I was in my early twenties before I read the novel To Kill A Mockingbird. It may now occupy that rare space of canonical literature and beloved novel but in the American South in the 1970’s and ’80’s, it was neither. The book was banned from both my middle and high school. That is all I knew about it. It was banned. I don’t recall there being much of a fight about the banning, either. It wasn’t in the library and so I didn’t read it. It was as simple as that.
My secondary education and the place I grew up in did little to prepare me for the outside world. Practically everyone I knew was a Protestant, or at least claimed to be. The life of the community revolved around the church schedule. No one ever scheduled anything on Wednesday night. Stores were closed on Sunday or didn’t open until 1:00pm. And Sunday night was a second church service. Rebels and nonconformists skipped Sunday night service. Everyone was solidly middle class, with enough upper middle class to enforce inferiority but enough working class to salve the pain. Everyone was straight. And everyone was white.
What I mean to say is everyone that counted was white. Everyone that mattered was white. There were rules and everyone followed them. Use of the n-word (a construction I abhor but understand is useful) was only recently deemed not done in polite social circles. There was no dating. There was little socializing.
I knew about racists and racism from an early age. I remember not trusting the racists, not liking them. I remember understanding they were wrong. But I also remember keeping my mouth shut. We didn’t talk about it at home. My parents kept their mouths shut, too. No one say anything and maybe this whole thing will just blow over.
I didn’t examine any of this, didn’t understand there was anything to examine until I became a parent. It was the pond I swam in. The water was too close to see.
When I finally got around to reading To Kill A Mocking bird, I understood why it had been banned. In the great ball of sore subjects, race was the biggest and the touchiest spot on the ball was sex, specifically black men and white women. The book laid it bare. Lee wrote about class. She wrote about sex. She wrote about race. The fiction she wrote was so true, thousands of schoolchildren weren’t allowed to read it for decades.
The best fiction illuminates. It brings light. It brings heat. A novel can bring new meaning to the past. Lee’s novel carried me out of my own life, plopped me down in the middle of a setting I had never experienced and, with that distance, gave me the tools to look back at my own life and examine it with new meaning and new purpose.
I have a quote I wrote down on an index card. It lives on a board beside my desk. The words have carried me through many a difficult day. They are from To Kill A Mockingbird.
Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
People with more education than me and more knowledge of literature will have better things to say today, on the news of her passing. My appreciation is a tiny drop in what will surely be a torrent of praise for her impact and lament at her passing. I wish I could have met her. The world is better for her being here and little less brilliant now that she is gone. May her memory always be a blessing.