Two highly-acclaimed American authors, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and Pulitzer Prize-winner Harper Lee, are both positioned to influence current conversations on race and multiculturalism with the scheduled release of new novels this year. Morrison’s God Help the Child is scheduled for release in April, and Lee’s Go Set a Watchman comes out in July.
Both authors have strong reputations for employing literature to confront the complexities of race relations in America, and for articulating how interracial interactions have at times defined the human condition as experienced by citizens of the United States. Their literary testimonies have alternately proven very painful and mesmerizingly beautiful.
Both may now also claim the regal distinction of being described as octogenarians. Morrison’s birthday is on February 18 and Harper Lee’s April 28. What each author has to share at this pivotal point in American history could go a long way toward helping provide Millennials––whether Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, or biracial–– with a framework for discussing such current racially-charged issues as restricted voting rights, chronic unemployment and underemployment among “minorities,” and mass incarceration under the guise of the “New Jim Crow.”
The Second Coming of Harper Lee
Lee’s classic first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was initially published on July 11, 1960, roughly five months after a small group of African-American students on February 1 staged their historic sit-in at a Woolworth Store lunch counter to protest the facility’s racial segregation policy, and three years before Martin Luther King Jr. would lead the great March on Washington, D.C. As a White American woman writing in Alabama during one of the most socially volatile periods in American history, it took considerable courage for Lee to publish the following lines, as spoken by her protagonist Atticus Finch, in the novel:
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” (Harper Lee, from To Kill a Mockingbird)
The author initially chose not to publish another novel following the phenomenal success of To Kill a Mockingbird, still highly-regarded as one of the most influential books in the canon of American literature. But it turned out that Mockingbird was actually written after another novel that is now the subject of much literary debate.
The re-discovery of Go Set a Watchman has allowed the author to reverse her earlier decision not to publish another novel during her lifetime. That decision, she often stated, was one was based largely on fear that a second book would fail to match the spectacular success of Mockingbird.
Despite controversies surrounding the publication of Lee’s new novel, it is reportedly set in the American South of the 1950s, grapples with some of the same issues surrounding justice and political ethics as To Kill a Mockingbird, and features several of the main characters. That observation indicates strongly it will provide serious points for Millennials to reflect upon, largely because it may very well help deepen their understanding of the different elements at stake in current civil rights conflicts.
If the title of the new book sounds awkward to some people’s ears, it may be because it utilizes the King James vocabulary and syntax of Biblical scripture:
“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” (Isaiah 21:6)
Serious authors do not choose the titles of their books lightly. The selection of this particular title implies that Lee believed, or believes, her novel communicates a significant moral vision. If the words of Isaiah lend a prophetic urgency to that revelation, the year 2015 is possibly the perfect time for its communication.
NEXT: Iconic Authors’ New Works May Influence Millennials’ Dialogues on RacePart 2