Our Racial Moment of Truth

Isabel Wilkerson in The New York Times:

RaceFOR 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.

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 A.M.E. 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 artifact 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 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 theaters? Do you want them in our world?” It has seemed 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, 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.

More here.