Obama’s Ingenious Mention of Atticus Finch

Obama’s Ingenious Mention of Atticus Finch
  1. Obama’s Ingenious Mention of Atticus Finch
    The president’s farewell speech evoked a flawed American icon—perhaps to remind America of the best version of its…

“If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation,” Barack Obama said in his farewell address last night, “each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch.”

He then quoted Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

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In the moment, it occurred to some viewers that Finch also provided less-palatable quotes on diversity. Like, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one civilization and have a social Arcadia?” Like, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?” Like, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

The vision of Atticus Finch that Obama referenced was the upstanding one that Americans have idolized for decades, naming their sons and bars and T-shirt companies after him. That Finch is the lawyer and father of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, who in the 1930s South defended a black man wrongly accused of rape and generally stood as a beacon of decency and tolerance.

But Finch all along has been a more complicated figure than many recognize, with one line of academic inquiry arguing him as a paternalistic figure. Seeming to confirm that reading, in 2015 Finch’s reputation took a hit with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a newly unearthed manuscript by Lee telling of Mockingbird’s characters 20 years after that novel’s events. It wasn’t a sequel but rather a draft set apparently in a different reality, with details contradicting those of Mockingbird. And in it, an adult Scout Finch returns to Maycomb County, Alabama, to find her father, now 72, has become an outspoken racist. The novel follows her struggle to reconcile what she had seen in childhood with what had become of her dad and her hometown, where the civil rights movement had inflamed white hatred.

It’s unlikely that Obama, or at least his speechwriters, didn’t know about these highly-publicized complications for Atticus Finch. But it is possible they calculated that for most Americans, the enduring image of Finch is the one set by To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, not the one from Go Set a Watchman. It’s also possible some more nuanced signaling was going on—a call for understanding with Trump supporters, and a call for the renewal of battered American ideals.

The Finch quote came during a portion of Obama’s speech devoted to how racial tension poses a threat to democracy. While many of his remarks addressed the white majority that elected Donald Trump, he also asked Americans who’ve been discriminated against to show some empathy toward many of their antagonists. “Blacks and other minorities” should be “tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face,” he said, including that of “the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.”

Go Set a Watchman told of racial progress—desegregation—met with furious, disheartening backlash.

That admonition is much the kind of rhetoric that has often frustrated Obama’s liberal critics who say that he’s been too evenhanded, too willing to engage in false equivalencies, to fully call out American racism. His speech took at least one shot at those critics: “I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, o…

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