When the New York Times printed a short profile of Michael Brown just as mourners were preparing to lay him to rest, the editors probably thought readers would appreciate it as a humane complement to the political stew still boiling in Ferguson, Missouri. They didn’t. Journalists and bloggers denounced it. The story rendered Brown as a compound of teen raunchiness and tenderness, and judged him “no angel.” None of the details was surprising, but that particular phrase incensed commentators. The BBC reported that the words had “stirred up a media frenzy,” while the Columbia Journalism Review stated that it “has been the subject of the greatest outrage and ridicule.” A Twitter hashtag was created, #NoAngel, and it drew three thousand mentions in a single day.
Critics pressed the reasonable point that perfectionist moral language was inappropriate to the jumbled world of adolescence, and they reviled any attempt to make the investigation a trial of the youth’s character instead of a search for the facts.
But if you reread the Times article, a piecemeal portrait that gives family the dominant voice, the reaction looks disproportionate. A throwaway cliché shouldn’t evoke so much ire. It may have been obtuse to repeat it and tactless to do so in the midst of others’ grief, but the indignation was overdone. Clearly something more was going on, a deeper factor in U.S. race relations that seems to arise whenever the authorities seize a black man whose guilt subsequently appears uncertain.
What may be the most widely read novel in all of American literary history reveals it well. I mean To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s sensitive tale of Scout Finch, a little girl in a 1930s Alabama town wracked by the Depression and Jim Crow. For eighty-eight weeks, it stayed on the bestseller list, and it has accumulated 30 million (!) unit sales since its publication in 1960, helped by the beloved 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, who won the Academy Award for best actor. Not only that, but the novel enjoys rare canonical status in schools. A 1991 study of reading assignments in high-school English classes rated it the fifth most frequently assigned full-length work, while a fall 2010 survey placed it second (behind Romeo and Juliet).
The dramatic center of the plot is the tense trial of Tom Robinson, a twenty-five-year-old black cotton-picker, for raping Mayella Ewell, nineteen years old and white. Needless to say, at the time, a charge of black-on-white sexual violation inflamed the deepest racist anger and fear, testing a community’s lawfulness and its willingness to judge a case on the evidence itself. Mayella is “white trash,” and Tom has no criminal past save for a scuffle with another black man, but that doesn’t matter in a society that abhors miscegenation.
Scout’s father, Atticus, has been assigned to defend Tom, and he takes his role seriously enough to stand watch at the jail at night to keep lynchers at bay. In the trial, overt disproof comes out in the opening minutes. Mayella’s injuriesa blackened right eye, finger marks on both sides of her neckindicate a left-handed attacker, but Tom’s left arm is a useless stump mangled by a cotton gin when he was a boy. Furthermore, Mayella’s father is left-handed, and it soon becomes clear that he had beaten her after spying her grab and kiss Tom, who, frightened by her advances, fled immediately. Nevertheless, the jury convicts Tom, and he is shot while in custody a few weeks later.
It is all so wrong and disgusting, yet it has a satisfying moral truth. If it didn’t, the novel would not be so revered. Tom’s fate is an abomination, but it performs a service. In 1960 and today, readers were and are acutely conscious of black suffering in American history, and the trial encapsulates the injustice. Within the novel, they recognize Tom’s humanity and the inhumanity of the courtroom and jury. This allows them to come to terms with disturbing realities outside the novel, such as dogs and fire hoses aimed at civil-rights protesters and displayed on the nightly news. To Kill a Mockingbird provides them with sharp moral clarity about hideous social conditions.
But there is a problem, and it bears directly on the Times’s characterization of Michael Brown as “no angel.” Tom Robinson, you see, is an angel. A white woman has accused him of rape, threatening his life and robbing his three small children of a father, but Tom betrays not the slightest resentment. She wants him in bed, but the very idea of any sexual response on his part is unthinkable, and Lee never suggests that Tom is faking in order to please the jury. In fact, Tom pities Mayella’s hard and lonely life. For weeks he has helped her around the house and taken no pay. Everything about him is benign and honest and chaste.
The portrait is too good to be true. No matter how sympathetic, Tom is a flat and contrived figure. He is Harper Lee’s instrument through which moral instruction in race and justice works. But the drama is artificial: a transcendence of white guilt and American wrongs through the sacrifice of an unfallen black soul. Tom is too pure. It’s as if Lee and her millions of readers needed a victim wholly free of venality in order to reach a rightful attitude toward the racial past and present. We are left with no ambiguity, no human complication, as we would have if Tom had had a sexual response to Mayella or had worked for her only as a way to feed his kids. That would have produced a genuine moral drama with a real man in the dock, not this easy allegory of bigotry versus innocence. We would have been forced to draw the harder but more instructive conclusion that justice must protect even imperfect fellow men, and that Tom is innocent of the crime even if he has impure thoughts. The first answer to racism, which casts young African-American men as depraved, is not Lee’s purist contrary but a common acceptance of original sin.
If we could classify Michael Brown as an angel, outrage over his killing would enjoy an almost sacred confidence that a grave and historical injustice was done. But this is real life, populated by mixed moral beings, and it requires a patient, objective review of the facts of that August day.
The enduring admiration for To Kill a Mockingbird, along with the response to the Times profile, shows how hard it still is to be objective when racial conflict reaches life-and-limb stakes. Critics of the Times were right to warn against those polar options, but they refused to see that it had tried precisely to avoid them. The story aimed to deepen and individualize Brown, whose identity had been pictured mainly by the store camera that showed him strong-arming the store managerbut they still objected, divining bias and condescension in the effort to be compassionate yet judicious.
We have too many voices in the public sphere that move too quickly to Harper Lee’s moral black and white. They trade in sentimental versions of human beings, in villains and victims. It is certainly so when young black males are the focus. More than fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, we still have difficulty seeing them as what they arehuman beings in all their complexity. In a case such as the one in Ferguson, this disposition is poisonous. Until the facts are determined, the affair is precisely a factual matter, not a moral one. Let us not judge Michael Brown or Darren Wilson by the content of their character, or by the color of their skin, but by what they actually did on that road at 12:01 p.m.