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Godspeed, Nelle Harper Lee, and Thank You

I was sorry to hear of the passing of Nelle Harper Lee, author of "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "Go Set A Watchman," and otherwise known by her pen name, Harper Lee.  What a weird coincidence that an author who artfully exposed America's racist underbelly passed during the same week of the passing of a U.S. Supreme Court justice who seemed oblivious to his replication of said underbelly in word and legal decisions.

I am a member of the "TKAM" cult.  I am the daughter of a black Southerner and briefly lived in the South. Lee's book confirmed the stories I would hear from my Southern dad and relatives about the precarious position of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.  The major difference between my father's childhood in the 1930's Jim Crow South and what is portrayed in TKAM is that the Atticus Finches of the world were few and very, very far between in his childhood home of Gould, Arkansas.

I can't say that I was inspired by the character of Atticus Finch to become a lawyer; I was already well on my way on the path to becoming a lawyer by the time I read TKAM, or at least I was in my mind.  What I found oddly comforting about TKAM is that it confirmed the stories my dad had sometimes inadvertently shared about his childhood, which he occasionally let slip but tried mostly to shield us kids from in our lives in what he called his "Promised Land," California.  He didn't want to bring the South and its Jim Crow past with him into our lives that were relatively untainted by racism, but sometimes he let things slip.  He wanted better for us.  He still does.

But Nelle Harper Lee gave me a greater appreciation of how precarious my father's existence as a black boy in the 1930's Jim Crow South had been, long before Isabel Wilkerson would write "The Warmth of Other Suns."  I'm grateful that TKAM was assigned reading.  May it forever remain so.

When "The Mockingbird Next Door" came out, I was thrilled to learn more about this lady who had confirmed what I had heard of my father's childhood.  She courageously put America's racist predilections front and center in the form of a YA novel that the South could at once claim proudly as stellar writing in the Southern literary tradition and disclaim falsely as aberrational in its portrayal of Southern race relations.  There would be no sequel, no sophomore effort, at least none she would speak of.  I had to know more about this woman who wrote one of the best novels of the twentieth century.

Before I got around to reading "The Mockingbird Next Door," word came that her novel that preceded TKAM, "Go Set A Watchman," was "discovered" and would be published, allegedly with her permission.  I planned a weekend of literary excess around its publication:  I would read "The Mockingbird Next Door," then "Go Set A Watchman," and then re-read TKAM.  TKAM was indeed the sophomore effort.  "Watchman" was her first novel that was never published on the advice of her editor, who counseled her to write something more positive than TKAM.  After reading "Watchman," I understood why.

Contrary to the Amazon reviews bashing "Watchman" because of the questionable circumstances under which it was published, I loved it.  I loved it because I realized what courage it took for Lee to write it when she wrote it.  I loved it because in this era when people finally have a name for the concept of white privilege, Scout was having a philosophical discussion about it and white supremacy with Atticus and about his role in preserving them, a role that Atticus fans could not have imagined from his portrayal in TKAM and Gregory Peck's film portrayal of Atticus.

Simply put, given the racial upheaval happening in the South when Lee wrote "Watchman," had it been published when she wrote it, I am confident that Lee would have met up with a terrible end.  White Southerners intent on preserving their "way of life," i.e., white supremacy, had already rallied 'round the Confederate flag, literally, when Lee put pen to paper to write her first novel.  I am confident white Southerners would not have countenanced one of their own exposing them in such a manner.  TKAM made racial oppression in the South look like something that Southern whites of good will would not support, when in fact it was most often the other way around -- racial oppression was something the majority of southern Whites, of good will and otherwise, did and would support.

And Atticus?  He didn't support racial oppression, but he sure did believe in white supremacy.  And to a lesser degree, so did Scout.  Go read for yourself if you haven't already.

No matter how she told it, in TKAM and "Watchman," Nelle Harper Lee told the truth about race and racism in the South without flinching.  She told the truth in a manner that made white Americans reckon with that truth and feel good doing so because of her craft in telling a good story.  Because of her own white Southern privilege, she was considered a credible witness.

For that, Nelle Harper Lee, I thank you.  Godspeed and rest in peace.


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