Timing is everything. Released at a different moment and perhaps Watchman might not have created such a ripple. But coming in the wake of the current spate of police violence against America's Black communities and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and suddenly Watchman is the book of the moment. As a piece of literature the best that can be said is that it is patchy. At its high points it invokes all the masterly beauty of To Kill A Mocking Bird, but towards the latter pages it becomes turgid and lecturing. Little wonder Lee's original publishers recommended she go away and rewrite the thing from a different perspective. But literary merits aside, the book disappoints politically because after some stirring words from the leading protagonist, Scout and perhaps Lee herself seem to come to a begrudging accommodation with KKK terror and racist bigotry generally. Of course, written in the mid-fifties, this accommodation is probably not that surprising. The civil rights movement had yet to reach its full maturity and in many ways Harper Lee was ahead of her times. And critically, this accommodation with bigotry gives us an insight into the deep, deep roots of American racism still so blatantly on show in American society to this very day.

 

The unpalatable truth behind the creation of the much heralded democracy of the United States is that of genocide, slavery and endemic racism. It's a truth that the descendants of European invasion and occupation have great trouble in recognising. The ever expanding prison-industrial complex, stuffed to overflowing with Afro-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans is a stark enough reminder for those that care to be reminded. That one in three Afro-American males will find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system is further testimony to America's slave owning mentality. Everywhere the statistics tell the same bleak story of a people once forced into slavery and then forced to live on the margins of respectable white society. Employment, housing, education all routinely discriminate against those of colour. And the white robes of the KKK have simply been replaced by the menacing uniforms of the city police forces. Lynching has been replaced by an unofficial shoot-to-kill policy. Just read Watchman to get a refresher of where some of this hatred emanated from. And the Atticus Finch of the Watchmannovel was not, it transpires, immune from this bigotry.

Some of America's bigots, whether in uniform or not, might do well to reflect on these lines from Lee;

The remnants of that little army (Confederate Army) had children God how they multiplied the South went through Reconstruction with only one permanent political change: there was no more slavery. The people became no less than what they were to begin with in some cases they became horrifyingly more. They were never destroyed. They were ground into the dirt and up they popped. Up popped Tobacco Road, and up popped the ugliest, most shameful aspect of it all  the breed of white man who lived in open economic competition with freed Negroes.

For years and years all that man thought he had that made him any better than his black brother was the colour of his skin. He was just as dirty, he smelled just as bad, he was just as poor. Nowadays he's got more than he ever had in his life, he has everything but breeding, he's freed himself from every stigma, but he sits nursing his hangover of hatred. P196/197

Huge swathes of white America are still nursing that hangover of hatred. In fact it is not so much a hangover as a fully-fledged, never-ending binge of hatred.

Lee's anti-racist sentiments are clear enough but I defer to Dylan' s Only A Pawn in Their Game for a sharper analysis of the Southern bigots.

 

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid

And the marshals and cops get the same

But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool

He's taught in the school

By the start by the rule

That the laws are with him

To protect his white skin

To keep up his hate

So he never thinks straight

Bout the shape that he' s in

But it ain't him to blame

He's only a pawn in their game.

 

Written fifty years ago it still rings with alarming relevancy. And the next verse is no less stinging.

 

From the poverty shacks he looks from the cracks to the tracks

And the hoofbeats pound in his brain

And he's taught how to walk in a pack

Shoot in the back

With his fist in a clinch

To hang and to lynch

To hide neath the hood

To kill with no pain

Like a dog on a chain

He ain't got no name

But it ain't him to blame

He's only a pawn in their game.

 

Of course Dylan probably could not have written such lyrics without encountering those writers that came before him, and that no doubt would have included Harper Lee. Watchman is not a must read novel but a useful one to help keep an historical perspective on the latest chapter of US race hatred.

End JPK copyright, 22/08/15

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 20 May 2018 17:25 )