The controversy over Go Set A Watchman - Harper Lee's long anticipated yet unexpected sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird - is highly misdirected. Many readers are shocked and incensed that the hero of Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, is seemingly redrawn in the sequel to be intolerant and racist like some of his opponents. Many have threatened to boycott it or, even worse, to ignore it in relation to Mockinbird.
This smacks somewhat of an idealistic need to maintain a binary opposition between good and bad, and hero and villain. This distinction does not allow that those with repellent or unacceptable views can do good things, or that those who seek truth or justice like Atticus Finch can be racist and believe in what we would consider to be shameful things. This is highly unrealistic. Firstly, Atticus Finch is a talented lawyer. This means that his personal views would not necessarily influence his professional deeds. Secondly, Finch, like many other people of his time, might well have been racist yet at the same time believed in justice. It is perfectly possible that someone like Finch could believe that black people are inferior, however still advocate their right to fair treatment and a decent trial, and also their right not to be punished for something they have not done.
The writer Toni Morrisson critiqued Mockingbird as presenting a "white saviour narrative". This may or may not be true, however other cultural texts can be found which seem to present the solution to the racial injustice as coming from the white community: the film A Time to Kill is another example. The problem with this narrative is that it allows us to think that the racist white majority was somehow misguided but had the goodness within it to overcome its prejudice anyway, without the courageous black struggle. And this almost lets them off the hook in that it forgives or justifies the original racism and suggests it is atoned for. What I presume Harper Lee is doing in Watchman, is to show that people who do good things can also believe in bad things and do bad things too. She is showing that there is no idealistic opposition between good and bad people, and that racism cut so deep that even seemingly otherwise decent people were taken in by it. We may think a little less of Atticus Finch, but he is a real person and probably more reflective of a real person of his type in his place and era. People like him existed in that they defended the rights of black people whilst still believing they were inferior or subhuman. This was indicative of part of the problem, showing that the dominant part of society of the time did not have the resources of ethics and justice to overturn this depth of inhumanity and prejudice, and Lee is using her character to highlight this rather than creating an unrealistic, simplistic saintly hero. I look forward to reading Go Set A Watchman, and intend to take Atticus Finch as I find him, not as naive readers might wish.