Behind the Bookcase, Part 5: To Kill a Mockingbird

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” – Ch 10, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One afternoon during my senior year of high school, I stood in the girl’s basketball locker room and asked a complicated question. The setting was simple enough. Cinder-blocks painted white, with open lockers on two sides and a few black and gold paw-prints on the wall. My high school was deep in the Mississippi Delta, and the world outside that room was sharply delineated between black and white. But here, in the pursuit of a common goal, sometimes the walls could come down.

“Why don’t you come with us?” I pressed my black teammate. Another friend joined in the offer, “You and your date can be our guests. Nobody will care. You should definitely come, if you want.”

Social life in the Mississippi Delta is still almost exclusively segregated. And I wasn’t the only one who felt bad about it. Maybe we could be the ones to integrate our club? Maybe my friend could be the next Rosa Parks?

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Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird has been called (by literary scholar Joseph Crespino) “probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.” Published in 1960, the book has never gone out of print, selling over 30 million copies worldwide. The book’s Wikipedia entry states “[it] has become part of the standard literature curriculum. A 2008 survey of secondary books read by students between grades 9–12 in the U.S. indicates the novel is the most widely read book in these grades.” In 2006, it was even ranked ahead of the Bible as the number one book everyone should read by British librarians.

Make no mistake, this is part of our most sacred literature. Why?

Literary critics have pointed out, quite rightly, that the story was published at a time when racial attitudes were changing in America. The desegregation of public schools had been mandated six years before in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1955, Rosa Parks had refused to take a seat in the back of the racially divided bus, and that same year, Emmett Till had been murdered. (Many reviewers have noted the similarities in the Till case and Tom Robinson’s case in To Kill a Mockingbird. For more insight on this and other aspects of the book, see the book’s Wikipedia entry.) The book’s moral of racial equality must have seemed especially urgent to many readers for those reasons.

You might be surprised to know that some readers have not been too pleased by the depiction of Calpurnia and other African Americans. While Tom Robinson is viewed sympathetically, he and other Blacks are still quite “other.” They are viewed at a distance and some claim not portrayed as fully human. Yet however this book does or doesn’t miss the mark in that aspect, I have found it riveting (both in my childhood and now as an adult) not least because it captures so much of the sadness I feel about race in our country.

To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know if you remember the explanation of the title. I had actually forgotten what it meant. The words had come to mean something all on their own—a word picture rather than everyday common English. But listen to this quote from the book: “Mockingbirds…don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” I’m sure I couldn’t sum the title up any better than critic Edwin Bruell, “’To kill a mockingbird’ is to kill that which is innocent and harmless—like Tom Robinson.”

As a young reader, I never put words to my wrestling, but I’m sure this book helped me define what race meant—what it meant for me to be white. I didn’t understand the historical context of the original readers. I never saw Jim Crowe in practice. Never heard my parents utter a derogatory word about any other race, though I heard it from others. As a child, I grew up watching Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. And unlike most of my friends, I had close family members who were partially black. Through them, early on I learned to define race as synonymous with color—a physical distinction, but signifying nothing.

When I moved to the Mississippi Delta in junior high, however, I experienced for the first time two separate cultures living side-by-side. What it meant to be white in this context was quite different than it had meant before. White kids listened to New Kids on the Block. White kids wore Guess Jeans. White kids only dated other white kids. But all around us was another culture, and it was a complex and vibrant one. The Black kids listened to different music. They wore different clothes. They had their own hang-outs in the evenings. I had been drilled from my earliest days with the belief that “red and yellow, black and white…Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And yet, the reality was, in the Delta, there was a nearly impenetrable wall between us.

I chose To Kill a Mockingbird for the blog because I felt it helped me make a transition as a young adult. Anne Frank’s diary had shown me that race was dangerous. That people could be brutal and heartless when they got some idea of a racial hierarchy in their minds. To Kill a Mockingbird, I felt, had somehow given body to the guilt and sadness I felt in my own heart about race in America. I didn’t realize when I chose the book, however, that this moral connection had been explicitly made by Harper Lee (Chapter 27):

Miss Gates is nice lady, ain’t she?”
“Why, sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”
“She hates Hitler a lot…”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean, have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?
“Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
“Well, coming out of the courthouse that night, Miss Gates was—she was goin’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her—she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ‘em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home—”

I wanted to know the same thing about people in my own life–even myself!

But more than just capturing my sadness, To Kill a Mockingbird offered a new vision, and not a vision of a color blind society. Rather, it offered me a vision of what it could look like to stand up to injustice—to tear down the wall. And no matter how far I fell short of that ideal in my own life, in my heart and my head I cherished that vision.

And yet in this virtue, there was also an unseen slight of hand.  How had I come to believe that racism—whether against Jews or blacks—was morally bankrupt?  Through stories.  And this is one thing that sets our culture today so far apart from other cultures and even Americans who lived before.  Studying morality for us means telling stories.  Studying morality for my grandparents meant reading the Bible and memorizing transcendent principles.  The shift here is nothing short of seismic, and I’ll probably have to spend another week on To Kill A Mockingbird to trace it out.  But for now I’ll just say that if we come away from To Kill a Mockingbird with the idea that whites and blacks are not separate races, that the walls that keep us apart are man’s invention, then it has done some good. But if we learn that the moral vision of stories is higher than the boundaries of logic and reason–if we come to believe as I did that imagination alone is sufficient to order our hearts, we have only traded one error (racism) for another that may be more devastating….
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Standing in our basketball locker room that evening, scaling the wall did seem possible. In that room, we were hidden from the pressures of the greater culture. We could pray together before games, unlike Sunday mornings when we went to separate churches. We could dance and sing and laugh and “act a fool.”

“You should definitely come, if you want.”

In response to my question, my teammate seemed really jazzed by the idea. Crashing the white kids’ party. Everybody liked her. No one would have dared say anything, at least to her face, and she certainly would have made a splash. And wasn’t it about time? It was 1996, after all.

Finally, she answered that she might. She just might. She would let us know.  So, we grabbed our bags, pushed through the doorway, and went our separate ways.

Behind the Bookcase is Emily’s postmodern conversion story.  You can start with part one at Behind the Bookcase, In Search of a Hiding Place, or browse the entire series in our Behind the Bookcase category.  For other YA related reviews, see Janie’s post on Jane Eyre and Emily’s True Grit and True Grace post.

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2 Responses to Behind the Bookcase, Part 5: To Kill a Mockingbird

  1. emily May 23, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    No, you’re 100% right Janie. I have a quote which may or may not make the next post in which he claims conscience as his final arbiter when it comes to morality. Now, I wouldn’t want to knock conscience, but it isn’t sufficient alone to get you to Truth even in the realm of morality.

  2. Janie May 23, 2011 at 8:53 am #

    That’s a great point, about where our moral vision comes from today: telling stories. It boils down to, what’s right is what WE consider to be right, and we weave a story to back ourselves up. One thing that always bothered me about To Kill A Mockingbird: Atticus. He’s too good. It’s been a while since I read it, but I don’t recall much of an appeal to God’s law–rather, we know what’s right by the basic decency of our hearts, and Atticus proves it, if we could only follow his example. I may be wrong . . .

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