This week Harper Lee's novel, Go Set A Watchman, hit the shelves of booksellers. The internet gave a collective gasp when early reviews revealed that Atticus Finch has racist views in this sequel, set in the 1950s. I know, because I gave one of those digital huffs. I could not believe that Atticus would be this way! I had no desire to read this book.
With further thought, I am reconsidering.
Racism does not have an on/off switch; it resides on more of a dimmer, with a variety of levels in between the extremes. I know* a lot of people who would agree that Tom Robinson got treated unfairly in To Kill a Mockingbird. They would agree that people of African descent should not be abused by others just because of the color of their skin. They also would not want "those people" living next door to them. They would express dismay when a professional sports team fielded an all-black starting line-up. They are racists, but not as extreme as the white jury of Mockingbird.
As I considered the bits included in reviews about "the new Atticus," I realized that he never professed to be a civil rights pioneer in Mockingbird. Readers really have no idea how he feels about African Americans, other than recognizing that Tom Robinson cannot have raped Mayella Ewell. Providing Tom's constitutionally-guaranteed defense does not mean that Atticus wants black people living next door or attending school or voting.
I will likely download and read Watchman in the near future. With current discussions of race, the "new Atticus" may provide more important lessons than our more heroic version.
*I may be related to some of these people.