Written by Jessica Tam
In our 2007 Texas Super Lawyers Magazine, antitrust attorney Allan Van Fleet added his name to the list of lawyers who became lawyers because of the example of Atticus Finch.
“I know it’s a cliché,” he said back then, “but I wanted to become a lawyer after I read To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Now that Go Set a Watchman has been published, in which Atticus, 20 years later, espouses segregationist views and attends a Klan rally, how does Van Fleet feel about his inspirational hero?
He has a unique take.
“I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman but have seen some of the headlines. … Just taking it at absolute face value that Atticus, at the time he was in To Kill a Mockingbird, was a racist underneath it all, I’m going to put it out there that in some ways that makes him more heroic.
“If he was just innately a good person and he stood up and did what he knew was right, there it was; there are great people in the world who do things like that. But if there was … prejudice in his heart, then in some ways he’s more heroic to overcome that.”
Van Fleet is in rural Kenya for the summer, teaching high school history and government at the Makhanga Hope Academy-which was built thanks to funds raised through his nonprofit, African Angels.
“I am the only white person for miles,” he writes via email. “I am a curiosity to most kids in the high school and especially the primary school, where I am in the first grade to learn Swahili.” He recalls a geography student asking him during a field trip, “‘Mr. Allan, do you know how to use a shovel?’ After the laughs and what not, she said, ‘You know, we all think that white men don’t know anything about manual labor. You all work in offices.’ So there are assumptions everywhere. And I think the thing is to recognize it and rise above it.”
He adds, “I think all of us, at one level or the other, are racist in the sense that we make distinctions and we see distinctions in people that are based on race. And we make presumptions and assumptions and judgments about people based on race, on location, on gender, on sexual orientation, and what have you. And the key, I think, is for us to frankly recognize that those tendencies can be inside of us and yet rise above them. I suggest Atticus did.
“The other thing I think is especially important-if Atticus is indeed a racist at the time of To Kill a Mockingbird-is that he taught a very different message to his children. … One can teach one’s children to think and act differently from one’s own generation.”
Van Fleet’s history and government students after a debate on pressing issues in Kenya. They dubbed him Speaker of their House of Students, Sir Allan Van Fleet.