I’m not sure what possessed me to read these two books back to back— Between the World and Me and Go Set a Watchman. Because I read Go Set a Watchman first, all I could do while reading Go Set a Watchman was largely focus on how race was represented.
Coates’ book is a powerful revelation about “race” and the depth of complicity we all share (especially, as he says, those who think they are “white”) in a system which victimizes black bodies and profits from that victimization. Coates argues we are all responsible for practicing the “politics of personal exoneration” yet we are all responsible for and involved in the creation and maintenance of this biased system.
Harper Lee’s book (actually first draft) is a problematic, confusing, and very dated book about “race,” concluding with the very “politics of personal exoneration” that Coates identifies and condemns, in her call to her readers to understand and have compassion for what makes a man a racist, framed in a biased reasoning to begin with. Lee’s simplistic and outdated understanding of race overtook any focus on the literary merit (of which there was very little) this first draft may have demonstrated.
The only reason I read Go Set A Watchmen is that I teach To Kill a Mockingbird to middle schoolers. Knowing it was a first draft I was not looking forward to reading it, but knew it might shed some light on the novel. I’m sure the only reason it was published in the first place was to make some fast cash. The beloved pure-spirited Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is portrayed as a bigot in this first draft, not the moral, values-driven lawyer who defends a black man from the accusation that he raped a white girl; in To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch is a lawyer who stands up to the bigotry of his town. In Go Set A Watchman, though intensely upset at her father’s racism, Jean Louise (the protagonist) works by the end of the book to try and make us understand and have compassion for Atticus and even concludes the story as a loss of innocence narrative about the evolution of a child’s perception of the heroic role of parents and about coming to terms with them as simply being human, ie having many foibles—(like racism!). While I ached with the heartbreaking truths articulated in Coates’ book, Lee’s draft, especially as it ended, was embarrassingly painful to read. In fact, I wonder at the politics of a publishing company that would publish such a racially awkward book in 2015. Was money their only agenda?
Coates’ book blends the personal, the historical, and the political together, framed as a powerful letter to his son. Incisive, poignant, even disarming, Coates’ raw and articulate examination of race, his intelligent anger, is timely as it is powerful and visceral. He writes, “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of mother nature, and one is left to deplore the middle passage or the trail of tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.” After reading Coates’ book I was whirling, am still whirling, and that was the energy I carried with me as I read Go Set A Watchman.
Lee’s book also attempts to blend the personal, historical, and political but asks us instead to feel tolerant of and to understand racism through some pretty disparaging and derogatory ideas about people of color. Go Set a Watchman is all about the permanence of race not its illusion. It offers a superficial vision and “privileged” understanding of a system built to institutionalize and fully entrench and even justify “racial” bias. To Kill a Mockingbird at least pays lip service to justice and equanimity. Go Set a Watchman does not.
Coates asks the reader to face difficult truths about personal complicity in the biased systems of justice and economics we have all helped to create and support and how these systems play out quite literally on the bodies of people of color. With the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Tamir Rice (and we can now add Sandra Bland to the interminable list) many at the hands of law enforcement and their killers exonerated by our justice system, the fact that a tired and insulting understanding of race and racism as expressed in Lee’s book, situated in the philosophy of states rights and which advises us to take our time toward creating equity for all, seems so unthinkable— even if Go Set a Watchman was written by an important author of an alleged classic piece of literature. Near the end of Lee’s book while discussing progress for the rights of people of color, Jean Louise’s Uncle John says to her (finally convincing her to stay in Maycomb), “…we need more of you.” “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me anymore…” “I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.” Seems like the system we’ve perverted would be most pleased with that snail-like approach. The system has thrived on that lack of energy and insight since Reconstruction.
Perhaps it is totally unfair to have read these books back to back. I couldn’t help but compare them. They were written some 55 years apart by two very different authors who lived in two very different eras. Coates’ words take us beyond the usual discussion of race. His words are not easy and chasten us to be smart in our understanding of a complex and essentially rigged system, a system so distorted, ingrained, and deep-rooted that we ourselves, seemingly unknowingly, are part of its machinations. His book, as Toni Morrison declares on the book jacket, should be required reading. And while Go Set a Watchman should be available for researchers and literary sleuths, Lee’s first draft should have stayed in the drawer in which it was found.