Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Tale Of Two Books (2015)

I need to get this review done before the year does.

I bought these two books at the same time.

This was back in July, when they were released to the public at roughly the same time.

Harper Lee's book was the more promoted and anticipated work. If you lived through high school American Lit, you read To Kill A Mockingbird. It was unavoidable: Lee's magnum opus about growing up in 1930s Deep South, a searing indictment of racism and cultural violence. It'd been rumored for decades that Lee wrote a follow-up book - it was in fact her original work, but her publisher talked her into re-writing with a focus on her main character's childhood and on father Atticus Finch - that had disappeared. It had actually been misplaced, and when it popped up there had been a bit of a legal and public scuffle over whether or not to publish Go Set a Watchman at all. Once the crying and the thou-shall-nots subsided, it went to market and broke several sales records... and quickly stirred up a whole new hornet's nest of trouble, which I shall discuss in short order.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' book had received some fanfare before release, due to Coates' growing reputation in the political punditry circles from his years of writing for The Atlantic and other publications, but his fame was nowhere near Lee's and his book Between the World and Me was a modest success compared to Watchman. But it received near-universal acclaim, won awards, and became the most-talked-about political essay - with people praising it or debunking it - of the year.

I bought both, and wanted to read both, and want to discuss both at the same time because both works deal with perhaps the key issue of the American idea of itself: the issue of racism, observed from differing points of view. From Lee's perspective as a liberal southern White of the then-Civil Rights struggle of the Fifties, and from Coates' perspective as an urban Black of the post-Civil Rights / Reagan era enduring the realities of a still-racist socio-political system.

Go Set A Watchman opens on the return of an adult Scout (aka Jean Louise) to the backwoods home town of Maycomb, Alabama. On a visit to see her aging father Atticus, Jean Louise confronts some of the still-standing cultural norms - the Jim Crow segregation - of the Deep South in the mid-1950s.

Watchman turns on a pivotal moment - Chapter 8 in fact - where Jean Louise discovers a shocking truth about her own father, someone she had viewed as a paragon among lesser mortals. Page 100 (of the hardcover) in fact, and Lee even gives us the time of hour when all illusions are shattered:

...Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could, on a humid Sunday afternoon at precisely 2:28 PM...

She discovers a pamphlet hidden among Atticus' reading materials. It's titled the Black Plague, and she takes some time to read it:

When she had finished, she took the pamphlet by one of its corners, held it like she would hold a dead rat by the tail, and walked into the kitchen. She held the pamphlet in front of her aunt.
"What is this thing?" she said.
Alexandra looked over her glasses at it. "Something of your father's."
Jean Louise stepped on the garbage can trigger and threw the pamphlet in.
"Don't do that," said Alexandra, "They're hard to come by these days."

That sound you heard when 500,000 readers got to those pages were a lot of hearts and souls getting broken all at the same time finding out that Atticus, dear old Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird who stood up against the injustice of racism, was really racist all along.

It gets worse for Jean Louise as she hurries off to sneak into the meeting Atticus and his law partner Henry - and would-be suitor for Jean Louise - had scheduled that afternoon. She discovers it's a Citizen's Council meeting, and they're listening to a racist preacher espouse hatred to a nodding crowd. Confronting both Atticus and Henry about it, her outrage grows to the point where she plans on leaving the small town - and her family - forever.

Watchman has its flaws as a novel. You'd expect that from a publication that went to print without any editorial controls - we're essentially reading a rough draft because Lee's legal guardians were likely wary of having anyone "tweak" the novel and face accusations it wasn't really Lee's work - and with little realization how Watchman has continuity errors with Mockingbird. For starters, the centerpiece of Mockingbird - the rape trial involving Tom Robinson - turned out differently in Watchman where Atticus won the case - in 1930s Alabama?!?! - by arguing the "rape" was consensual. Someone with an eye towards making both novels fit their same histories would have fixed that to fit the more tragic ending in Mockingbird.

Where Watchman has a strength is its frank revelation of how pervasive racism was - still is - in the American Deep South.

One of the darker parts of the book is the final confrontation Jean Louise has, this time with her uncle - a doctor no less - who physically slaps her and then chews HER out for being prejudiced and narrow-minded judging her father. Domestic violence issue aside, a modern reader would notice the practice of "blaming the victim" here as Dr. Finch points out how Jean Louise has her own biases blinding her to how everyone has their own watchman, their own conscience, and that despite her realizations that Atticus is racist he still raised her to "set her own watchman" (hence the book title). The book ends with that tone, with Jean Louise reaching some kind of rapprochement with her father - Atticus expressing that's proud of her for standing her ground, Jean Louise admitting that Atticus has a point about the civil rights movement "moving too fast" and that she still loves him - although the events of the weekend have changed warmth to wariness.

It's a weak ending, but it's one that fits within the context of the 1950s when it was written. Racism was so ingrained into the cultural norms not only of the Deep South but across much of the nation. And it's not the blatant racism - the burning crosses, the hanging nooses - that Harper Lee is focusing on in this novel, it's the unthinking and reflexive kind that she brings up: the sharing of racist literature among the community, the public meetings of "councils" to discuss how to keep "outside" agitators like the NAACP from disrupting their segregated towns, the small-town mindset to "keep it in the community" and do things the way they've always been done.

To the modern reader, one who's lived through - been born after in a lot of cases - the civil rights movement of the 1960s and into the post-Jim Crow world of the late 20th Century, Watchman has a nostalgic aura but one that shines a light on the hypocrisy of that era. But it's also a light that shines on the hypocrisy of our own modern decade of the 21st Century... because Ta-Nehisi Coates' book highlights how all those sins Harper Lee wrote about back in the 1950s are still with us.

Between the World and Me is slightly misleading in that while the book is written in the style of letters from a father to his young son, BtWaM it's really Coates writing to the rest of us about how it was - how it still is - for a young Black child to grow up a Black man (or woman) in a United States where nearly every institution - the schools, the police, the law, the government, the businesses, the communities - viewed Black Americans as "property"... and how that property can be destroyed by the whims and needs of those institutions:

The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies... But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal, America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist... I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American Exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much... (p. 8)

Coates' work is coming at a pivotal time in modern America, as awareness to how Black lives are suffering at this very moment:

I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help; that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store.  And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction... Resent the body trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed... And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. (p. 9)

Coates details for his teen son his own horrors of growing up, his own childhood fears, fully aware of the psychological breakdown that haunted his black community then and since. One incident in particular haunts Coates and appears often in BtWaM: the death of fellow Howard student Prince Jones, whose only crime was to drive through an affluent neighborhood in the DC metro and ended up shot to death by a county policeman (and outside of his jurisdiction). Angered by the injustice, Coates then had to come to terms with the facts that the cop who shot Jones was black, worked for a county government and chain of command with black leadership, and yet it all still marginalized and destroyed black lives. To this Coates sees a nation and a world of rules designed to take rather than liberate or restore:

This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence... So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason... this is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile... It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered... (p.90-91)

Where Lee's two books provided the view of America from the White perspective - where the American Dream of quiet neighborhoods with picket fences and happy singing birds, no matter how benign the intentions are to make this so - Coates' book provides the view from the Black perspective where the American Dream was founded, funded and built upon the destruction of black neighborhoods where intent does not matter, only the destruction does.

This is where racism becomes and remains the great original sin of the United States. Willing to divide ourselves, by those who profit and achieve power by those institutions that enforce such divisions, the United States cannot claim the purity of exceptionalism the nation claims as its identity.

Halfway through Watchman, Atticus takes on a case for a young black man charged with vehicular manslaughter who turns out to be Calpurnia's - the housekeeper for the Finches in Mockingbird - great-grandson. However, Jean Louise finds out he's only doing so to stop the NAACP from coming in and taking over the defense. Dismayed, she visits Calpurnia's family on her own to offer some form of condolences and try to put a positive spin on her father's taking the case, but the meeting becomes strained because Calpurnia knows why Atticus is doing what he's doing:

She looked into the old woman's face and she knew it was hopeless. Calpurnia was watching her, and in Calpurnia's eyes was no hint of compassion.
Jean Louise rose to go. "Tell me one thing, Cal," she said, "just one thing before I go -- please, I've got to know. Did you hate us?"
The old woman sat silent, bearing the burden of her years. Jean Louise waited.
Finally, Calpurnia shook her head. (p.160)

Calpurnia has to think it over before giving her answer. SHE HAS TO THINK ABOUT IT.

That's what racism does to this nation. It makes people like Jean Louise have to ask if she and fellow whites were/are hated, it makes Calpurnia have to sit there and think through the slights and wounds she had endured because of it, it's left Prince Jones and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin dead before their times, it's put a warning sign on Ta-Nehisi's son that all of this will happen to him.

This is a tale of two books. It is a tale of one nation divided into pieces over our nation's deadly sin.

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