Monday, July 26, 2010

Happy Anniversary, Mockingbird

(left, Mary Badham as Scout/right, me in the third grad) I've called myself "Scout" on this blog for some time now because someone said that it's my blog. I can be whoever I want on it. I chose Scout Finch as my moniker because I always thought I looked like the actress who portrayed her in the film "To Kill A Mockingbird." The connection runs deeper, though, and I used the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the novel to explain. Here is today's column in Small Town Newspaper:


Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” was published 50 years ago this July, and 30 million copies later, it continues to receive a remarkable amount of attention. On its anniversary, the book is being celebrated around the country with film screenings, special events and panel discussions; but I would have held my own private celebration even if the rest of the country didn’t bat an eye.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” remains my favorite work of fiction because of who I was and where I was in life when I first discovered it. It’s more than a thought-provoking story for me—it represents my personal climbing out of the trap of bigotry.

I was born in Alabama in a town not too different from Maycomb where the story takes place. My family moved to Indiana the same year President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act that would end segregation, a social practice my parents supported. With this background, I was taught differently at home than I was in my yankee school, and the contradictions were a puzzle to my young sensibilities. To add to my confusion, we visited family in Alabama every summer where I saw first-hand how blacks were treated differently from whites despite the changing laws.

People were sorted by color and class, with “colored folk” in one corner and whites in another, some trashy and some respectable; and it seemed imperative that we never fall under the category of “trash.” The races didn’t mix at church or in restaurants or at the local pool, and the hired help entered through the back door. To my grandmother’s credit, I do remember her asking a black woman she had hired to help at a special party to come through the front door, but the woman wouldn’t hear of it.

These notions about segregating people were not ones I often encountered in the North outside of my own house, but I questioned them just the same. No matter how many times I asked, no one could ever explain to me why race mattered, why the color of your skin determined your place in the world. And shame on me for asking.

I was in this perplexed state when I first discovered the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and it captured my attention right from the start. It was the voice of young Scout and her image as portrayed by Mary Badham that did it. In elementary school, I looked like the character on the screen with my straight black hair, piercing eyes and somewhat scruffy play clothes that I had long outgrown. Like the fictional girl from Alabama, I had curious tendencies that had me climbing up trees, playing with old tires and asking questions about why things were the way they were.

It was a few years later when I read the book and was happy to rediscover the same characters and truths in its pages. I, right along with Scout, watched bad things happen and heard bad things being said and knew in my heart that they were just that, bad. And just like Scout, I looked to her steady father, Atticus, for answers as he set a firm example of speaking out against injustice. In describing courage, he said, “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Because I identified with Scout so much, I soaked up the other lessons she learned from her father as she tried to parse the tumultuous world around her: to truly understand a person, you have to “climb inside his skin and walk around in it;” “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience;” most people are nice “when you finally see them.”

Even though there is no tidy solution in its conclusion, in “To Kill A Mockingbird” I found some answers to what puzzled me about racial and social prejudice—it’s unnecessary and undeserving and must be stopped, even if the person fighting against it is only chipping away one small piece at a time. Sometimes good does win out over bad, but someone must first put up a fight despite the odds.

1 comment:

dive said...

Robyn, I have read many articles (and watched many a TV documentary) about the fiftieth birthday of Mockingbird, but none comes anywhere close to being as good as this. You totally rule! What a wonderful piece of writing.
And hey, you were cuter than the original Scout.