Tag Archives: racial

Harper Lee is releasing a sequel and I am incredibly skeptical.

3 Feb

I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the command of my 8th grade required reading list. It was the summer of female heroines in all their near-diversity: I met Francie from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Scout from the aforementioned Mockingbird, and the host of Chinese mothers and daughters from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. I had mixed feelings about Tan’s and Smith’s work, but Lee’s opus I immediately and thoroughly fell in love with.

But to be honest, I haven’t really returned to Mockingbird since 8th grade. I’ve kept it on my shelf, smiling at its cracked spine and yellowing pages (I’d gotten my book second-hand to begin with) and thought fondly of Scout and Boo Radley and Atticus Finch and the fight all of them wages against the war of their time. Yeah, I’ve got some major nostalgia going on, but I remember that the book discussed the themes of racial injustice in its time in a nuanced and direct and honest way. It pointed out the injustice of its time and made the world stare very, very hard at it. It is a good book. It is a book about lost innocence and learning hard lessons about a hard world. It is a book with meaning and worth and challenge. It is a book I dearly hope people continue to read.

But it’s a book I am… uneasy, I suppose, about giving a sequel.

Haper Lee recently announced that yes, she is releasing a sequel, presumably to be titled Go Set a Watchman. The book, apparently, was written in the 1950’s and features events contemporaneous to the time. Watchmen was in fact Lee’s intended first book, featuring an adult Scout who looks upon the events of her time through the lens of childhood flashbacks. Lee’s editor, however, liked the flashbacks so much that he advised Lee to turn those into a book instead. Enter Mockingbird.

I don’t know Lee’s motivations for wanting to publish that original attempt about adult Scout now, half a century later, after her “dear friend and lawyer” Tonja Carter discovered the old manuscript. I can guess at the motivations of Lee’s publishers.

But, I mean, whatever. It is Lee’s right as an author to publish a sequel – or anything else – if she wants to. The woman has already proven herself. She’s witty and smart and eloquent and endearing and ballsy. Her first published attempt at a novel became a classic, and it even did so during her lifetime. That’s impressive. The woman can publish whatever she damn well pleases.

But distancing Watchmen from the force of a woman that is the individual Harper Lee, I… worry.

Mockingbird was revolutionary for its time as a social commentary. It was a book that looked at the engrained, systemic injustice of a society and said that no, this is wrong. This is bad. What we, the whites, are doing is bad. We are bad to everyone who does not conform to us, even other whites. This is not okay. This is not working. And through its characters, the book got angry about it. It got confused about it. And this was good and necessary and meaningful.

But… it was a white’s awakening. Scout is white. Atticus Finch is white. There are white defenders and white villains and white protagonists and whites saving the world from other whites for the poor black people who were suffering because of what the whites did to them. And all of this was narrated by a white woman.

Again, by the standards of the time for when Mockingbird was published, this was a step forward. A woman author challenging those around her to step up and check their racism and rape charge duality? Sweet.

But… it’s still pretty damn white-washed.

I want to trust Lee. I want to believe that Watchman will be as grand a masterpiece as Mockingbird. But honestly, if it’s another book full of white main characters about a history where things happen to black people instead of through them, I’m not sure I want it. Remember all those hashtags that’ve been floating about saying #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseAuthors? Yeah, those aren’t just trends, for the moment. Those are desperate truths. The publishing landscape throughout fiction is starving for color of every kind. Race. Disability. Gender. Sexuality. All those other identity markers.

Lee wrote a book about the white experience amidst black oppression. And she did it well, the first time. I don’t really think we need a second iteration.

I worry that Watchman just won’t be able to stand up to Mockingbird. I’m afraid that if Watchman falls short, it will taint the work done through its predecessor. I don’t want what was a really good thing warped by an inept follow-up. And I don’t want a movement that’s fighting really hard to become a reality, a movement of variety of voice and eyes that can tell you what they see from a first-hand perspective, to be overhauled, however momentarily, by the excitement that this famous white woman wrote another book commenting on black people. It’s good that a book by an author of any particular race include characters of not-the-author’s-race, yes, but they shouldn’t just be caricatures and they should be more than just plot props. They should be real goddamn people. Not just historical background noise.

And I’m just not sure that’s going to happen in Watchman.

Maybe Watchman will be great! I don’t really know yet, do I? I haven’t read the book. I’ve barely had a synopsis available for perusal. I could totally see Harper Lee completely blowing us all away yet again. And that would be a good thing.

But until then, I’m going to sit here amidst all this white washing and be pretty damn skeptical.

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A White and Shiny and Probably Horrendously Inflammatory Blog Post

4 Dec

Dear White People,

it happened again. Another murderer got away because of white skin and a shiny badge. We drive around with our white skin and our shiny cars, mere passersby to injustice on the streets. We sit in our white houses with our shiny lives and ignore the systematic burning of a people to the ground. In both Missouri and New York, we like our white snow and our shiny presents, having the luxury of not caring that outside, it’s cold. We’ve got our white skin and our shiny privilege. We don’t have to worry about frostbite.

Look, I know. I know. I make generalizations. White people are also poor. White people are kind. White people suffer. White people care.

White people built this whole fucking country to be poor in and to be kind in and to suffer and care in ’cause we stole it from yet another people without our skin tone.

We established that this was the best country, our country, and disallowed anyone else access to that pronoun. Even when we shipped human beings over like Fedex two-week arrival packages. “Here, Mary Sue, I got you a nice black girl to help you and Ma with your dresses.” “But Daddy, I wanted the other black girl, with the different nose!”

It is horrible. It is insensitive. It is true.

Slaves could be shot for trying to run away. Apparently this is still true when it comes to white police masters. And those police will not be indicted, because after all, they were just trying to subdue their property. They know what those black skins are like. You can’t reason with them. Just gotta bring ’em down, bloodshed be damned. It was their own damn fault for running away and resisting anyway.

Please excuse me while I go vomit. Alternatively while I go chop off my fingers, because they hate themselves for ever having to write those words.

White people, this is who we are. Maybe not you, individually. But as a people, this is what we have filled history with stories of. This is the name we have made for ourselves.

And I really don’t fucking like it.

We try to make a difference. We volunteer. We tweet. We write fucking blog posts. But none of these are going to pry the arms off the neck of a dead black man. And in the end, that’s really what we needed to do. Before the suffocation even happened.

I am a thin, white female. If a man tried to touch me and I screamed at him not to, but he persisted anyway, it would be the police’s job to come and save me, because in my case, that man’s actions would have been labelled assault. The police damn well know there are other ways to arrest a noncompliant but nonviolent person. And no way in hell do they want the upper-middle class parents of a white girl coming after them and saying one of their male officers assaulted me. Noooo way in hell would they let that come even close to happening.

Change me into a black man and apparently none of that matters anymore.

If a man held me down and suffocated me after I’d screamed and screamed that I couldn’t breathe, and the coroner fucking ruled it a homicide, there would indictments and apologies from the police department and a mass outcry at the unthinkable wretchedness of it all. I would be a martyr, not an example. That police officer wouldn’t even get to be a mall cop. He’d be in jail. Twenty-five years to life.

Change the color of my skin and my genitalia, and apparently this all isn’t even worth a trial.

This is not justice. This is bias, prejudice, flat out hatred in our goddamn justice system.

What do you do when the laws are broken?

What do you do when we are broken?

And what do you do when that brokenness causes us to break other people?

Kill them, even.

I don’t know what to do. I wish I did. Apologies stopped cutting it about twenty black-victim homicides ago. But… I don’t know how to make us better. I as an individual am trying to do the damn best I can to check my privilege and help as appropriate. I know there are others, hordes of others, who are doing the same. But apparently these hordes are not in the justice system. Or if they are, apparently they decided that the tougher incidences like these are when they should sit down and shut up and pretend like suffocating a black man who uses words like “please,” “officer,” and “sir” is a perfectly reasonable things to do.

I don’t know how to prod us all in the back, to fucking wake us up any time we’re being idiots or accomplices to murder. We’ve lost all the sticks because we made our slaves bundle them up and throw them into our hearth fires a long time ago. We, the collective we, white people, have made this a country of white people first, everyone else be damned if you haven’t made yourself as otherwise white as possible. And it’s not okay. This is so fucking not okay.

We said we were founding this country on equality and justice. We’ve got about two hundred and thirty eight years that say that’s not what we did. White people, we have failed.

Maybe it’s time we got the fuck out. Literally, metaphorically… I don’t know. But nobody else seems to either, because we’ve got a two hundred and thirty-eight year old problem here.

And when everything is white and shiny, it’s hard to see through the glare and notice that.