Friday, August 6, 2010

Harper Lee

On July 11, 2010, the golden anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, a news program, CBS Sunday Morning, devoted time to the four-day celebration in Monroeville, Alabama, the real world parallel to Maycomb, the setting for Harper Lee’s prize-winning novel. James McBride, author of The Color of Water, was one of the people asked to comment upon the novel’s impact. He chose to celebrate the author herself and her remarkable courage in telling a story about racial injustice so unflinchingly, so candidly, and so powerfully.

Indeed, truth-tellers are some of the most courageous among us. They face disbelievers, rationalizers, deniers, and just plain liars to appeal to the better natures in all of us. They are the cockeyed optimists who believe that the truth, packaged as fiction or exposed in non-fiction, can change the world and turn away pettiness, cruelty, brutality.

In Lee’s novel, Tom Robinson told the truth, knowing it was unlikely to set him free, yet he told it anyway. Atticus advocated for Tom’s truth, proving it by revealing that Mayella’s injuries were to the right side of her face, by showing Bob Ewell to be left-handed, and by reminding jurors that Tom could not use his left hand. The jurors deliberated a long time, suggesting that the truth was powerful enough to trouble their consciences, but even irrefutable evidence and logic were not enough to win a verdict of not guilty that day in that fictional courtroom.

Little Dill was one in the courtroom who saw Tom’s truth and the hopelessness of it. He grew sick and had to flee, ashamed of the disdain in Prosecutor Gilmer’s voice when he spoke to and about Tom. Dill sensed Maycomb’s willingness to punish Tom Robinson in order to satisfy their need to believe in their own superiority and that truth sickened him.

Outside, on the Courthouse steps, Dill met Mr. Dolphus Raymond who offered Dill a sip of Coca-Cola to settle his stomach. Scout warned Dill about drinking too much because she, like everyone else in Maycomb, knew Mr. Raymond as an unapologetic drunk. In fact, Raymond only played the part to spare others from his truth: he preferred the company of Maycomb’s minority citizens and eschewed the company of whites. He admitted to living a lie when he explained, “It ain't honest but it's mighty helpful to folks... you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that's the way I wants to live.”

Dolphus Raymond’s masquerade reveals another truth that Harper Lee courageously unmasks: a divided society makes cowards of us all. We lack the courage to be ourselves, as Dolphus Raymond suggests, and in our cowardly facades, we prevent others from living up to their full potential. We need Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, Maudie Atkinson, Link Deas, and, most important of all, Harper Lee to set the bar toward which we all must strive. We need soldiers like them, at home and abroad, to insure that all people tear down the walls, the divides, the masks.

To Kill a Mockingbird
was published in 1960, the first year in a decade of tumult, struggle, and controversy. Fifty years later, we still do not live in a perfect, peaceful world, but we now lean more in the direction of that ideal than ever before. What strides can we make in the next 50 years and who will be the courageous voices?