Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What We See

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?



Redbonegirl97 said...

That is one of my favs. I remember giving it to my niece to read and my sister n law getting mad with me saying it was too much for a 12 year old that read everything she got her hands on. She didn't want her daughter to read about rape. Eventually she read it and fell in love with it too.

Peace, Love and Chocolate

Big Man said...

Yeah Redbone, I like to expose kids to stuff like that earlier. I got my little cousins the whole Roll of Thunder series even though some folks think it's too serious.

Shady_Grady said...

I really liked the "Roll of Thunder" book. I can't exactly remember the names now but wasn't it their Uncle Hammer who, disgusted with his nephew Stacy(?) for letting TJ trick him out of a new coat, told Stacey that if was stupid enough to listen to TJ then TJ could keep the coat?

It's been a long time since I read "To kill a Mockingbird".

TLS said...

"I see life as it was, and as it still is for far too many people." Right on.

Tom's story is horrifying, and nothing else in the book should make us feel better about his fate. Your reaction to it reveals YOUR character as a person concerned with justice. I hope the folks, like Brokaw, who mention Scout and Atticus aren't doing so because they're indifferent to Tom's fate.

The character of Atticus Finch, to me, is an instrument of the most important element of the story: the exercise of justice. And, as you point out, we still see, all too often, how justice fails us.

To Kill a Mockingbird shouldn't make us optimistic, but it can help make us hopeful. Sometimes hope is a dim flame, but it's better than darkness--and when you get right down to it, it's more honest: the world is not an entirely dark place...YET.

Anonymous said...

I only just finally read that novel (and I'm 42 now, and have been an avid reader since long before high school, when this is usually read) a few months ago.

I like it a lot, but I think part of the reason so much can be taken away from reading it, depending on your perspective, is because it isn't "about" any one thing, in my opinion. Unless that thing is the way people interacted in the South back then (and to varying degrees still do).

It wasn't really about racism or sexism or classism or anything else, though it hit all those issues in pertinent ways. And I think that is a good thing sometimes, in a novel, that it allows for much to be taken away from it.

A great novel, I thought, but as with any great novel, it isn't going to be appreciated by all, and among those who do appreciate it, opinions will vary widely.

Just my quick two cents...

- Deacon Blue

awb said...

Never read the book, but the movie had the same effect on me. Was reading Malcolm Gladwell's take on the book recently and he had some interesting things to say about it:

Big Man said...

couldn't find gladwell's take on his site

Anonymous said...

This maybe?

- Deacon Blue

Joanna said...

big man- I totally agree with you about exposing children to books that depict the realities of the injustices in this society early. I remember when I was a child, we learned about slavery in school. But it was a whitewashed version of slavery. I do not know if it was because they thought we were too young to be exposed to the reality, OR if it was because they thought we didn't need to know the truth because the school was basically all white kids (and the schools REFUSE to place blame for racism and slavery where blame lies), BUT I remember I came across a stash of textbooks that had been rejected and discarded because they were deemed "innappropriate" I was able to read a history book that spoke of horrific abuses heaped upon slaves in graphic detail. It really made me realize how awful slavery really was in a way that I had never learned in school. It was HUGE in influencing me in a positive way. I think by "protecting" kids from these realities we are doing more harm then good. I actually heard a 20 something year old man who was perplexed as to why slavery was bad since slaves "got free room and board" and it really hit home how ridiculous it is to shield kids from the truth.

Citizen Ojo said...

Just like any book..the bible included. People see what they want to see. I have always heard it was a great book because of the characters but the story was a common reality in the South. We can enjoy the story but can't forget the real story.

Raving Black Lunatic