Melissa Harris-Perry addressed many prominent social issues during her keynote speech for Andover’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on this Monday’s All School Meeting. Although much of her speech dealt with necessary topics, her choice to scold Obama for quoting fictional character Atticus Finch in his farewell address was misplaced. But on a larger scale, this comment is indicative of a growing notion that ideas must be qualified by the identities they come from.
Last Tuesday night, Obama said, “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.’ ” Obama suggested that before we wholly commit ourselves to partisan viewpoints, we must first consider the positions of the other side, engage in meaningful conversations, and truly practice empathy with our fellow Americans. Instead of focusing on the universal message and application of this quote, Harris-Perry ignored both, and instead emphasized both the fictionality of Mr. Finch as well as his maleness and whiteness. In short, she claimed that Obama made a poor choice in addressing issues of racial discrimination in America by quoting a fictional white man.
Although Atticus Finch indeed never existed, Harper Lee was able to use Finch as a means of depicting all that we consider just and honorable in a person, packaged up in an accessible story for all ages. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the most commonly read schoolbooks in the nation, and thus, it is reasonable to assume that most Americans are familiar with the book and its characters, simply due to its prevalence in American English classes. By referring to a figure such as Finch — one who is known and respected across boundaries of race, class, gender, and politics — Obama was able to include all Americans in his farewell address. Had he referred to a lesser-known civil rights leader like Harris-Perry suggested, Obama would have excluded all but those who were well-versed in the Civil Rights Movement, and altered what was otherwise a message of empathy and perspective. Also, by referring to a character limited to 281 pages, Obama minimized the potential extreme interpretations of his words, leaving little room to criticize the quoted person’s past, actions, and values. Although a sequel published in 2015 painted Atticus Finch controversially, its recent release date and resulting lack of pervasiveness generally leads to a moot point regarding the limits of Atticus’ character.
Regardless of the reason Obama chose to employ it in his farewell address, it is indisputable that the quote itself is objectively good. During times of division, such empathy is needed more than ever. But Harris-Perry implied that Atticus Finch’s whiteness and maleness somehow detracted from the meaning of his words. Her assertions are part of a growing trend of highlighting one’s identity alongside their respective ideas. Although it is important to consider a person’s identity to better understand their perspective, it is dangerous to value someone’s ideas as inherently more or less valid simply because of their appearance or race. We know that minority voices are undoubtedly essential when discussing issues that inherently relate to them, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and more. Non-minority voices supporting these causes, however, cannot be illegitimized simply because they come from potentially different experiences. As Americans, we all have unique perspectives that come together to foster lively debate about current issues. Losing this luxury would be taking an enormous step backwards in both the progress of these issues and the state of American society as a whole.
Instead of focusing on the race and gender attached to Atticus Finch, we should instead consider the powerful message Obama conveyed through the fictional character’s words. Personally, I think everyone could benefit from some empathy, especially during these turbulent times.