Allies in a time of Charleston and Dolezal: Harper Lee is the kind of white ally that Black Consciousness demands

By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig) 

Panashe pens first and last piece on the role of whites in anti-racist struggles. In light of the ‘controversy’ amongst white liberals over Atticus Finch ‘becoming’ a racist in Go Set A Watchman, Panashe argues that Lee offers an example of how white liberals can be real allies in black anti-racist struggles in that she has done what Black Consciousness has always demanded – for white liberals to do the very hard work of undoing racism within the white community as opposed to the relatively easier work of ‘fighting’ on behalf of black people as most jarringly seen with the likes of Rachel Dolezal who then went to appropriate black struggle. 

Our horror at discovering that Atticus was really a racist may be genuine, but it is also the rage of Caliban, seeing himself in the mirror.”

-Sarah Churchwell, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee review – ‘moral ambition sabotaged’

I can’t remember what grade it was that To Kill A Mockingbird was a class reader. I think it was 2009 or 2008. I’m not sure.

What I do remember was that it was in the later years of high school and it was before we read JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. This was an experience which I thoroughly hated because we read it at a time when I had just begun to engage Bantu Stephen Biko’s writings on Black Consciousness whilst in a majority white private school where most children were from the surrounding farms, so you can imagine how a book that sets out white victimhood as a white woman is raped by black men on a post-apartheid farm felt a little “too close to home” for all concerned. It was also years before we had read a book by any black author. Per our Independent Education Board curriculum (which is different to that of public schools), the first and last set work by a black author that we had read was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe in our final year of high school. That book was also uncomfortable because of the many bigoted views it elicited from the class which ranged from my teacher’s comments that “You don’t have to remember their names” to my classmates’ exclamations : “How barbaric! Why are they so superstitious?” after Okonkwo sacrifices Ikemefuna, his adoptive son, at the instruction of the Gods. By now many of us black students had become a little more “conscious” and would call them out on their racism asking why we were expected to remember names such as “Piggy” and “Jack” and “Eric”, arguing that they were also “foreign” to us. One of the best responses to the claims of barbarism came from my white teacher, who had “called out” the double standard in seeing Okonkwo’s willingness to sacrifice his adoptive son per his African Gods’ instructions as ‘“irrational” , whilst holding up Abraham’s willingness  per their Christian God’s instructions as a “great act of faith”.

What I do remember of To Kill A Mockingbird was that it was, naturally, an uncomfortable experience. Not only did we have to talk through racial prejudice in the South (of 30s America, not so much South Africa) through the enduring Myth of the Black Rapist, the n-word was also used. We felt angry and white students felt guilt, but eventually the tension was absorbed by Finch the Saint’s moral forthrightness as he defended the poor black man in the case falsely accused by a poor white girl from the racist ‘white trash’ family.

How apt the story was for a post-apartheid Rainbow Nation classroom. A non-racist white man with principles and morals ahead of his time fighting on behalf of a poor black man. A convenient self-image for many to latch onto as they absolved themselves from the complicity in “grand apartheid”. Almost a reliving of the 1994 moment as the humanity of whiteness was beautifully redeemed in a classic.

Years later, as the The White Saviour was to return, there was much fanfare. It could not have come at a better time as this was sure to provide another redemption and restoration for the white liberal self image that had taken a bit of a knock the world over. Well, a number of ‘knocks’. In Finch’s USA, the Black Lives Matter movement protesting the shooting of unarmed black men ruptured Martin Luther King’s “Dream” non-racial America and many white liberals were revealed as “closet racist”. In South Africa, the Rhodes Must Fall movement became a rupture in the liberal non-racial project as many white liberals were revealed as closet racists by their defence of colonial statues and the Rhodes legacy.

Instead of offering a window for the restoration of self-image, Harper Lee offered a window for reflection on that very image. She offered a window into the dangerous limits of white liberalism in anti-racist struggles. Fitch is reminiscent of the many white liberal South Africans who will tell you very proudly that they were part of the Black Sash or even the ANC, but yet are very quick to defend the statue of Rhodes.

Not even Jean-Louise, who is repulsed (so much so that she vomits) by her father’s segregationist attitudes is spared as she confesses that she would never marry a black man. Sounds very similar to the “I’m not racist but-“ that many black South Africans with white friends and colleagues have had to hear for years.

In her reaction to the book on Twitter, South African author Fiona Snickers tweeted, “Old white lefties who morph into racists as they get older – it’s like Harper Lee has been spending time in South Africa.”

This is wrong. There is no morphing into a racist, only a revealing of a racist. As New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik writes in his review of the book:

“[T]he idea that Atticus, in this book, “becomes” the bigot he was not in “Mockingbird” entirely misses Harper Lee’s point—that this is exactly the kind of bigot that Atticus has been all along. The particular kind of racial rhetoric that Atticus embraces (and that he and Jean Louise are careful to distinguish from low-rent, white-trash bigotry) is a complex and, in its own estimation, “liberal” ideology: there is no contradiction between Atticus defending an innocent black man accused of rape in “Mockingbird” and Atticus mistrusting civil rights twenty years later. Both are part of a paternal effort to help a minority that, in this view, cannot yet entirely help itself.”

Gopnik’s ability to reflect is seemingly quite rare as it seems that the global white liberal establishment is not having it.

Headlines such as Vulture’s “Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: Better Off Lost?”, Salon’s “Reading Harper Lee in the wake of Charleston: Shame, defeat and the real tragedy of “Go Set a Watchman””and NPR’s “Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece” abound.

In South African parlance, Harper Lee has “touched white liberals on their studio”. Indeed, TalkRadio 702, one of the country’s biggest radio stations, known for its liberal callers who are not ones to miss out on opportunities to point how “our [black] government is failing us” and are likely to spend weekends running soup kitchens in townships, was no better case study on the white liberal reaction the book. As Jenny Crwys-Williams, the queen-maker of the South African book industry, discussed the book with Redi Tlabi, incredulous caller after caller registered their outrage and hurt at this “controversial” book.

Kate Rogan, owner of Love Books, one of Johannesburg’s most successful independent bookstores and former producer of Jenny Crwys-Williams’ Book Show,  quite frankly refused this opportunity for reflection, telling the Mail and Guardian that “I don’t want to read it, Atticus is one of my biggest literary heroes and I don’t want to see that.”

“How dare Harper take Finch away?” What they are really saying “How dare Harper hold up a mirror to us?”

It’s not surprising that white liberals are turning down this offer for reflection. When black people have called white people out on their privileges and racism, white liberals have pushed back many times.

In the USA, the Civil Rights movie Selma was criticised for, in the Washington Post’s words, its “glaring flaw” which was not to portray President Lyndon B Johnson as a “partner” along with Martin Luther King Jnr in the famous march. In other words, Selma’s black director Ava Duvernay was penalised for not portraying black anti-racist struggle without a White Saviour, or, as it were, an Atticus Finch. 

In South Africa, popular columnist and former spin doctor for South Africa’s official opposition, the liberal Democratic Alliance,  Gareth van Onselen dismissed the burgeoning national discussion on white privilege saying, “It is an exercise in anger, not in understanding, and the debate is immature and divisive as a result.”

Similarly, when writer Thando Mgqolozana caused a stir on a panel on ‘anger’ at the Franschoek Literary Festival telling the audience that he was quitting the white literary system, and that white liberals should stop running soup kitchens in townships because it doesn’t address structural issues, a white woman who ran soup kitchens and donated brand-name clothing to a poor black girl, stood up and cried saying she was “tired of feeling guilty for her skin colour”.

Like this woman many white liberals often retort that they don’t know what they are supposed to do. We are all in agreement that their guilt does not help anyone and often becomes an additional burden for black people to attend to. Which then begs the question, what must white people who want to be allies do?

In the past I would have said it is not my duty as a black person to figure that out because it is for whites who believe they genuinely want to help to grapple with this. It still is the case that they must do the work of finding out how best to be allies and to decolonise themselves, but I now have an example to point to. To this question of white involvement I will now say, follow Harper Lee’s example as a white ally in black anti-racist struggles.

To understand this, I refer to the words of Bantu Stephen Biko, the father of the Black Consciousness Movement on the involvement of white liberals in the anti-apartheid movement:

“The (white) liberal must understand that the days of the Noble Savage are gone; that the blacks do not need a go-between in this struggle for their own emancipation…Rather, all true liberals should realise that the place for their fight for justice is within their white society.”

Lee is doing the job of a white ally in the anti-racist struggle by speaking directly to the white liberal establishment and forcing them into a discussion on how their racist attitudes and actions manifest themselves over a lifetime despite their best intentions.  If in the literary world, Toni Morrison is to write for black people and to black people on racism, Harper Lee is to write for white people and to white people on racism.

Lee has called the bluff on white liberals who like to juxtapose themselves against the overt racism of the “white trash” in the Mockingbird world, or in today’s case, the grotesque racism of the USA’s Dylan Roof or in the case of South Africa, a Steve Hofmeyer. What a brilliantly subversive act on her part. She has committed class (or rather, race) suicide, no better evidenced in the way in which he is being crucified for her “literary mess”.

Lee’s well publicized anxiety and reluctance to publishing the manuscript speaks to the fact that there are real costs to being an ally. On presenting the manuscript to her publisher in 1957, he rejected it and told her to write another. She did, a best-seller and critically acclaimed one, not only for its literary merit but for the redemptive promise that Atticus Finch held for white America. After this success, Lee famously told her cousin, “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.”

As review after review suggests that she should not have published the work and that Go Set A Watchman is causing them to “reconsider” the initial masterpiece (To Kill A Mockingbird), it is clear she is “going down”.

And I am quite happy that Lee is “going down”. Being an ally is not supposed to be a comfortable experience. There are sacrifices to be made. There will be pain. That’s something that the likes of Rachel Dolezal who appropriate black struggle for their own gain should know. It’s also something the white woman who cried at the Franschhoek Literary Festival should know.

I don’t know what Lee’s thoughts or intentions were behind the timing and writing of either book, but I am glad it has happened. This will be the first and last time I write about Harper Lee’s book because the job of helping white people through their racism is not mine. When white liberals ask me what I expect them to do, I will now simply say follow Harper Lee’s example of committing race suicide and say no more. Harper Lee is being penalised and crucified by the white liberal establishment the world over because she did not offer the White Saviour self-image another opportunity for  redemption. If this is the future of a White Consciousness, then I am very optimistic for the future of race relations the world over.

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