Illustration by Regine De Mesa.
Go Set a Watchman is not To Kill a Mockingbird. While Mockingbird pulled at the heart, Watchman reaches for our brains as it looks at the nature of prejudice, the Southern identity, and the push-pull of generational differences. Not every reader will find Watchman’s themes compelling, but those who are interested enough to read it through might be surprised to note how relevant it feels despite being written in the 1950’s. All these years later, we are still debating our parents and grandparents on issues of race and equality just like Scout confronted Atticus on his traditional views in the book.
Readers with an interest in social justice issues may find this line sticks out to them, as it did to me:
“I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.”
It is 2015, and we are still trying to make sense of the word “justice” and to understand the nuances in the arguments surrounding equity issues. African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to live in poverty and incarcerated at higher rates than white people. The line from Watchman reminds me that we need to listen to make progress. We need to be able to discern facts from emotions and keep talking. I believe that stories can help us do this.
A story like Watchman might be read alongside recent headlines about racially motivated violence and the Confederate flag. Here are a few additional titles that take readers behind the headlines:
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon is a novel with multiple narrators reacting to a shooting in their neighborhood. The facts seem simple: a young black man was shot by a white man. But we see that no two witnesses agree on what happened and everyone seems to have a bias. The truth is never as simple as the facts. This is a book that demands to be discussed, and teens looking for a complex and nuanced look at a real issue should not miss this book.
Bright Lights, Dark Nights by Stephen Emond takes on police misconduct, race issues, and privilege from the perspective of Walter, a high schooler whose father is a police officer. After Walter’s father is accused of racial profiling and a scandal breaks out, Walter, much like Scout in Watchman, has to take a hard look at the way he was raised and the man who raised him. This book is a bit of a departure for comic artist Stephen Emond. He writes in an author’s note that “Books work best as a conversation, not a monologue,” and this book certainly adds to the conversation going on in the media and in social justice circles.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez brings to life the experiences of immigrants from South and Central America with two young people at the center of the story. Arturo and Alma have moved to America from Mexico seeking more opportunities for their daughter Maribel, who has a traumatic brain injury after an accident. When Maribel meets Mayor, the two fall in love and create a rift between their families. Throughout the story, Henriquez interweaves the experiences of other immigrants that explore why they chose to come to America and the lives that they have built in their new country in a way that shows readers the reality behind the headlines about immigration.
Stories like these take us beyond the black and white of the headlines. They help us connect, listen, and engage with points of view we might not otherwise see. Perhaps Go Set a Watchman will inspire young people to have conversations with their parents or grandparents about race. Maybe one of the other stories mentioned above will create space for conversations about violence and crime in communities of color. These are conversations we need to have to move toward a more just world.