Reuters: Scout, Jean Louise, and white women in the world of Harper Lee

Reuters: Scout, Jean Louise, and white women in the world of Harper Lee

My latest at Reuters is about Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set A Watchman, and about what the book can teach us about white womanhood and racism:

Released not even a month after a white supremacist entered a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and declared, before opening fire and killing nine black people, “You rape our women,” Go Set A Watchman is also remarkably — depressingly — timely.

When Dylann Roof’s words were reported, my mind flew to the fictional Maycomb, Alabama, where Scout Finch grows up, and where, in Mockingbird, she watches as her father tries and fails to defend a black man who is framed and sentenced for the rape of a white woman. The woman in question, Mayella Ewell, has led a life of poverty and sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and she’s to be pitied, Atticus tells the jury in his closing arguments. But not to the extent of killing an innocent man, Tom Robinson, to protect her reputation. “I’m in favor of Southern womanhood as much as anybody,” Atticus has told his sister, “but not for preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life.”

The polite fiction is that white women feel no sexual desire toward black men, and that white men never molest their daughters. That proper women in Maycomb are, in the words of the anti-segregation speaker who addresses the local Citizen’s Council meeting in Watchman, “fresh white Southern virgins” in need of protection — violent protection, if need be — from black men by white men. In the antebellum South, during Reconstruction, and under Jim Crow, the polite fiction was used to justify the murder of black men and the terrorizing of black communities. It was believed by white men, and deployed by white women: at the end of the rape trial in Mockingbird, Scout realizes that “Tom Robinson was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.”

You can read the whole thing here.