Summary and Analysis
Alexandra chides Jean Louise for going to visit Calpurnia, saying that no one in Maycomb goes to see black people anymore. She blames the racial tension on the NAACP, which she says has undone all the progress white folks have made in “civilizing” black folks. Jean Louise wonders whether everyone in her hometown has changed into a racist or whether it is she who has changed.
Jean Louise attends the Coffee held in her honor, where well-dressed women sit around talking about lives that hold no interest for Jean Louise. She overhears some women talking about the trial of Calpurnia’s grandson and that they haven’t had a “good nigger trial” in Maycomb in ten years. The women laugh about the stupidity of blacks; Jean Louise decides she must be losing her sense of humor.
When a woman named Hester starts prophesying an uprising of blacks, Jean Louise contradicts her. Hester believes in a conspiracy by blacks and Communists to intermarry blacks and whites until no more racial distinctions exist. The women ask Jean Louise how it is living in New York, where there are blacks all around her. Jean Louise says she doesn’t notice it, and the women say she must be blind.
The Coffee provides Jean Louise with an opportunity, in the wake of her revelations about the citizens’ council, to discover just how inescapable the racist attitudes in Maycomb really are. Hearing women who think of themselves as civilized and unbigoted speak about blacks with such disdain makes Jean Louise feel more than ever that Maycomb has changed since her childhood. For much of the chapter, she retreats into internal dialogue, listening to what the women say and responding only in her own mind. When she does finally speak to argue with Hester, nothing she says has any effect.
Jean Louise wrestles to understand whether her childhood home has always been as racist as she now perceives it to be, and she also struggles to understand what constitutes racism. If racism is an attitude of open disdain for another race, then today is the first day Jean Louise has ever noticed such obvious racism in Maycomb. If, however, entire social structures can be built in a way that disadvantages certain races, then Jean Louise’s society has always borne the trappings of racism. Jean Louise remembers her childhood attitude toward blacks: “They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one.”
When Jean Louise tells the women at the Coffee that she doesn’t notice blacks around her in New York, they call her blind, revisiting the theme of Jean Louise’s color-blindness. This color-blindness has made her equally blind, it seems, to the racist attitudes that lie beneath the veneer of Maycomb civility. Realizing that racism has surrounded her for her entire life without her noticing it, Jean Louise recalls Mr. Stone’s sermon about the watchman and thinks to herself that she needs a watchman to help her see the social realities that she has been blind to. As Jean Louise now interprets it, the call to “go set a watchman” is a call to become more aware of the ways that society has pulled her unknowingly into patterns of systemic racism.