“Good White” Characters

Last week, I wrote about the negative reaction to the revelation that Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman portrays former hero lawyer Atticus Finch as a racist segregationist. Upon further thought, I think that much of the dismay revolves around the need and desire to have “good whites” in stories about racism.

As a rule, if you want to make a work about slavery or Jim Crow that has mainstream (i.e., white) success, especially a movie, you have to have at least one sympathetic white character so white consumers don’t feel too bad about themselves. You can see this trend going back to Roots in the 1970s (the Ed Asner character, which doesn’t appear in the book version) up to the Brad Pitt character in Twelve Years a Slave. Those works that dare omit the sympathetic white character can expect to be criticized and/or ignored.

For example, there was “controversy” earlier this year when white critics claimed that the MLK biopic Selma’s unflattering portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson severely compromised the historical integrity of the film to the point of no return. Yet, other historical films take even greater liberties with the historical record (cough, Gone with the Wind, cough), and hardly get any criticism at all. The real problem with Selma is that it dares to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement from an unapologetic black perspective, and deprives white moviegoers of the “good white” character they need to feel better about themselves. It’s as if the critics expects MLK to bow before LBJ, thanking him for his benevolence. As John Lewis said of the film and the real-life Selma campaign, “Johnson is one of this country’s great presidents, but he did not direct the civil rights movement” (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-lewis-selma-movie-20150119-story.html). While LBJ helped pass the most sweeping civil rights laws in our country’s history, he wasn’t committed to racial justice as a matter of principle. Neither were the Kennedy brothers. If blacks had to sit around a wait for “enlightened whites” to bestow civil rights upon us, we’d never get them.

Given this, Atticus Finch can be seen as the “good white” character par excellence. The Atticus seen in To Kill a Mockingbird manages to redeem a town — and a region — otherwise characterized by shallowness, pious platitudes, racism, and classism. But the Atticus in Go Set a Watchman has revealed himself to be no better than the others, eager to fall back on paranoia and white supremacy. This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that if even the “good whites” in the South are Klan-curious, is such a character even possible? Obviously, there were many whites who were actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but they tended not to be “conventional” small town sorts, like Atticus. While To Kill a Mockingbird humanizes small town Southern life to an extent, Go Set a Watchman reminds the reader that the denizens of such places tended to be the biggest obstacles to ending segregation, because they had the most at stake in maintaining the Jim Crow status quo.

Thinking about Atticus Finch has led me to wonder what Margaret Mitchell would have thought about the Civil Rights Movement had she lived to see it. Like Atticus, Mitchell was considered to be a “liberal” by the standards of the time (she supposedly disliked Jim Crow and hated the fact that the black actors were barred from the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind), and even struck up a friendship with Morehouse College president Benjamin E. Mays that helped pay for the educations of young men who were to practice medicine in the South (I believe the stipulation was that they had to remain the South and help the under-served black population, since the first instinct of many professional blacks in the Jim Crow era was to leave the region ASAP). However, Mitchell was helping blacks from a paternalistic place, similar to how Atticus defended Tom Robinson, and she was unable to see how the “Lost Cause” view of history that she promoted in her book were responsible for the institutionalized discrimination that she supposedly disliked. Had she lived to see the Civil Rights Movement, Mitchell may well have retreated back into the “outside agitators are threatening our way of life” mentality that Go Set a Watchman‘s Atticus has.

I think the reason why works by whites like To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind resonate in the public’s mind in a way that, say, Jubilee by Margaret Walker or Beloved by Toni Morrison, don’t is because there is still a hesitancy to let black artists speak about their experiences on their own terms. Many people, black, white, and otherwise, still demand “good white” characters to convince themselves that things weren’t so bad back then or that mainstream society was/is basically good, despite copious evidence to the otherwise. It says a lot that some of the finest movie critics in this country went to see Selma, a major motion picture about one of the most important black Americans of the twentieth century, and the only thing they cared about was how the single white guy in the film was portrayed.