful heroine, received the gift of literacy from Calpurnia, the Finch family’s loyal Negro retainer. “She would set me a writing task by scrawling the alphabet firmly across the top of a tablet,” Scout recalls, “then copying out a chapter of the Bible beneath.”
Other days I marvel at Mockingbird’s apparent prescience when, years before Fox News and talk radio, Atticus Finch says to his brother, “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand.” On still other days, however, I’m unable to get past Lee’s unpersuasive rendering of dialogue inside a black church, where “the warm bittersweet smell of clean Negro” welcomes Scout and Jem, her brother, as they join Calpurnia for Sunday worship. The line reminds me too much of a phrase in Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman in which the narrator notes, “The African odor was supreme in the air.”
If Watchman is “a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech,” as the Times critic Michiko Kakutani contends, wouldn’t that also apply to Mockingbird? It’s easy to lose count of the racial invective peppering Lee’s paragraphs, and few things are more distressing than watching an innocent man herded helplessly to his doom. The difference, I suppose, is Atticus Finch’s steadfast defense of the falsely accused Tom Robinson, which at least partly explains why the earlier novel is so often described as redemptive. But who, exactly, gets redeemed?
Just months ago, another of my sons read Mockingbird as the only black male student in his middle school class. This time we couldn’t help observing how often fiction (in which, say, Tom Robinson is shot 17 times) pales in comparison to real-world settings such as New York, where police shot at Amadou Diallo 41 times, striking him 19 times, or Cleveland, where police fired 137 bullets at an unarmed black couple, killing them instantly. We found it curious that school districts around the country seem to find it more useful to discuss a quaint tale involving an innocent Negro whose life was considered meaningless in 1935 than to devise a curriculum recognizing that black lives still don’t matter in 2015. Just as significant for me were the questions my son posed upon completing the novel. As it turned out, they were no different from the inquiries I was left with after closing Mockingbird’s covers decades ago. Who was the novel intended for, he wanted to know, and was he honestly expected to like it.
Jabari Asim is acting director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Emerson College and editor-in-chief of the Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine. His latest book, Only the Strong (Agate Bolden), was published in May.