Reading To Kill a Mockingbird Almost 50 Years Later
I’m not sure how I got through high school as a literature buff and college as an English major taking many, many literature courses without reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I did watch parts of the Academy Award movie of the same name at different times, but never to my knowledge sat down and watched the entire thing.
But I surely read it with different eyes and heart 50-plus years later, because of having lived a bit of Scout’s reality in the Deep South.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but at least now I’ve remedied my lapse in reading and cultural history. Most people know the name of the lawyer and father in the book, Atticus, and his noteworthy defense of a black man falsely accused of a trumped-up crime. Now I understand why people pick the unusual Atticus name for their son—or even for a beloved lamb!
On my copy, a publisher’s blurb calls the book “The Timeless Classic of Growing Up and the Human Dignity That Unites Us All.” I was nine years old when it was first published in 1960, close to protagonist Scout’s age at the beginning of the book.
How and why did I happen to pick it up now? No, not because of Harper Lee’s posthumously published 2015 novel, Go Set a Watchman. (Lee died earlier this year in February, just before the release of Watchman, which is a sequel to Mockingbird but was written before the classic.) It will be interesting to see if fans continue to name their sons Atticus after his stature falls a bit in Go Set a Watchman as Scout learns her hero dad has some skeletons in his racial-justice closet. (I haven’t read this book yet, but want to).
I picked it up because I happened to find it in one of those Little Free Libraries. But I surely read it with different eyes and heart 50-plus years later, because of having lived a bit of Scout’s reality in the Deep South just eight years after the book won its Pulitzer.
In 1969, my parents moved to northern Florida, not far from the Alabama border, and I spent my senior year of high school in a school undergoing its first year of full racial integration (earlier, the schools had token integration). I’ll never forget the guy in the parking lot at school who laughingly ribbed me for being a “damn Yankee,” saying “If we fought ya agin, we’d win this time,” and I know he was half serious. One of my elderly teachers that year was barely able to contain her scornful looks and negative attitudes towards the black students newly populating her classrooms.
Then, in 1976, I married my husband, whose father grew up near Opelika, Alabama. I learned a bit of that culture through his father’s eyes and several visits to the area where whites were a definite minority—but still maintained attitudes of superiority. So Lee’s well-crafted descriptions and dialogue, which combine the universal drama of growing up with the deep-seated prejudices and racism that still rock our country, connected more powerfully with me now because of much wider awareness. Through my father-in-law (born in 1916, just 50 years after the end of legalized slavery), I grasped more of how deeply seated were his opinions and experiences—which still underlie racial issues throughout the U.S. today. My father-in-law’s parents, of course, actually lived during the time of slavery in Alabama, with all of its horrific practices and ideas. So while one hundred years seems like a long time to battle down the roots of racism, baby boomers are only one generation removed from those whose parents lived through slavery.
My own father was a type of Atticus in the sleepy town where I lived during that final high school year and during several college summers; a father I idealized and respected as much as Scout did her daddy. Over many years, my dad reached out to a local African American family, and they loved him back, to the extent they named one of their children after him, Vernon.
As literature, the Mockingbird book is finely crafted, with the telling, detailed descriptions that bring a story richly to life. As social statement, the book deserves the laurels it has accumulated as film and book.
As a Christian brought up to believe in the worth of all individuals regardless of skin color, country of origin, or religious differences, reflecting on the currency of To Kill a Mockingbird for our day brought me again to the truth that God loves us all equally. And I need to do the same.