author – activist – faculty – mom
In an unusual moment in media history, two damning pieces of evidence are finally revealed, and two towering paternal icons fall from grace at the same time. The publication of Harper Lee’s scathing book Go Set a Watchman, comes just after a judge’s decision to unseal testimony of Bill Cosby confession about drugging and raping women. While one reveals racism and the other reveals sexual violence, both have incited an avalanche of commentary from apologists, deniers, nitpickers, and minimizers, as well as much hand-wringing about lost legacies and rage that our collective nostalgia should be interrupted by inconvenient reality. While Finch and his transgressions are fictional, while Cosby and his crimes are real. However, both show the same dynamics at work in protecting abusers in our Father-Knows-Best culture.
Of course, this is really about two fictional fathers. If anyone was deeply familiar with Cosby’s body of standup work outside The Cosby Show on TV, they would have heard his jokes in the 60s about drugging and raping women. The Cosby upset is really about Cliff Huxtable, the fantasy dad that brought America comfort and comic relief in the harsh 80s and 90s. He offered the fantasy of friendly, just-like-you, not-angry-about-racism (or even particularly affected by it) black people next door. The image was embraced by black people because it reflected our deepest fantasy of respectability politics. I was embraced by white people because Huxtable could be their imaginary black friend and because show let white America off the hook for the historical and current damage of racism. The fact that his alter ego Bill Cosby ranted against lower class blacks was just a bonus. As I wrote in Bitch Magazine, Huxtable the family man was the fantasy. Cosby, the alleged rapist, is the reality. In a related post, I’ve identified the Seven Stages of Bill Cosby Rape Apologists.
Atticus Finch, on the other hand, is entirely fictional. He has been immortalized for over half a century in To Kill a Mockingbird as the good white father, fighting racism. Now, with the publication of Watchman, he is revealed as a bigot. I’m struck so much by Harper Lee’s story of starting with the more morally complex Watchman and trying to get it published. Watchman, the original story, is of the daughter returning to her Alabama hometown as a young adult, only to become disillusioned with the heroic version of her father from her childhood. The editor told her to turn the flashbacks of her father’s heroism into the novel. Lee tried to tell the truth, but got sucked into being clebrated for the lie. Perhapps, like so many of us writers, she thought I’ll give the industry what it wants in order to get the first book published, then I’ll be able to write the more challenging material I really want to write. However, the Pulizer Prize for the sanitized version of Atticus Finch was the nail in the coffin of Harper Lee’s creativity. She never published again.
Only with the long overdue publication of Watchman, do we finally see Lee’s original vision. And in response we hear a cacaphony of voices insisting that Lee should have maintained the lie. Jane Ciabattari showcases many of them (along with Watchman supporters) in a great review of the reviews in LitHub. Shortly after that was published, Carolina De Robertis took a strong stand for the truth in the SF Chronicle: “We need the real, racist Atticus Finch.”
It seems hindsight vision is clearer. I notice how narratives like The Help or even Mad Men allow us to be fascinated with exploring racism or sexism from at least a generation ago. It seems as if it takes 25+ years for public opinion to shift enough that we can reflect on an era with enough consensus about what it looks like to expose or take a stand against oppression at that time. In the 1950s and 60s, the acceptable parts of Watchman were the stand against the racism of the 30s. But Lee was attempting to stand against the contemporary racism of the time in which she was writing, which struck too close to home.
What an irony. If she had never published …Mockingbird and if she were publishing Watchman for the first time now, it would probably be heralded as an amazing book, because it looks back at the racism of the 1950s. It maintains our comfortable distance. Unfortunately, our culture has built a cult of worship around the fantasy of Atticus Finch—the white man who stood up to racism. Now, we’re left to face the reality of Atticus Finch, the bigot, and witness the reality that the book actually reflects the racism of its time, via the editor who colluded with racism.
But whether it’s Finch in the 50s or Huxtable in the 80s, the fall of these two fathers had forced our country to consider the fallability of the great father. Except, of course, for the apologists, nitpickers, minimizers and deniers, who—despite all evidence—will always desperately cling to the fantasy, the illusion and the lie.