to kill the white gaze
By Myles E. Johnson
May 17, 2019
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has been a part of the American literary canon my entire life: it was literature that I was to absorb and compare all things I read or wrote myself, to. The standard. The expectation. It wasn’t until later in life that I reckoned with how much seeing Lee’s literary offering as the pinnacle of written greatness shaped how I prioritize my own voice, thought and perspective.
Recently, playwright/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin resurrected Lee’s American classic for the stage. With added scenes that attempt to better contextualize the Black characters in the book, the play promises to be an update. But is that even possible? Is it possible for a white person to take a work by a white author about white people, their feelings and gazes on Black people, and update it so that it doesn’t still express the feelings of white superiority?
I watched a conversation with Aaron Sorkin — along with actors Jeff Daniels, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Gbenga Akinnagbe — that was moderated by activist/writer DeRay Mckesson. In the talk, the questions I had were promptly answered by Sorkin’s responses to Mckesson’s pushback on the popular critiques of Mockingbird. Namely that it centers white people’s feelings; that Tom was a flat character who only existed to elevate the consciousness and enrich the lives of the white people he interacted with; and that, inherently, the book as written — classic or not — can’t be unseen as a text of white supremacy. Not in the way that white supremacy is flattened and sensationalized with only white hoods and burning crosses, but as something more casual and subtle — perhaps, even well-meaning.
It was Toni Morrison’s critique of the ‘white gaze’ that initially began my own deconstruction of what I’ve learned about the material I consumed, including literature. Paraphrasing Morrison, she says that most literature — produced by both Black people and white people — is made with a white reader in mind. Because of this, the material created serves to explain and contextualize the white experience; while using Black experiences and personalities as a way to assist white characters’ growth — without much else to offer about the Black character’s life.
When pushed by Mckesson, on the perspective of the story, Sorkin’s response was, “There’s no question that there were other roads to go down with this story in which Scout and Atticus were secondary characters and we go home with Tom, we meet the wife and the kids, we understand Tom’s life.” This response was just after Sorkin quite seriously asked if he’s not allowed to write characters who weren’t white when pushed about the problematic point of view of the play.
Deray Mckesson responded, “It’s not that white people can’t write stories about people of color. That’d be an absurd thing to say. It is about recognizing what does it mean that we so often tell stories about people of color that centers white perspectives.”
The short exchange highlighted the real problematic portion of the revival of To Kill A Mockingbird: There’s no way to retell the story without it assisting the white supremacist creative function that Toni Morrison named as the white gaze.
In all of its iterations, the Mockingbird story is fundamentally an act of centering and prioritizing whiteness, and having Blackness in the role of assisting the expansion of white morality. It serves the same thing that makes white culture love a dead Martin Luther King Jr., and find him more useful for a white liberal project in death than life: because in death, he is able to be flattened as a magical negro exclusively designed to open the hearts and be the moral compass of a white America. In life, you had to battle with the idea that he was not designed to be the moral compass or the righteous voice to white America — this was simply what being forced into a violent white supremacist structure pulled him to do.
During Sorkin’s exchange with Mckesson, he goes on to say that someone should write To Kill A Mockingbird from another perspective — as if that would change the problem in question.
The issue is that a story about Tom will not be marketable, would not be approved by the Harper Lee estate, and will not accumulate as much as a project that centers white people. It’s not about generating more pro-Black or Black-centered content, as much as it is about also halting content that perpetuates white supremacist ideas which have suffocated Black creativity and perspective. It’s about understanding that the texts in the American literary canon aren’t always great, just extensive; and that everything once considered great, should not be dusted off, updated, and resold.
Some things that were good were also painful, and To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the works that feels better dead than revived.
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