America's racial moment of truth

For as long as many Americans have been alive, the Confederate flag stood watch at the South Carolina capitol, and Atticus Finch, moral guardian-father-redeemer, was arguably the most beloved hero in American literature.

The two symbols took their places in our culture within months of each other. The flag was hoisted above the capitol dome in April 1961, on the centennial of the Civil War during upheavals over civil rights. Atticus Finch debuted in July 1960 in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel that British librarians would later declare the one book, even before the Bible, that everyone should read.

Given life by Gregory Peck in the 1962 Oscar-winning film, Atticus Finch would go on to be named the top movie hero of the 20th century.

Nearly at once, both icons have fallen from grace in ways that were unimaginable just months ago. They are forcing a reckoning with ourselves and our history, a reassessment of who we were and of what we might become.

Atticus Finch was given life by Gregory Peck (left) in the 1962 Oscar-winning film, in which Brock Peters (right) played Tom Robinson.
Atticus Finch was given life by Gregory Peck (left) in the 1962 Oscar-winning film, in which Brock Peters (right) played Tom Robinson.

The flag was lowered and placed in storage on July 10 after the South Carolina Legislature voted to take it down in response to the massacre of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

The following Tuesday, as if receiving a message from the gods of history, the world was introduced to a new Atticus Finch with the publication of Go Set A Watchman, a young Harper Lee's earlier manuscript, set 20 years after the fictional events in To Kill A Mockingbird, making it as much artefact as literature.

Rather than the Atticus who urges his daughter, Scout, to climb into someone's skin to understand him, this Atticus is now an old-line segregationist, a principled bigot who has been to a Ku Klux Klan meeting and asks his now-grown daughter visiting from New York City: "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?"

It seems as if the force of history has led us to this moment, stirred as we have been by the recorded killings of unarmed black people at the hands of the police, the uprisings and hashtags, a diatribe of white supremacy from the young man accused in the Charleston rampage and a former slave ship captain's Amazing Grace sung by a sitting President.

History is asking us to confront the wistfulness that we had ever escaped racism's deep roots.

"It is building up to a crisis for those who want to will this away," the historian Taylor Branch told me. "Things are starting to shake loose, and I keep thinking that things are rumbling to the surface," he said.

Coming to terms with Atticus Finch as Harper Lee originally imagined him to be means confronting what the country wishes to believe it stands for.

"It's being sent to us as a gift," the South Carolina poet Nikky Finney said. "It's a blueprint to decode, something that we need to be better than we are."

The importance of this new Atticus is that he is layered and complex in his prejudices; he might even be described as a gentleman bigot, well-meaning in his supremacy. In other words, he is human, and in line with emerging research into how racial bias has evolved in our society.

He is a character study in the seeming contradiction that compassion and bigotry can not only reside in the same person but often do, which is what makes racial bias, as it has mutated through the generations, so hard to address.

"This complex pattern of behaviour is not unlike the actual racism that resides in many Americans today," Harvard sociologist David Williams, who studies the effects of implicit bias on health, said of the new characterisation of Atticus Finch.

"As an American raised in this society with negative implicit biases against black people, you are not a bad person. You are simply a normal American. We have to come to grips with the reality that this racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that it shapes how we see the world, it shapes our beliefs, our behaviour, our actions towards members of other groups.

"We have to examine ourselves in a profound way."

Exactly 150 years ago, the country was at the start of a post-civil war reconstruction, a time of reassessment with hopes that those who had been enslaved would have a chance at equality in the country they had helped build for free. Reconstruction lasted little more than a decade, and a more insidious form of subjugation, the Jim Crow caste system, set in motion a century of hardship and divisions from which we have yet to recover.

With the lowering of the Confederate flag in the state that was the first to secede and where the first shots were fired, could we now be at the start of a true and more meaningful reconstruction?

It would require courage to relinquish the false comfort of embedded racial mythologies and open our minds to a more complete history of how we got here. It would require a generosity of spirit to see ourselves in the continued suffering of a people stigmatised since their arrival on these shores and to recognise how the unspoken hierarchies we have inherited play out in the current day and hold us back as a country.

The day after the flag went down in South Carolina, an editorial in The Richmond Times-Dispatch made the stunning declaration that it was finally time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that Virginia should take the lead.

"Accounting has not occurred," the paper wrote, "the half remains untold." This is precisely what history demands and what this moment requires. Perhaps a new reconstruction could truly take hold and inspire the rest of the country if it sprang from the region that resisted it in the first place.

Beyond the South, could the unmasking of the nation's mythical conscience, Atticus Finch, wake us up to the truth of who we have been all along, help us come to grips with an America that never was?

We have needed so badly to get past the guilt and embrace what is true - and to find strength in that discovery.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'America's racial moment of truth'. Print Edition | Subscribe