"The Colored balcony ran along three walls of the courtroom like a second-story veranda, and from it we could see everything." —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I honestly didn't recall my first reading of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. To jog my memory, I e-mailed my high school English teacher, Mrs. Grady, as I was halfway through a second reading of the book on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication.
I asked her two questions: "When did we first read To Kill a Mockingbird?" and "What kind of imprint does the book leave on high school students who are first encountering this not-so-distant impression of the South?" Mrs. Grady replied that she has been teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for 25 years, adding, "I have never had a student not like it. Most love it and want their own copy. They love the Boo storyline because they can relate to the treatment of people considered different. The Tom Robinson storyline makes them angry. They can't believe the jury finds him guilty, and they have a strong reaction. I can't imagine not teaching this book."
Maybe the book eludes my memory because the story of a black man (Tom Robinson) being tried and wrongly convicted of raping Mayella Ewell, a poor white woman consistently abused by her father, doesn't fall far from my own contorted Southern family tree.
Remembering myself as a high schooler—one of three black kids (all girls) in the academically gifted English class Mrs. Grady taught, I hear myself being thoughtfully opinionated about the injustice that reddens the face of the South.
However, the imaginative Piscean in me, whose thoughts tend to stray amid a landscape of words and images, would've joined Mockingbird's narrator, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, in the remote playground that is a child's traveling and questioning mind, charting similarities between the 1930s Southern landscape through which Scout navigates us and my own version of The Dirty, 50 years removed.
To Kill a Mockingbird relishes the days when the outdoors was more enticing than virtual handheld devices, and a child's imagination was a wieldy pistol. When Dill first arrives in Maycomb, Scout and her older brother, Jem, welcome him straightaway into their world of invention. As Scout attests, "Routine contentment was: improving our treehouse ... running through our list of dramas based on the works of Oliver Optic, Victor Appleton, and Edgar Rice Burroughs."
But in the 1980s in Eastern North Carolina, off Highway 403, finding new uses for old machine parts and re-enacting wrestling moves were our favorite pastimes. My cousins, my sister and I constructed go-carts from a rugged assemblage of 4 x 4s and old lawnmower tires with assistance from Uncle Shorty, our beloved, less sequestered (but equally protective) version of Boo Radley. By way of dramatic play, Ric "The Nature Boy" Flair's signature "Whooo" concluded my cousin Jimmy's sensational 6-year-old seethings. I played the part of Magnum T.A., so called because of his striking resemblance to Tom Selleck's Magnum P.I., always the good guy done wrong. During the summers of '82 and '83, I crushed Nikita Koloff almost daily with my finishing move. And as the sun disappeared behind a bed of cornfields, we navigated our homespun wheels through an obstacle course of outhouses and pecan trees before falling heavily to rest like bricks on the bed, eager to wake the next morning and do it all over again.
Although the theatrical productions of our motley clan were based less on children's books as we chose to mock the soap-operatic rants of wrestling champions, the premise was the same: by rummaging through a repertoire of larger-than-life characters, an inventive mind becomes greater than its petite anatomy and can travel farther than the dead end of a predictable street, beyond a slew of endlessly encroaching tobacco fields. By casting ourselves as our favorite wrestlers and engaging in lengthy monologues, we detailed how we were prepared to dismantle whoever dared step into our squared circle. Much like the trio of Scout, Jem and Dill, we created a world dense with metaphor. Our physical space was claimed territory; it kept us safe, and the adults around us deemed it important to allow us ownership of the red clay we kicked around every summer. Our imaginations, on the other hand, belonged to no one, not even our rusty selves. Our free-willing minds took us places that prompted questions about the social constructs we had begun to slightly notice around us, understanding them as forms of imprisonment and, in a child's deduction, just plain not fair.
There was indeed a caste system in Maycomb, but to my mind it worked this way: the older citizens, the present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refuted by time.
Beautancus, the small community situated below Mount Olive where I was reared, remained staunchly beholden to place value—much like the Finch's Maycomb. In the '80s, older white folks still called black folks "colored" in public (which implied the use of another name behind closed doors). White farmers' sense of ownership of black field laborers stilled us in a predicated time, a time akin to Mockingbird's era. The Joneses, (of which there were nine siblings, if I recall correctly) were our black neighbors who lived a couple route numbers down the road. They worked almost exclusively for "Mr. Getty."
My aunts, uncles and grand-cousins, in the tradition of my granddaddy, were hirelings of "Mr. John" and "the Herrings," white farmers who owned acres of tobacco and soybean fields in the rural area beyond Beautancus that stretched back toward Scott's Pond. I recall my earliest experiences working the Herring's tobacco fields. The stalks stretched endlessly, surpassing me in height and girth. The work was very much segregated along gender lines. Black men and boys wandered down the narrow dunes of the fields, barely wide enough for one person. Coiled in the shape of low-lying question marks, they stripped the bottom, sunless leaves from the weighty stalks. Black women and girls like me (I was in my early teens) stood attentively at the tobacco barn, awaiting the arrival of "trucks" of tobacco for us to "loop" and hang in the barn for drying. The rich aroma from the fresh tobacco leaves was intoxicating.
Although the sensory impressions linger, I was not so familiar with the systemic structure of fieldwork—beyond having no relationship with the wee hours of morning. The Herrings' grandson—no older than 10—would drive the tractor up to the barn, where the women stood waiting. My own memory of the processional is grotesque in its grandeur: Envision a chubby little white boy meandering slowly and comfortably toward you on his John Deere while you wait without stool or shade beneath an intensifying sun. This little boy, whose ass I could've kicked if ever the circumstance arose, acted as heir to the throne while my aunts waited in layers of clothes that served as sunscreen in the pissy-hot Southern fucking heat.
Although scholars and the like applaud Scout's philosophical assessment of there "just being one kind of folks. Folks," my inner Southern child tends to rally behind Jem's estimation of the Southern caste system. One of the more sobering moments in To Kill a Mockingbird is when Jem testifies to the brainwashed narrative the South now wants its children to disregard after so deeply engraining it in our legacies:
There's four kinds of folks in the world. There's the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there's the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.
Maybe when I first read Mockingbird, like Jem and Scout, the ethical tagline didn't strike me until the echoes of "guilty" rang from Judge Taylor's bench. But upon engaging the novel with a more mature Southern—and global—experience in tow, I found the outcome was a clear predestiny. Before Tom Robinson even has his day in court, before the segregated crowds gather in the Maycomb town square, before Maycomb's colored residents make the climb to the second story veranda and Jem and Scout displace them by taking two front-row seats, the moral of Lee's story has already been communicated. To that end, I concede that Mockingbird is overwrought, with simple anecdotes designed to infuse a child's formative scruples with moral latitude. Yet I find no fault in Lee's soft browbeating.
In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, sports and arts writer Allen Barra unearthed a sour assertion by Flannery O'Connor, who noted shortly after the book's release, "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book." O'Connor, who was in the running for a Pulitzer in 1961, the year Lee won it, makes a definitive and jolting point. However, anyone who has the slightest knowledge of white Southern hatred or has read O'Connor's unveilings of blatant Southern ugliness may find such a simply spun yarn as To Kill a Mockingbird an essential read for the most backwoods, true-to-bone bigot who could benefit as much from the straightforward inspections of a child as from a mirror intimately detailing his own vile racism.
As a dreamy escapist and otherwise commonsensical observer, I believe any book that captures the vantage point of a child with such measured candor as To Kill a Mockingbird has earned its right to be romanticized in our collective consciousness. This doesn't, however, give readers license to revisit the novel exclusive of a need to identify what it is lacking—those nuances that become present as we grow ripe in our understanding and experiences of racism, classism and sexism, and begin complicating simple notions of right and wrong.
Still, there are a couple of things we can cling to, no matter if it's our first, second or 100th reading of To Kill a Mockingbird. One keepsake is the way Lee's work sparks a stroll through our own childhoods, noting the bittersweetness of our coming-of-age tales; second is the power wielded by a little white girl (representing "liberal" principles) who takes a front-row seat in the colored balcony and chronicles all she sees. When such is the case, white folks are seemingly more apt to grapple with the racial and class divides that run through the South 50 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was first published.
Correction (July 29, 2010): Flannery O'Connor's name was misspelled.