Readings and Writings on To Kill a Mockingbird
Rev. Marti Keller and the UUCA Women’s Writers Group
Call To Worship – Laurie Renfro
As we spend time with each other and the great American classic by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, let us appreciate we are living in a time that welcomes all races to this place of worship.
And may we begin by greeting one another.
A Reflection on Harper Lee
By Rev. Marti Keller
August 15, 2010
In his introduction to Mockingbird, a portrait of novelist Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields noted that her one and only published manuscript—To Kill a Mockingbird—was ranked in a Book of the Month Club survey conducted in 1991 as second only to the Bible in “making a difference in people’s lives.” He writes that in the years following its publication—50 years ago this July—this book has drawn nearly a million readers annually. Over 30 million total copies sold, translated into 40 languages.
This novel, which won for its author a Pulitzer-Prize was instantly successful, becoming early on a classic of modern American literature and adapted into an Oscar-winning film in l962.
Despite her novel’s huge impact, Harper Lee’s writing life was brief and her off-page life intensely private, having only occasionally commented on the book itself, refusing any personal interviews since l964. She is not expected to make an appearance even in this year of multiple celebrations of the anniversary of her novel—with readings led off by Steven Colbert and other luminaries, and even a proposed Congressional resolution commemorating its publication—quashed at the last moment by a filibuster.
According to her biographer, Harper Lee has never appeared comfortable in the limelight. In fact, he writes that not only does she not solicit attention, she actively discourages it. In this era, he observes, of relentless and often prurient self- exposure by approval-hungry personalities, Lee prefers silence and self-respect.
She is not, however, a contemporary Emily Dickenson, a recluse. From accounts given him by friends and relations, she currently lives a normal life filled with community activities, many of them related to her church. She spends time in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and some time in New York City, where she first moved as a young woman, working a clerical job with an airline, to be among writers, even lunching a few years back with Oprah Winfrey, who was unsuccessful in convincing her to come out of celebrity hiding.
She was born in l926 in the small Deep South town of around 750 residents, which had not changed much since the days of the Civil War when a Confederate soldier passing through was heard to say it was the most boring place in the world.
When the railroad arrived, things changed some—brick structures replacing sagging old wood buildings, new schools built—including the Alabama Girls Industrial School— where dressmaking, laundering, and home nursing would not hold Harper’s attention.
There was a Home Café and the Simmons Hotel where families could eat a midday meal on Sunday, served boarding house style for 55 cents—chicken, mashed potatoes, okra, corn, gravy and cornbread and pie.
And in the center of the square and described as dominating everything by its size was the Monroe County courthouse, where Harper could watch her father perform the functions of a title lawyer.
This was Harper Lee’s small town Alabama childhood world—with a black housekeeper and a father who was by all accounts a proponent of racial segregation, where downtown was all white, where blacks couldn’t use the library or sit down and have a coke or ice cream. Where women and blacks could not serve on juries.
When you entered the sanctuary this morning, you may have been handed a sepia toned copy of a flier circulated at the time of what was a nationally known case—the so-called Scottsboro Boys Trials in l931-37. Nine black men were indicted for the alleged rape of two white girls on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis, and newspaper had a field day, boosting their circulation with headlines such as ‘ All Negroes Positively Identified by Girls and One White Boy Who Was Held Prisoner with Pistols and Knives While Nine Black Fiends Committed Revolting Crimes.” The first jury found all of the defendants guilty. These events, most of which would have happened when Lee was about the same age as Scout, the young girl in To Kill a Mockingbird: the theme of racial injustice, the fear of miscegenation, the courage of two attorneys in that case in defending those wrongfully charged and all but one eventually released— had a deep impact on the 10 year old who would write a book called by some courageous and timeless in its exploration of racism, by others as a bloodless sugar coated myth of Alabama history.
But it seems more likely that the direct inspiration for the rape accusation and trial in her book came from much closer to home, that stately Monroe County courthouse which in l933 was the scene of the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. For whom the pressures of the trial and his initial death sentence by electrocution proved too much, landing him not in prison but in a Hospital for the Insane, where he remained for the rest of his brief life.
Out of this came To Kill a Mockingbird, and out of To Kill a Mockingbird this morning’s reflections, from some who lived parallel lives in parallel times and some who read it much later on – Euro women and African American women, women writers with differing experiences and perspectives.
In doing so they have chosen to use language in places that was shocking then and still shocking now, but it was a careful and deliberate choice.
Their truths will move you.
COMMENTS ON TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD—FIFTY YEARS LATER
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee shortly after it was published in 1960. It was fortuitous timing to read about customs of the Southeast of the United States in the 1930s, since my husband and I, both fresh-baked physicians, had just put in two years in Atlanta. For us, coming from Washington, DC and New York, this move had been culture shock. We loved the friendliness of the South, but had to adjust to other things. The Black/White relations seemed outrageous.
Grady Hospital was built in the shape of an H: there was a white wing and a black wing with a connecting corridor. There were “white” drinking fountains and “colored” ones. We often got looks of suspicion on the road because our car had New York tags. Once I hosted a barbeque in the back of our apartment building and invited all the staff members of the Pulmonary Function Lab, including a young black female technician. The next day a neighbor pulled me aside and said, “You know, we just don’t do that here.”
To Kill a Mockingbird widened my perception. It confirmed what I had noticed already with my new Southern friends. I could see that family was of the utmost importance; you were molded by your origins, either proud or resigned. Blacks and Whites didn’t mingle socially. I also noticed that food preferences were limited and leaned toward fried and overcooked items. For my husband and me it was actually a second cultural learning experience. Both of us had immigrated to the States as teenagers and already had mastered a previous major cultural adjustment. One experience we cherished in Atlanta at that time was our membership in UUCA.
After our two years in Atlanta, from 1958 to 1960, we went on to Boston to finish our medical training. When we heard of Atlanta’s miraculously smooth integration, we decided to come back because the opportunities for fast advancement were huge.
Re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird fifty years later has been illuminating. I found my old, tattered copy on the bookshelf and noted the paragraphs I’d marked in pencil before. This time, also, I marked portions that struck me now and they weren’t always the same. I took the book along on a visit to my daughter and her family in Shreveport, Louisiana. And much to my surprise I found out that my grandson, Alex, had just finished studying the book in his freshman English class. What a coincidence! He educated me on the numerous study guides and quotes with comments that I could google. But I didn’t do that until I finished choosing my own quotes and making my own analysis.
So what did I notice when I re-read the book? I still admire the analogy between the innocence of a mockingbird and the innocence of Tom Robinson who is falsely accused of raping a white woman and will ultimately get the death sentence.
However, as a birder, I am appalled by the section of the book on which the title is based. The children are told, “shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” No, no no—it’s NOT okay! It’s amazing to see this being said by Atticus, the justice-loving defense lawyer, and by Miss Maudie.
I did admire again how Harper Lee managed to puncture the bubble of Southern snobbishness about family: Scout is speaking to her brother, “Well, Jem, I don’t know—Atticus told me one time that most of the Old Family stuff’s foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s.”
But then there’s this. Atticus is saying, “…Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury because she’s a woman…“ He goes on to say, “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried—the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.”
Oh, oh, oh—there are so many concepts here that grate on me like fingernails on a blackboard. First of all, of course, that women couldn’t serve on juries. Scout, the alert and smart little girl, picks up on that right away. But Atticus spouts the usual lame excuses for sexism and tries to make a joke of it. Little Scout is drawn in and laughs too. And finally, Atticus says, “Our forefathers were wise.” What about our foreMOTHERS?
Now I understand that in 1960, when the book was published, the concepts of gender and racial injustice were just beginning to sweep the country. I also understand that Harper Lee was describing perfectly the ideas of the 1930s.
But this is what really upsets me: My grandson told me that in his high school discussions nobody noticed or discussed the killing of the birds or the sexual discrimination. And in my google research I note that these sections of the book are also slighted. We still have a way to go, it seems.
Today’s society has improved. Shooting bluejays is illegal. Women have made great strides in equality. Racial and family status prejudice has much diminished.
Scout had it right when she said to Jem, “Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
I WILL BE READING THIS EXCERPT FROM TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
“Atticus,” I said one evening, “what exactly is a nigger-lover?”
Atticus’ face was grave. “Has somebody been calling you that?”
“No sir, Mrs. Dubose calls you that. She warms up every afternoon calling you that. “Francis called me that last Christmas, that’s where I first heard it.”
“Is that the reason you jumped on him?” asked Atticus.
“Then why are you asking me what it means?”
I tried to explain to Atticus that it wasn’t so much what Francis said that had infuriated me as the way he had said it. “It was like he’d said snot-nose or somethin’.”
“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything – like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain – ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody….I’m hard put, sometimes–baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you. So don’t let Mrs. Dubose get you down. She has enough troubles of her own.”
EMBRACING MEDITATION FOR AUGUST 15th
Led by Lisa Macy This is a loving kindness meditation. Close your eyes and let your attention
rest at your heart. Just for the next few minutes drop any judgment,
criticism and analysis of yourself and just appreciate yourself. Exactly as
you are this moment. In this moment, there is nothing to change, nothing to
make different - just love you as you this moment.
Now expand that feeling in your heart. Include people whose skin is a
different color than yours. Include people whose hair is a different color
or texture than yours. Include people whose holidays and culture are
different from yours. Include people whose religions are different from
yours. Even if they wouldn't include you in their circle, you go ahead and
include them in your heart.
Let them rest, with you, in your heart.
SEGREGATION IN THE DEEP SOUTH
I was born in 1928 in Florida. As a youngster, some things were easy to understand; some were confusing. Some people were dark; others light. The white people called the people with the dark skin; “darkies,” “colored,” or the “n” word. I didn’t know those words were bad, but I learned. One day when I came home, I told my father that my brother was playing with James, the “nigger,” I added. My father laid down his newspaper to counsel me. “Sister, they don’t want to be called “nigger” they want to be called “negro.”
I remember my father being angry when the Ku Klux Klan tied a poor white sharecropper to the Olustee Creek Bridge, beat him and left him there. They believed the sharecropper had stolen hams from smoke houses. Someone untied him and him and his whole family quickly moved away. Soon after that incident, the Deputy Sheriff and some other Ku Klux Klansmen knocked on a black man’s door in the middle of the night, demanding entrance. The black man got his gun, shot through the door and killed the Deputy Sheriff. The Klansmen fled and so did the black family. It was a confusing and violent time.
My Uncle John was a Baptist preacher who had a man named Neilous, a black man, working for him sometimes. Instead of forcing him to eat lunch on the back doorsteps alone, Uncle John welcomed him to eat at the dining table with his family. He, Aunt Pearl and their daughter, Golde actually spent the night with Neilous one night during a terrible storm, fearing they wouldn’t make it home in their horse-drawn buggy. I hate to think what might have happened if the Klan found out about that.
Everything was segregated. Black people had to sit in the back of the Greyhound buses and drink water from fountains labeled “colored.” The schools, churches and theatres were segregated. Black people entered a side door to the theatre and sat in the balcony – or rather half of the balcony. The other half, for white folks, was where my brother, sister and I sat as we listened to the blacks enjoying the movie, just like us. But, we were on the other side of a tall wall.
In 1956 when I was 28 years old, my husband, Bob, and I moved from Virginia to Americus, Georgia. Bob preached full-time in a fundamentalist church. Three days after we moved to Americus, a motorcade of Ku Klux Klansmen drove by an integrated cooperative community farm called Koinonia shooting guns at whomever they could. Merchants in Americus boycotted the people of Koinonia, refusing to sell to them, because they wanted de-segregation.
Bob and I had four children ages 5,4,2 and six months. I loved them but felt I wanted to do something more. I went to the Thalean Elementary School and inquired about teaching private piano lessons one day a week. The principal supported that and then persuaded me to teach music to the entire school once a week. The school did without a janitor for that one day to pay me ten dollars. I rode the school bus to the school. Thalean had a modern school building with new books. Not like the school the black children attended, which was a crudely built, unpainted building. They learned with old, worn books white children had used.
The leader of the Ku Klux Klan actually sent his daughter to take piano lessons with me. There was tension in the school because some of the Koinonian children attended Thalean Elementary and their parents were afraid to attend the meetings or to get involved at the school because there was so much Klan activity amongst some of the parents
In spite of all this, I planned a musical for the entire school. The lead in my play, The Old Woman in the Shoe was a Koinonia girl who played her part well. Surprisingly, the Koinonia parents came to the musical! The second year, I presented, Pinocchio with costumes and lights, courtesy of both parents and teachers. That year the auditorium was overflowing with parents from both sides. It was a grand success!
That second year our oldest son entered the first grade and Bob was elected president of the PTA. The Koinonian parents were no longer afraid to attend the PTA meetings and things started to slowly change.
Segregation was everywhere in the South. When Bob later returned to teaching school he was assigned to Southwest High School in Atlanta. We bought a house in the then, all-white community, Cascade Heights, in 1960. About three years later, in nearby Peyton Forest a house was sold to a black doctor. The white residents panicked! Everyone wanted to sell. They even made signs offering Coca Colas or ice cream to lure buyers to look at their house! Folks in Cascade Heights were afraid blacks would move into their all-white community. The Mayor at the time, Ivan Allen, placed a barricade across Peyton Road to hinder access to Cascade Heights to contain the spread of blacks!
The blacks in Atlanta didn’t mind fighting injustice. There was an uproar amongst them and a judge ordered the mayor to have the barricade removed. And, he did. He even regretted his actions and went on to become one of the first Southern White leaders to sign the Open Housing Act. Slowly, hearts were opening.
Many of our black neighbors were more educated than many of the whites that were moving out. When our new neighbors, Charles and Delores moved in next door, we went over with a pitcher of lemonade to welcome them and their daughter, Chandra. Charles was working in advertising for the Butler Street YMCA and Delores was a professor at a black university in Atlanta. We became fast friends.
Some things were changing. Some were not. Some fundamentalist preachers quoted the bible to justify segregation. I heard one mother say, “God made the birds different colors and didn’t mean for them to mix.”
I was still teaching private piano lessons and my class gradually changed from all white to integrated. I entered my pupils in the National Piano Playing Auditions each year and they all did well.
The churches were still segregated. My church at the time, Cascade Heights Church of Christ, planned a revival and told the congregation to invite all their neighbors. Each member of the church was assigned a row to fill. Ours was the second row. We invited Charles and Delores. Delores declined; Charles agreed to attend.
When Bob and I walked down the aisle with our five children and our handsome black neighbor, there was a buzz. I overheard someone whispering, “Bob and Marci might be ready for this, but, we are not.”
To Kill a Mockingbird
“Besides nothing’s really scary except in books,” Scout said.
I read to Kill a Mockingbird when I was in the 8th grade. And, I was scared. So scared that I blocked it out, as if I had been hit in the head. I fell unconscious. Obviously, I had read To Kill a Mockingbird, but not until I held it in my hands this time did I realize that its contents were shamefully unfamiliar.
This book happened to me when I was worlds away from the Deep South. I was in New York City’s, Upper East Side at an exclusive girls prep school. I was one of two black girls in the 8th grade and one of five in the building. The building was filled with 395 other girls; blondes, brunettes and two red heads. I blame my literary amnesia on my fragile blackness, which had been torn and twisted like a fraying rope, for the eight years I had already been struggling in this foreign white world.
It’s all coming back to me now: that sinking feeling of being under the pressure of looks and stares burning through me as my classmates were directed to read from the text; a text peppered with the dreaded “N word” throughout. The “N” word that I could not bring myself to utter, even in private. I hated this book; I felt betrayed by my teacher.
“Nothing’s really scary except in books.” That line reaches out to me now and shakes me into realizing the power of stories; true or imagined. In revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird, I mourn for the young me feeling the drama of being Black amongst whiteness as it crawled up my spine. I was a child being confronted with the universal irritation of skin; it’s color.
Unlike Scout, I never sought relief by seeking counsel from my father. Like her, I, too was a motherless daughter. I avoided the topic at home because I didn’t want to hit my father with the same assault weapon that had knocked me out. Those weeks of reading in school felt like years as we wrung all of the pulp out of the pages. My class read and re-read. We analyzed and discussed. We underlined, highlighted and made notes in the margins. We wrote essays, we answered questions, we even had quizzes. I’m sure we did… because that’s what we always did at my school. But it’s as if, I wasn’t even there.
I never brought the discussion home because I didn’t want my father to be faced with the task of wallowing in the messy truths of our skin’s hue. I didn’t want to hear all of the ugly stuff that we were sure we had escaped. After all, we were in New York City, up North, free from the “nigger”days. I watched my father live as torn and tormented as Harper Lee’s characters; full of love and hate in the same breaths. Although, my father acted satisfied with our seeming inclusion in the mainstream, he lived until he died, distrustful of “them.” He always warned that “they” would hurt me someday when their parents would whisper in their ears, that I was not quite their equal. My father was comfortable with saying, “Kim, that’s just how the world works.”
I still wince at To Kill a Mockingbird. It makes me sad to think that by simply having my heart beat inside this brown suit that houses my heart, I am historically deplored by those of a lighter shade. I read To Kill a Mockingbird depressed by life’s absurdities all over again. I am awed by the courage of Harper Lee to put these difficult thoughts into words and put these mangled ideas down on paper. She masterfully held the mirror to our faces.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an ugly but beautiful book. Like Lee’s, Boo Radley, racism still lurks around, scaring us and making us look at the bedlam we’ve created. Like Boo, racism peeks from the strangest places and when everyone has had their fill, it skulks back into the darkness, where it belongs.
After 50 years, it intrigues me that the world is actually celebrating this book. This book has been called life-changing by some, and forgettable by others. I won’t identify which group feels which way…I leave that to you…
As I stand on the sidelines of the To Kill a Mockingbird parade, I wonder how I can feel love for this cruel book, and I do. I guess the colorless side of me, the writer side of me, sees the grace in every word and feels the weight of being human.
I have awakened from my slumber now and have come to understand that this book touches me underneath the skin; pushing and prodding me down the winding road of being a writer. This book moves me to give people that look like me a voice and stories of our own making.
I often wonder why we are a culture that loves to remember and celebrate the unkind. Southerners still romanticize the confederacy, without thinking how it makes their Black neighbors feel. We live in a peculiar world where hate groups still exist and new ones are forming everyday. We seem to love to linger on the days when we weren’t our best selves. It strangles me to understand how we’ve gotten so tangled.
Like Maycomb County’s Sheriff Tate, I, too, wrangle and fidget with the truth, hoping for peace. He said, “There’s a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it’s dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.”
I say, if only we would.
In West Virginia, where I was born in the 1930s, I lived next door to the church where my father was the pastor. The church had a tiny hewn out of rock deep, dark hole beneath the Sunday School Room floor where run-a-way slaves were hidden during the Civil War. And I remember as a small child playing a game called “help the run-a-way slaves outfox the bounty hunters.” It was like Hide and Go Seek, but more complex. I also remember studying the “Civil War” in the 5th grade in West Virginia, and “The War Between The States” in middle Mississippi, the following year—hardly recognizable as the same war. This proved to be my first big “aha” in life, as I learned that one couldn’t take everything written in text books as absolute—or even accurate.
Now please join hands as you are able and willing for the Benediction
In the weeks to come, may we all be motivated to seek the truth of people and not just believe what we are told about them. Remember what you heard today from Harper Lee and the UUCA women writers. Remember the anguish, injustice and hate caused by prejudice to its victims and its onlookers.
And now we have this moment–this moment in which we are physically connected: hand to hand—one to another.
So no matter what the coming days bring, may the remembrances of this shared hour remind us that we are all alike. As members of a liberal faith, let us go forth by demanding of ourselves and others, the peace of justice.
Amen and . . . Awoman.
Benediction 120 words