Friday, September 24, 2010

Acting Courageously

Recently, I visited Atlanta, GA where the Carter Presidential Library sets, serene and peaceful inside a busy city, not far from the Capitol buildings and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home. Stately oaks surround the library grounds, shielding guests from the sun’s brutish ways. At the entrance, fountains spill cool water and mask the sounds of traffic.

No modern-day security checkpoints impede one’s progress into the library and its exhibits. No roped lanes transform the visitor into a rat in its maze. The single officer on duty says, “Welcome” and directs guests to the gift shop where another employee collects an admissions fee and points the way to the theater for a film about Carter’s life and career.

Beyond the film, there are exhibits about Carter and his family, notably his dad, the inspiration for Carter to pursue a life dedicated to leaving his part of the world better than he found it. To this end, Carter campaigned to be governor of Georgia and President of the United States. His wife, Rosalynn, campaigned to improve the conditions for citizens who are disabled—not by a loss of limb or Traumatic Brain Injury as many war veterans are, not by debilitating disease; rather by a disease that carries few outward signs: mental illness. Hand in hand, President and Mrs. Carter have built homes for the homeless; they have helped stamp out death and injury from the guinea worm and mosquitoes. Truly, their lives and their service to the nation and the world should humble all of us.

In addition to the Carters’ story, the Presidential Library was host to one of the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibitions (SITE), Freedom’s Sisters. This was a high point of the library for me; each of the twenty women featured is a paradigm for courage and conviction.

Originally prepared by the Cincinnati Museum Center, Freedom’s Sisters provides biographies and photographs about the lives of twenty women significant to the advance of freedom, enfranchisement, civil liberties, equality, and knowledge. They all resemble Shirley Chisholm, one of the ladies featured, who described herself as “unbought and unbossed.” Each lady shook off the restraints of conventional wisdom, accepted practice, tradition, and submission to carve a role for herself large enough to make a difference in the world in her own lifetime and for generations to come.

Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King are three of these women. Each displayed grace in a crisis and thereby led thousands. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sonia Sanchez and Frances Watkins Harper are three more. Each of these women wrote, Wells-Barnett using newspaper and lectures to expose the terrorist action of lynching; Sanchez preferred poetry, and Harper wrote both poetry and prose to express and explain the needs of the African-American citizens. Harper’s words are worth carving into one’s heart and spirit; she said, “I know that no nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment and happiness if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered.” How eloquent and how true. The chains that still bind some in our nation and world beg to be broken and so they must be by contemporary Freedom’s Sisters.

Will you be a sister or a brother of Freedom? Will you live courageously and with conviction, refusing to accept common practice for a higher moral plane?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Braxton Bragg Underwood

On the night that Jem follows his father to the Courthouse where Atticus sits, prepared to defend Tom Robinson against a lynch mob, the reader learns that Atticus is not one man against the mob, three children at his knee. Mr. Braxton Bragg Underwood, the newspaper editor, is across the street with a double-barreled shotgun aimed at the old Sarum bunch. Underwood had Atticus covered the whole time, a fact that somewhat surprises Atticus because Underwood is a known racist.

Even so, Mr. Underwood loses sleep to prevent a lynching. Later, the editor compares Robinson’s loss to the “senseless slaughter of songbirds,” thereby expressing sorrow and tying Robinson to the title of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. A mockingbird is the one bird that Atticus’ father told his son never to kill because a mockingbird does no harm to others and should be protected. Thus, Mr. Underwood takes a stand in behalf of at least one wronged African-American and asserts Robinson’s innocence by equating him to the harmless bird.

Why? Lee leaves Underwood’s motives for the reader to infer from facts such as these:
• A lynch mob is lawlessness. It is men, often full of liquor, determined to deliver a brute form of justice. It is a bully defeating a weakling just because he can.
• On the night in question, the people who stood between the mob and Tom Robinson were Atticus, his children, and Dill. Mr. Underwood was prepared to deliver a judgment of his own if anyone tried to harm Atticus on his way to Tom Robinson.
• Tom Robinson’s death was indeed a waste, an impulsive show of force. Tom ran for the fence and did not stop when told to do so, but he was a one-armed man. He could not have climbed that fence before someone reached him. Deadly force was not required.

From these textual facts, readers may conclude that Braxton Bragg Underwood admired Atticus enough to protect him. We might also presume that Mr. Underwood believed in the law and disapproved of men, even prison guards, taking justice into their own hands, especially when due deliberation could save a man’s life.

Thus, Mr. Underwood embodies the conviction and courage that inspires readers of Lee’s novel. However minor his role, however racist he may be, Underwood rises above his own skewed perception of the human race to act in behalf of the vulnerable and to speak in defense of the disenfranchised.

These are acts that we should demand from our leaders, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and everyday heroes; we should expect them to be the true defenders of our better selves.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Jem Finch's Courage

Jem Finch is a young man who will certainly walk in the shoes of his father. Even as an adolescent, Jem possesses a strong moral compass, one that leads him to stand up for right.

Granted, Jem is a normal, mischievous boy, capable of trespassing on the Radley’s property and keeping his transgression a secret. His rich imagination, fueled by Dill’s gifts for story-telling, lures the children into a daily re-enactment of the legend of Boo Radley, revealing that Jem, like every human being at any age, could be quite thoughtless.

Moreover, like most children, Jem underestimates his own father and misreads a man’s worth when Jem believes that his father “can’t do anything” until the day Jem sees his dad shoot a rabid dog cleanly, an act that Jem deems manly. Finally, Jem, like most men and women, has a temper that shows itself when he cuts down Mrs. Dubose’s camellias, an act for which he feels little remorse.

Still, Jem’s progress through the novel proves his moral strength and his character. Jem analyzes the gifts left in the hollow of a tree on the Radley property, and he concludes that they are given generously as gestures of friendship. Jem also plays the part of big brother quite well. On the night that Miss Maudie’s house burns, Jem reassures Scout and serves as her eyes when she is too frightened to look herself. Jem also makes peace for Scout when she attacks Walter Cunningham in the school yard, and he escorts his little sister to the October school pageant. Jem may grow impatient with Scout and, at 12, be less inclined to let her tag along, but he upholds his duty as a big brother honorably.

More significantly, Jem weighs and measures the community throughout the Tom Robinson trial. He bears the insults peaceably, only striking back at a symbol of intolerance--Mrs. Dubose--and then only harming her iconic flowers, camellias. Jem also senses the dangers that his father faces, especially on the night that Tom Robinson returns to the Maycomb county jail. Jem sneaks out in order to check on his dad and refuses to go home when told to do so. He may be a child, but he will stand by his dad, courageously defending and protecting against something he cannot even imagine for, until the verdict, Jem believes Maycomb to be the best town, populated by good neighbors. He has not yet seen the masks come off, exposing hatred below.

Jem disobeys Atticus to witness first-hand the unjust brand of justice in Maycomb. Jem’s empathy and moral evolution prove themselves when he grieves for Tom Robinson, his father, and his town. Jem even cries until Miss Maudie reminds him that Judge Taylor chose Atticus in an effort to save Robinson. She also explains that Atticus’ careful defense made the jurors’ verdict more troublesome to their consciences and, readers hope, to their souls. With these points, Miss Maudie suggests that some of Maycomb’s citizens are indeed fine, foremost among them, Jem’s father.

Jem’s finest hour is that October night when he steps between harm and Scout. Jem uses whatever instinct and physical strength he possesses to save her, shouting “Run, Scout!” as his attacker, Bob Ewell, tosses him aside, twisting his arm into an unnatural form. Jem’s first instinct is courage in the face of danger, living the lesson that his father taught him by standing against harm and hatred.

Friday, September 3, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: Aunt Alexandra Stands for Family

You might decry my decision to include Aunt Alexandra in this journal about displaying some measure of courage and learning to walk in the shoes of another man. After all, Alexandra is blind to her own grandchild, a little bully who cries foul when his name-calling incites Scout. Alexandra further offends Scout by calling Walter Cunningham “trash” and refusing to allow him to visit the Finch home. Her father Atticus set a better example for Scout by welcoming Walter to the noon table.

Critical of Atticus’ parenting, Alexandra tries to send Calpurnia away, requires Scout to dress like a lady, and demands that Atticus instruct his children in the proud Finch ancestry. Alexandra clings to the class divide as a man caught in a swift current clings to anything that floats. She finds comfort in hypocritical gatherings of small town church ladies who worry about the poor tribesmen in Africa while disenfranchising and impoverishing African-Americans at home. She gossips with the neighbors, Miss Stephanie Crawford in particular.

What, then, could possibly redeem Aunt Alexandra?

In spite of her sentiments, when Atticus needs her, she comes. In spite of her own opinions, she worries about the price that Atticus must pay for defending Tom Robinson. In spite of all else, she stands up for family. Although Aunt Alexandra falls far short of Miss Maudie Atkinson, her peer in age and upbringing, Alexandra confides in Miss Maudie, saying “'I can't say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he's my brother.’” Family, I think we all agree, is worth standing up for, and Aunt Alexandra stands up for family.

Atticus stands up for the family of man when he defends Tom Robinson. Miss Maudie stands up for Atticus, helping Jem understand the quality of his father’s courage. Alexandra, flawed and petty, stands up for Atticus.

Soldiers, fire fighters, police officers, and ordinary citizens stand up for the family of man when they defend its borders, its principles, its property, and its ability to endure. Tell me about the people you know who stand up for the family of man.