Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mixed Reviews: Watchmen Between the World and Me

There are two important books that I want to tell you about: Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman, and Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. I read the dead-tree version of Lee's book, borrowed from the library; I listened to Coates reading the audio version of his book, also borrowed from the library, and immediately went online and bought a copy to keep.

I hope I can help you understand why.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 13. It was a gut-punch that left me weeping in my room, reeling from my first confrontation with something like the fate of Tom Robinson.

That's important. Please hold onto that - it was the fate of Tom Robinson that affected me so strongly. It wasn't Atticus or Scout that stayed with me after I put the book down. And later, it was the face of Brock Peters, the actor who portrayed Tom Robinson in the movie, that haunted me when I had reason to think about these things.

To give you an idea of my context, at that age, I was just becoming aware of the complex world of American politics. I was coming to it as a passionate Christian fundamentalist. At 11, I had gone to the front of my Southern Baptist church and accepted Christ as my Savior, surprising even my parents with my fervor. My family lived out away from the city, so during those years, I had very little company. I spent most of my time devouring books and listening to Family Life Radio - especially to James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" program. I absorbed many of the lessons that my church and faith community impressed upon me and since this was the early 1980s, I developed a strong affection and admiration for Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority that became his political base.

In my world, all of these moral influences were unified. They were all about democracy and fairness, and the shining city of purity on the hill. Our Sunday School had always sung about Jesus loving all the children of the world - red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight - and I never questioned that fairness and equality were the cornerstones of being an American Christian.

And then I was confronted with the fate of Tom Robinson.

Looking back thirty years, I can see now why I found that book so easy to read. Maycomb was a less lonely version of the environment I grew up in; Scout and Jem were a lot like my sister and I; Scout reminded everyone of my grandmother, who grew up in Depression-era Arizona. And the theme of the book - the "loss of innocence" symbolized by the titular Mockingbird - tracked with what I was going through in my life. I related to her imagined isolation from her friends; I related to her fear of the isolated Boo Radley; I related to her growing awareness of the unreliable control that others have over their savagery as the townspeople turned on her father for doing what was right.

Just as Scout had to face the uncomfortable realities of the world, I was being exposed to the world through the filter of my radio and I was learning how dangerous and uncomfortable it really was out there. I heard all about the threats to our society presented by drugs, abortion, and devil worshipers (oh, you better believe I hung on Mike Warnke's every word!) - and while it was subtle, I was being taught, too, that the people behind these threats used arguments for "equality" to force their way through our righteous defenses and erode the brains and souls of our children.

Yes, I thought that way. At age 11.

And then I was confronted with the fate of Tom Robinson.

The first time I read this book, I was primed to think that the happy ending required Tom's acquittal and vindication. I held out hope that Atticus Finch's heroic defense would convince the town to see Tom's innocence, and that they would be forced to recognize the evil of the social stratification that Atticus explained to Scout - that system where white men sit at the top, and black women sit at the bottom, and those on each tier in between can only keep their status by forcing those "below" them to "keep their place."

I thought for years afterward that Tom's conviction was the "loss of innocence" symbolized in the title. I thought that the courage Atticus showed in defending him was part of the struggle to tear down that social ladder. I was naive, but to my credit that interpretation never sat well with me, and as I grew out of this phase of my life, and learned more about America's real racial history - and the role American Christians played in it - I had to accept a truth that many readers of Go Set A Watchman apparently never did. I had to recognize that the picture of equality I had in my head, and the idea of tearing down that unfair social ladder, were not actually part of the American Dream that Atticus Finch - or my white, evangelical tribe - defended. I had a choice not to accept that truth - but I did.

Because I could not ignore the fate of Tom Robinson.

Tom Robinson was an innocent man convicted by people who cared less about the truth of whether he committed the crime he was accused of than they did about the place he occupied on the social ladder, and his sin was that he tried to take control over his fate away from them. Tom Robinson, we learn from Atticus, tried to run away. To Atticus, this was Tom Robinson's folly - evidence that he and those like him were not ready to join society, because they could not trust the system - could not trust Atticus.

Tom's choice to run was an act that Thomas Jefferson praised and enshrined in America's Declaration of Independence when he said, "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government..."

But when Tom tried to throw off such Government, even Atticus condemned him for it. Atticus was wrong, and even though it was a wistful, paternalistic condemnation, it was still unjust. And a man was dead for the sake of principles of pride that Atticus articulates later in Watchman. Pride that requires that someone be "below" for someone else to have their Dream. He died, not because he deserved it, but because someone believed their race required his death to maintain their pride.

Tom Robinson was shot to death "off camera," so that the reader would learn this about Atticus as he explained the events to Scout.

For those millions of readers who didn't take away the same lesson that I did, they continued to view Atticus Finch as a moral hero. They saw him taking the stand he did as defending the innocent Mockingbird, and felt betrayed when Watchman presented a very different picture. It was not something they were ready for.

In the new book, the reader follows Jean Louise as she returns to Maycomb for a visit, and she sees Atticus in a situation that literally turns her worldview inside out. Most of the reviews I read expressed shock and revulsion that Harper Lee "turned the heroic Atticus into a racist" - and I think Jean Louise would agree with that sentiment. The entire second half of Watchman shows her dealing with that very reaction, and her sense that Atticus had betrayed her deeply, fundamentally, and for the whole of her life.

But Atticus did not change between the first and second books.

The Atticus of Watchman is the same heroic defender of what he sees as right that he always was. If anything, I learned from Watchman that Atticus does believe that the social ladder that victimized Tom Robinson in the first book should be destroyed...eventually. But he believes that it is dangerous and counter-productive to do so in a way that upsets those on that ladder. He spends the second half of Watchman trying to convince Jean Louise that the way to true equality is to make the negroes (his word, not mine) earn their way up.

"Honey," he says to Jean Louise, "you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people...They've made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they're far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of 'em voting than ever before."

What he fails to take into account is that "white ways" are not purely the good and noble things that he would like to believe them to be - any more than singing "Jesus loves the little children" in Sunday School means that the evangelical culture I was part of gave a damn about the life of someone like Tom Robinson. Jean Louise tries to articulate what is wrong with Atticus's point of view, but I sympathize with the difficulty she faces. It's a pervasive, self-assured kind of bigotry, compounded by thinking itself to be kind and generous. She lashes out, curses at him, but pulls her punches because, after all, this is her Atticus. Finally, she compares his actions to those of Hitler and Stalin, and he just smiles, as if he thinks she is exaggerating. But she persists:

"You're no damn better. You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies. You just try to tell 'em, 'Look, be good. Behave yourselves. If you're good and mind us, you can get a lot out of life, but if you don't mind us, we will give you nothing and take away what we've already given you.' ...How they're as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they're human. I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week's decency."

There is barely a mention of the fate of Tom Robinson in Watchman - he is referenced by Jean Louise a few pages before in this same scene as "that rape case" - but his ghost hung over this book as I read it, forcing me to stare into that gap between "denial that they're human" and "a week's decency" and see the pile of bodies at the bottom.

But Tom Robinson is a fictional character.

It is easy for someone like me to stand up for fictional people, because they don't have a lot of messy reality behind them. They aren't necessarily on the streets of my city, clashing with police. They have only the past that we are told about, and whatever pity their stories might evoke, our sense of morality requires nothing more than saying that it's awful what happened to them before we move on to the next book on our summer reading list.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, is a real person. He offers another book that reminds us that Tom Robinson's fate is uncomfortably real. Commonly real. Unjustifiably real. In Between the World and Me, Coates writes a letter to his teen-aged son that describes his experiences on that rung of the social ladder that Atticus defends as Coates's right and proper place.

Coates begins his book by describing to his son the experience of appearing on a news show and being asked by the host "why I felt that white America's progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence." He uses that construction - "people who believe that they are white" - because he knows something that the people at the top of the social ladder don't want to know about themselves. He knows that for all of the high-minded talk about equality being part of the American Dream, as long as some see themselves as part of the "top", they will always require someone to be beneath them. And he also knows from a lifetime of experience that as long as those at the "top" consider themselves to be "white", no one with black skin can avoid being shoved down that ladder.

He knows that the cornerstone of the American Dream is made out of the bodies of those we keep at the bottom of the ladder, in the gap between their humanity and our kindness. That is his theme, and I have known this lesson since I learned it as a child, reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

I recognized that painful truth about the cornerstone of my American Dream back then, and it set me on the course of questioning that made me what I am today. Holding my Dream accountable for the damage it caused meant shedding beliefs that weren't based in reality. My church was my Atticus Finch - kindly, well-intentioned, morally straight, loving...and wrong. It meant walking away from the childish faith I was raised to accept, and recognizing that the world we are in is only as scary and dangerous as we make it.

When I read Between the World and Me, I have the same choice before me again - the same choice that you have now: "Is my dream to actually realize the equality and fairness that I say I hold dear, or is it to keep climbing and the ladder while pretending that I am not hurting anyone?"

When Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son about the ways that Americans "who believe that they are white" have systematically deprived him and people like him of control over the very security of his own body, he is talking about that choice. He expresses in eloquent and straightforward words the same idea that the fictional Tom Robinson expressed by trying to run away from those people. "I am not safe as long as you don't view me as a person." And "I am not safe as long as you view me as a threat to your Dream."

Now I am going to tell you the main idea of this review. I buried the lede here because I knew that if I put it up front that you would not read it. But I want you to understand why so many people did not like Go Set a Watchman, and why so many of the people who have based the safety of their own bodies and the bodies of their children on the idea that they are "white" will reject Coates's book and the ideas in it. I want you to confront the fate of Tom Robinson, and the evil honor of Atticus Finch, and I want you to set one fact in the center of all of these things. Let this be your new cornerstone:

I, as a 13-year-old white boy, had the luxury of weeping in my room over the vileness of what happened to Tom Robinson...and then putting the book down in my large, safe room, and turning on a radio that told me I was good, and noble, and that my tribe was all for fairness and equality. At the same time, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 10-year-old black boy, risked death every day just going to and from school on the streets of Baltimore. He could not simply put that book down, and do something else.

That is what is meant by the phrase "white privilege". That difference in our dreams - one boy dreaming of being safe, the other dreaming that his privilege has nothing to do with putting the first boy in his place - is the gap between us.

The beauty of Between the World and Me is that, as a letter to his son, Coates is not lecturing White America on how it should behave. He talks about having been a radical when he was younger, but he is no longer calling for a "revolution." He is explaining to his son how America behaves, and why, and he explains how his life wound its way from the dangers of his old neighborhood to a place where he could have and raise a son. He describes the ways he used to think, and ideas he explored as a young man - ideas that those who must believe they are white hold up as evidence that people like Coates are "not ready" to join the rest of us on these higher rungs of this ladder - and how even though he outgrew that and succeeded, so that he could give his son privileges associated with the Dream, it is his son's job to be on guard. There is still danger in simply being a black man around people who need to believe they are white.

Coates does describe the tragedies that are happening right now, in Ferguson and Baltimore; tragedies that white privilege allows so many of us to pretend aren't happening or aren't our fault because we have the luxury to put down the book, or turn off the TV, and do something else. But these examples are not rallying points - they are simply the mirror held up to the American Dream, and to Dreamers who are not unlike Atticus Finch in despising the disorder more than the cause. He doesn't try to take away from their sense of their own nobility, but because of the million thoughtless ways Dreamers have denied the cost of their Dream, he has to tell his son to beware of them.

"I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom...But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos."
I love that passage in particular - that the Dreamers "will have to learn to struggle for themselves" - because it echoes and answers the paternalistic condescension of Atticus Finch with almost his own words, and turns them both into a plea for patience and a defiant claim of maturity. It simultaneously urges the wisdom of self-reliance, the necessity of patience, and the promise of forgiveness.

When David Brooks read Between the World and Me, he saw the importance of the book, but he also saw the attack on the American Dream, and chided Coates for that attack. What I saw was that my neighbor is being hurt by a Dream that harms both of us. Brooks asks "Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?" In a way, he answers his own question a few paragraphs later - but he thinks that the choice is between the Dream and no dream. I see that what Coates demands is a different choice: if the Dream is a lie, work on a better reality. That goal is, by definition, a different dream.

Brooks frames his question as if "disagreement" is merely an intellectual exercise. But I can see, just watching the news, that this goes beyond philosophy. Tom Robinson was shot "off camera" but in just the past few years, an alarming number of black men have been shot, choked, and beaten to death on and off camera. And the same people who rail against the arbitrary tyranny of the State when they are inconvenienced or have to pay taxes suddenly become the purest advocates of unquestioning respect for authority when they are confronted with this raw brutality. It's not mere "disagreement" - it's philosophical alchemy!

That's why Coates expresses rage; because the effect of "disagreeing" is far more devastating to him and his children than it is to me and mine. I see my white friends and neighbors stroking their guns and lustfully warning that the next time there is trouble, "they might come up our way - and we'll be ready!" Somehow, they express this fear almost joyfully - as if they've been waiting for the chance to openly defend their Dream. They clearly disagree with Coates's premise - and they go further, defending the system of prisons and ghettos that they clearly believe the inhabitants belong in. They display their willful blindness to their own privilege, as well as the willful ignorance of their own contribution to the trouble that is brewing. Their joyful fear is more horrible to me than the crowds who might be gathering in downtown Baltimore, waiting for the spark from a pending trial.

When you read Between the World and Me, you can see why Atticus Finch was wrong. No, that's not quite right, because Atticus was not real. You and I are real, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is not Tom Robinson any more than I am Scout. While we both live in Baltimore, and are roughly the same age, and both love writing and love our children, there is very little else that ties us together other than the roles we have played in our lives - he as a proud, intelligent black man, and I as a privileged, if not wealthy, white man. Brooks and my neighbors would have me take offense that Coates is accusing me of building my life on his body. But when I read his letter to his son, I see more in him that I love and value than I have seen lately in the people who share my privilege.

When you read Between the World and Me, you should see why we are wrong to allow ourselves to exercise the privilege of putting down our book and going about some other business. You might disagree with minor semantic points, but you may not ignore the facts. "White privilege" is choosing to believe you are white, and choosing to prop up a fading Dream on the bones of our friends and neighbors, when our friends and neighbors desperately need us to do something else.

They need us to wake up, and show a week's decency. Preferably every week.

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