Is it still okay to quote Atticus Finch even though he turned out to be a racist?
Barack Obama says yes. He did it in his farewell address, a thoughtful speech by the first black president, who will hand over the White House in ten days to Donald Trump, who as a candidate excited white nationalists.
When Obama pointed out that ten-day timeline, drawing boos from the audience, he argued it is a “hallmark of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected president to the next.”
That’s as difficult for some Democrats and Obama supporters to stomach as the news that Finch was not always to be the near-perfect father and role model of the classic novel.
It was after talking about the need to protect anti-discrimination laws that he mentioned Finch, the fallen hero of Harper Lee’s classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who turned into a crotchety old racist of 2015’s “Go Set a Watchman.” That book was billed as a sequel, but turned out to be a first draft. It depicts Finch having attended KKK meetings and saying to his daughter, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
'Last Days of the Obama White House'
Obama did not mention the sequel, but did cite Finch in his speech when he sought to get Americans of all stripes to see the world from each other’s perspective.
“If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “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.”
He told blacks to learn the struggles of other minority groups and whites to acknowledge the stain of this country’s earlier generations are not gone.
When minority groups “voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised,” he said.
But as they swallow the bitter pill of a Trump presidency, long after that promise to bring hope and change that put him in that White House has been abandoned for stony-eyed practicality, Obama seemed to be encouraging the supporters who gathered to hear him say “goodbye,” in Chicago to hang on and join the fight.
“Show up, dive in, stay at it,” he said, arguing that “Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.”