Culture At Large

Go Set a Watchman and “company manners”

Jemar Tisby

"Company manners" is that set of cultural armor black people don as protection against racism. The breastplate is made of “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir.” The shield is comprised of smiles and tips of the hat. The armor goes on in the presence of a person whose trustworthiness is questionable.

In Harper Lee’s newly released novel, Go Set a Watchmanthe irrepressible Jean Louise “Scout” Finch reels after learning that her father Atticus, the moral compass of her childhood and the hero of Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is not the crusader of justice she once believed. In fact, returning to her home town of Maycomb, Ala., she finds he is a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white professional group dedicated to undermining desegregation. This is when Scout finds herself confronted with company manners.

Scout first learned about company manners early in life from Calpurnia, the African-American woman Atticus Finch had hired to help keep the house and raise his children. Reflecting on an incident from her childhood in Go Set a Watchman, Scout says, "With company came Calpurnia's company manners: although she could speak Jeff Davis's English as well as anybody, she dropped her verbs in the presence of guests." Calpurnia played down her mastery of the English language so she wouldn't make white people nervous. Conforming to the sub-standard image of black personhood that racists hold is part of putting on company manners.

Scout had never considered herself “company,” but that changes with a visit to Calpurnia’s house in Go Set a Watchman. As she conversed with her old acquaintance in her room, Scout noticed, "Calpurnia was sitting in a haughty dignity that appeared on state occasions, and with it appeared erratic grammar.  …Calpurnia was wearing her company manners.”

Where there are limits to solidarity there are also limits to intimacy.

Somehow Scout had become company to Calpurnia. She had discovered that where there are limits to solidarity there are also limits to intimacy. Calpurnia put on her company manners with Scout because the young lady was oblivious to the reality of racism. Scout didn't know she implicitly played a role in the racial hierarchy. Growing up with a lawyer as a father, having access to adequate education and moving freely about society were privileges she had just for being white. And when she finally learned the truth about Atticus and race relations in Maycomb, instead of joining the struggle for justice, her solution was to say, “I’m getting out of this place fast.” So Calpurnia strapped on the armor to protect her heart until Scout demonstrated solidarity by suffering and fighting along with black people in their plight for equality.

Thankfully, God set no limits on solidarity when he decreed the Incarnation. Putting a limit on identifying with human beings would have put a limit on the salvation He could offer. Instead, God the Son humiliates Himself by laying down His rights as Lord and putting on mortal flesh. He experiences life as a human being and all it entails. He evens suffers death on a cross. Believers have no need to put up barriers with God because He put up no barriers with us. 

Scout may yet find acceptance with Calpurnia and the rest of the African-American community in Maycomb. If she moves back home, publicly identifies herself with them and is willing to absorb the same hurts they endure, then blacks may eventually perceive her not as "company" but as “one of us.”

Christians today have the same potential. There need not be any barriers between the saints of God, no matter their skin color, if we are willing to identify with each other in our travails. But when it comes to racism in America, Christians must follow Jesus’ example and enter as deeply into the experience of the marginalized as possible. Until then, company manners will always be necessary.

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