Written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Big Man; originally published at Raving Black Lunatic.
A certain segment of the literary world is gearing up for the 50th year anniversary of the publishing of Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
Like many of you, I read this book as a child. I can’t remember if it was part of my own summer reading list, or my brother’s. I typically read all the books on my reading list before the first two weeks of summer were finished, then read all of his books. Then I read all of them all over again if they were any good.
When I read that Times article about the novel, along with the 1960s book review that is linked, I was struck, once again, by how differently we all see and experience the world. I was reminded that our worldviews are consistently shaped by our personal experiences and allegiances no matter how objective or unbiased we think ourselves to be.
When I think of “To Kill A Mockingbird” I don’t think about the growth of Scout, like some folks, or about the mystery of Boo Radley. I don’t think about the quiet dignity of Atticus Finch, or how Jem learned adult lessons.
I think of Tom. The disabled, hard-working black man who was abused and murdered because of prejudice, bigotry and the need to maintain white supremacy. I recognize those other issues, but ultimately my mind is dominated by what happened to Tom; how he suffered and died while the rest of the characters, no matter how venal, saw their lives go on. I haven’t read the book in more than a decade, but I can still remember how disturbed I was by the image of Tom riddled with bullets clinging to a prison fence, and his young wife stuck with no husband and a baby to feed.
What springs to my mind when I think about this classic book in ultimately tied to how I view the world. In my world, the other characters and issues of the novel, no matter how central and endearing they were to others, are immaterial when compared to what Tom and his family endured. I really don’t care about how Jem, Atticus and Scout saw their lives changed, I just care that Tom saw his life end.
When I was younger, this focus made it impossible for me to read the book more than once or twice because of the intense bitterness that welled up inside of me. I was distraught that everybody else moved on with their lives, lived in the same community and basically continued to live as if a grave injustice had not been done. It was too much for my young spirit to handle, and the reason why I remember specific details about Tom, but very little about everybody else.
But, my reaction is ultimately my reaction. The book inspires different feelings in different folks based on the lives they have lived before and after reading it. What I saw as fairly unimportant, other folks have found to be profoundly interesting. What I see as central, other folks see as important, but not really worth too much investigation. Most folks see “To Kill a Mockingbird” as tale that exposes the complex nature of racial interactions in the Deep South and I don’t disagree. The book does that, while at the same time telling a compelling story about children learning what it means to be adults in America.
However, in my world the book is a re-telling of just how far my people have had to come. It relates one “small” injustice that for me exposes the prevalence of the larger injustice that was the daily life of black folks in the South. Tom’s story isn’t a solitary example of the justice system gone wrong, it’s a cautionary tale of endemic problems that persist today. Problems reinforced by dozens of studies examining injustice in the legal system, and hundreds of stories of prisoners wrongly convicted.
Some folks read this book and see a good yarn, and interesting and engrossing story. I see life as it was, and as it still is for far too many people.
What do you see?
[Editor's Note: See also the excellent story about To Kill a Mockingbird on NPR.]