Slaves were the ghost in the machine of kinship.
--Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother
Leave the slaves out of it for a while.
--Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Christina Sharpe (2016) offered an important, if unsurprising, observation:Many white people are struggling to figure out if they should speak and what they might say to their white kin now, in this moment. (Kin here means, all of those recognized by the self--in some fundamental, indelible way--as being like the self.) They are wondering if they should be silent or if they should broach the election with their intimates, with the people who are closest to them and who occupy different points of view, who voted differently, who apprehend the world in ways they self-report as deeply antithetical or inimical to their own.
In describing the dilemma of self-identifying white progressives upset by their friends and relatives who voted for Donald Trump, Sharpe's words speak also to the confusion Jean Louise Finch experiences in Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman (2015). Faced with a series of dizzying revelations about the racist attitudes of her kin, she thinks,
My aunt is a hostile stranger, my Calpurnia won't have anything to do with me, Hank is insane, and Atticus--something's wrong with me, it's something about me. It has to be because all these people cannot have changed. Why doesn't their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? (GSW 167)
Jean Louise's revulsion prefigures the resounding defeat of Obama-era racial optimism in the United States, as in both Lee's 2015 novel and the aftermath of the 2016 election, confronted with the reality of racial power, white people experienced deep alienation. For both Sharpe and Lee, this is a crisis provoked not by real changes in the world but, rather, by changes in individual consciousness: white liberals are struck with a reality many had not before addressed directly.
Calling for her white readers to "lose [their] kin," Sharpe insists that "white people must refuse reconciliation to ongoing brutality; they must rend the fabric of the kinship narrative" (2016), a framing of kinship as a racial narrative that illuminates an important aspect of Go Set a Watchman: as it thinks about race by means of a narrative about family, in Lee's text Jean Louise's reconciliation with her kin appears not as a morally neutral inevitability but as a political choice. With that choice, she concedes to a process of racialization that, as Saidiya Hartman (2007: 6) shows, traces to the "racial calculus and political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago" through a system of chattel slavery that, as Sharpe (2016) puts it, "made kin in one direction, and in the other, property that could be passed between and among those kin." By displacing the systems of power and domination that produce race into the language of the family,...