Monday, July 13, 2015

* Fallen Fathers: Atticus and Heathcliff

Fallen Fathers
Paul Keane

In one week, America has had two of its sainted fathers---one white, one black, destroyed by their very creators: novelist Harper Lee and actor Bill Cosby.

Lee has turned her fictional white paragon of fatherhood and racial fairnesss, 52-year-old lawyer Atticus Finch (remember Gregory Peck?) , into a 72-year-old rheumatic Atticus , who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, complains about NAACP lawyers and bad mouths integration.  Or so the New York Times reviewer with early access to Ms. Lee’s long awaited novel, Go Set a Watchman, tells us.

The same week that the Times reviewed  the novel Watchman, Bill Cosby,  the actor, who created America’s most beloved black father, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, on The Bill Cosby Show,  destroyed his own creation by admitting under oath that he purchased qualudes decades ago to give to women from whom he sought sexual favors, as a way of making them less resistant.  Over forty women have claimed they were victims of Cosby’s ruse.

Some say this admission makes him a serial rapist, a far worse offense than the transformation of  white Atticus Finch from a noble defense attorney for a falsely accused black rapist in the 1930’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, into a unpleasant segregationist twenty years later in Watchman of 1957. Atticus of 1957 merely troubles the heart of his now 26 year old daughter Scout. Cosby has troubled our nation and manhood itself.

 Oprah,  called To Kill a Mockingbird “our national novel”, but now its predecessor Go Set a Watchman may turn out to be our national nightmare: Bogey men, it turns out,  can invade even the soul of an Atticus Finch  when twenty years of national NAACP lobbying threatens small town Southern life. We knew such invasions were going on around us but chose to believe in a fantasy white father, the Atticus of Mockingbird, a male ideal—and a white one at that ---  Oprah’s idealized hope for  the world.

After all, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan as was longtime Senate majority leader, Robert Byrd.  The Mockingbird Atticus may have been a pure hearted lawyer, but that was in  1937 ten years before a president would have the courage to integrate the armed forces. All that time the soul of the Atticus of 1957 Watchman was being corrupted by racist ideation.  Or so we are left to conclude from the New York Times’ preview of Lee’s novel.

 In reality however, isn’t  racism  in everyone’s heart, maybe even Oprah’s?  Even Abraham Lincoln contemplated sending slaves to another country rather than emancipating them.  And we want to think Thomas Jefferson had affection for his slave Sally Hemmings in the 18th century,  with whom he fathered several children after his wife died; but when a boss initiates an affair with an employee in 2015, we call that sexual harassment, especially if the boss is a United States president.  Ask Bill Clinton.

And add the race ingredient of Hemmings being African American, and a slave ---not an employee—and you have a situation similar to Cosby’s. Instead of qualudes overcoming  sexual resistance  you have the intoxication of  power doing so. Some old fashioned romantics would  call that love.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there were pure hearts without racism in the past : William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example.  But they lived in the 1830’s before we institutionalized racism as a national policy and then rehearsed it for 100 years with separate but equal scenarios in the  armed forces, restaurants, schools, buses and bathrooms, pretending all the while that treating others as if they were contaminated was a just and right thing to do.  It is that 100 years which weighs on us, slowly corrupting even an Atticus.

Yes racism can invade even the pure and noble heart of a great  white father, and the Atticus of Mockingbird, the Atticus portrayed by Gregory Peck, was great, and white, and a father.  That is what Harper Lee’s new---first ---novel  Watchman may tell us:  Even the great father can be corrupted.

But before our own era of Jim Crow segregation, the 100 years  of plantation owners having their way with women slaves, cannot exonerate or mitigate the behavior of Bill Cosby.  His fall from grace is not merely on the printed pages of a long hidden text.   It is printed on the hearts of all of us who wanted to believe in a great black father, one who came into our living rooms on a television screen every week for years.  We found instead the dark heart of another twisted male huckster.

 It is the female, Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, Atticus’s daughter, age 26 in Watchman but only 6 in Mockingbird,  who raises the same question about her beloved white father which society asks of Bill Cosby, creator of the America’s most beloved black father: How could he do this?

The answer is in the pronoun.

Maleness has come to represent something troubling in our world from fraternities to the halls of Congress,  to statehouses.

A corrupted Atticus Finch and a corrupted Bill Cosby are not that far apart: Fathers fallen from the hearts of those who wanted to love them, on the printed page and the flickering screen. Fallen because they live not in Oprah’s ideal world of hope, but in the real world of broken males.


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