Reflections on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

Note: This is not a review of the recently released work of Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. It is an opinion, a mere reflection of my thoughts and feelings after reading it.

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Likely in the days and weeks before the release of Go Set a Watchman you read one or more of a multitude of opinions offered on news media or the global stage we call social media. I did.

Born and raised in the South, I read with eagerness To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 as a freshman in high school. Immediately, I was enamored of this character named Atticus Finch and equally fascinated by his young daughter, Scout. Both characters emanated a layer of independence and justice. At least in my eyes.

I treasure the book we all became familiar with at some point in our lives. Those who haven’t read Mockingbird should, or at least watch the movie made of the amazing story Harper Lee brought to the page.

But was that the story she wanted to tell? Intended to tell? And does it really matter?

The day my copy of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman arrived I was anxious to read it. Once started, it didn’t take long for me to finish it with a smile on my face. I felt Harper Lee finally had the story she wanted to tell on bookshelves.

But before I settled in to read, I thought back to the time and place of Mockingbird. The time is the 1930s, the decade cloaked in the Great Depression. Poverty was rampant. Equality among the races a mere thought in most minds. Not the South I knew; I wasn’t born until 1946. But it was Scout’s world.

However, Jean Louise, now in her 20s, in Watchman and I, a high school student, were experiencing the South of the 1950s-60s. Although Jean Louise was in fictional Maycomb, AL, and I was in the reality of Nashville, TN, the noises and words that flowed through our days were similar to those you may (or may not read) in Watchman.

You see that was the South we lived in, Jean Louise and me. A South that was just beginning to feel a change welling up. Changes all would grapple with for decades.

Images below are reflections of what we saw and likely heard during the beginnings of change:

Monroeville, AL circa 1950
Monroeville, AL circa 1950

A boy with dark skin knew better than to drink from a water fountain unless it bore the sign “colored.”

Beginnings of segregation in 1960s Birmingham, AL
Birmingham, AL circa 1963

The proposal to segregate schools and other social venues sparked increased tension among both the white and black citizenry.

Imagine being unable to purchase an ice-cold Coke because of the color of your skin. Jim Crow laws were in effect in most Southern states until 1980. Signs like this one appeared frequently.

Evidence of Jim Crow laws in effect, Jackson, TN, circa 1960
Evidence of Jim Crow laws in effect, Jackson, TN, circa 1960

One more example of the oppressive actions taken by those who thought themselves above our neighbors who descended from slave stock.

My husband, son and I left Tennessee in 1983 and moved to Oregon. During the almost two years we lived in a rural community in southern Tennessee, it was not surprising on Saturday morning to pick up groceries and find yourself witness to the KKK marching down the main street.

KKK gathered at scene of 1956 bombing and cross burning at home of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Birmingham, AL
KKK gathered at scene of 1956 bombing and cross burning at home of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Birmingham, AL

Or to awake in the middle of the night and realize the bright light shining outside isn’t the moon, but a cross burning in someone’s yard or in front of a church for reasons only the perpetrators and maybe the victims knew.

In Watchman, Jean Louise, grown out of her Scout days, sees the changes taking place in her hometown. She feels anger and passionately spews hateful words. I know that anger; I know those words. I heard them in my home, on the news, and on the radio. We heard them on street corners and in hushed church sanctuaries.

I graduated from high school in 1964, before integration was implemented in my district. I left for college in September 1964 and found myself in a small town, the founding home of the KKK. And in this small town, the truth of the KKK, as well as the highest court’s rulings on segregation and integration, became clear to me. Somewhere someone had decided that because his or her skin was white it rendered them superior to others in the community. 

I experienced this mindset when I attempted to befriend an African-American classmate. We met in the college choir. One day I asked her why I couldn’t find her in the dorm.

She laughed at me. “You don’t know much, do you?” she asked me. I had no idea what she was talking about.

The truth was she couldn’t live in the dorm because of her race, nor could she who possessed the most moving of soprano voices in our choral group travel with us on our rambling red wreck of a bus. Why? “She might have to sleep in the home of a white family and that just wouldn’t do.” The school would likely lose funding.

I went home and asked my parents why they were paying tuition to a school, blessed by the Methodist Church while treating one of my classmates this way. The girl, I told them, drove 160 miles roundtrip each day to attend classes. Not fair! My mother told me to keep my place, and not to bring up the topic of race again.

That was the day I decided never again in my life would I act or speak in a bigoted manner, and never would I think myself better than another human being, nor would I ever be able to accept the prejudices my family so eagerly sought to embrace.

If you have thought you won’t read Go Set a Watchman, I encourage you to read it. It changed me in a way that allows me to accept what I have shed tears over many times–that I was born in the South and hated that South for what it did to those held in slavery for far too long.

Yes, I have accepted the old South, and I am setting a watchman for myself. I feel good about it. It has been some time since a book spoke to me with such intimacy and feeling.

But that’s not the greatest thing about Harper Lee’s new/old book. Like a gift, it has come at a special time–a time when this country and all who ask God to bless it need this book and the story it shares. 

 

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? Whether you have or not, join in a discussion of this topic, if you’re willing.

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0 thoughts on “Reflections on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

    1. Jennine, thank you for commenting on my ramblings. This book touched me not as a reviewer but as a person so much I had to write this post as a reflection and not a review. I’m so glad you understand and that you enjoyed reading Watchman too!

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