Monday, April 18, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

The longer I live, the more I learn, that if one looks hard enough, there is a connection to anything and everyone.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, it became an instant success and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It became successful, because like so few other books, it novelized a subject that America desperately wanted to talk about, but, for which America could not find the words. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn are but two earlier examples of America's frustration of dealing with the touchy subject of race in America. In Harper Lee's case, the subject was the highly inflammatory subject, to Southerners and many Northerners, of black men and white women.For Harper, the events of her novelized story followed the events that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old. To the American nation, the events also recalled the misjustice that befell the "Scotsboro Boys", over an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis on March 25, 1931. I repeat the word"boys" because that was the vernacular of the day, just as Mark Twain used the word "nigger" in Huck Finn.

For two decades following the arrest of the nine black  teenagers for a crime they never committed, , "the struggle for justice of the 'Scottsboro Boys,'  made celebrities out of nobodies, launched and ended careers, wasted lives and produced heroes, opened southern juries to blacks, exacerbated sectional strife, and divided America's political views."

This was surely fresh in the minds of America when Harper Lee brought out her novel about a lone white lawyer struggling to ensure justice in a bigoted southern town.The book was quickly made into a movie two years later. It starred Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch the lawyer. The reaction was even greater than the book. Wikipedia summarizes the awards:

The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. Additionally, the AFI ranked the movie second on their 100 Years... 100 Cheers list, behind It's a Wonderful Life. The film was ranked number 34 on AFI's list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, but moved up to number 25 on the 10th Anniversary list. In June 2008, the AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. To Kill a Mockingbird was acknowledged as the best film in the courtroom drama genre.
 I could say that my connection to the film is my own childhood which paralleled that of Scout, the six-year-old narrator who grew up in a segregated south and observed the injustice of racial discrimination. I could say that as a lawyer, when I was older and practicing law, that I too took on cases that were never popular or politically correct. No, that is not the connection which intrigues me.

Instead, it is Harper Lee's sense of history as a framework in which all stories begin. Chapter One, page one. Harper Lee as Scout explains that the story begins not with the trial. Rather, it begins much earlier.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch (the progenitor of the Atticus Finch line) would never have paddled up the Alabama and where would we be if he hadn't? ...
 It was customary for t6he men in the family to remain on Simon's homestead, Finch's Landing, and make their living from cotton. The place was self-sufficient: modest in comparison with the empires around it, the Landing nevertheless produced everything required to sustain life, except ice, wheat flour, and articles of clothing, supplied by river-boats from Mobile.
The only thing Scout, a.k.a. Harper Lee, neglects to mention is that the land that produced the cotton was the product of slave labor of those black men and women that Atticus would later champion.

My grandfather was born in Alabama in the 1888. Before him, his grandfather, my great great grandfather, came to Alabama from Georgia and farmed the cotton in central Alabama not far from the Tallapposa River. The Alabama River of which Harper Lee speaks is formed by the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers, which unite about six miles above Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Once upon a time Montgomery was the capital of the Confederate States of America. My great grandfather was a doctor and his brother a lawyer, both in Montgomery.  But I do not know if they took on the challenges of injustice that Atticus Finch willingly took on.

Since, according to Harper Lee, Southerners are all about ancestors, mine came to Alabama before Simon Finch, I feel a little more regal in my heritage than she has a right to. I say this because Tallapoosa River land was the frontier before Alabama River land. Atticus Finch went to Montgomery to read law as did my great grandfather's brother. My great grandfather went to Montgomery to study medicine.

I digress, a problem of which my children frequently complain. The salient point that I am trying to make is that the Finches, like my own family, dispossessed the Creeks of Alabama in order to make a living raising cotton on the backs of slave labor. Now that is a burden to carry. And it is understandable that Harper Lee mentions the Creek Indians in only one sentence and the slave labor that raised the cotton not at all.

Each of us has to live our lives. Our moral standards are set early in life. The effect we have on others is how we act, not in the history of our fathers, or their fathers before them. And so Atticus Finch's principled stand against justice marks a turning point in the relationship of blacks and whites. Even Gregory Peck as Atticus learned from others. His lesson was is less of a legal one, than the human need to respect others regardless of color.

Color is not merely black and white. It is red and yellow and all shades in between. Alabama and much of the Southeastern United States was once inhabited by Indian tribes. For that matter, all of America was inhabited by Indians prior to the arrival of the first Europeans at Jamestown. The succeeding generations of all those who have gone before must not forget the past. But we must also remember to act like Atticus Finch in a time of crisis. Do the right thing.

My grandfather moved on from Alabama many years ago. Even then I know that I have relatives still living on the land once possessed by the Creek Indians. The cotton farms are gone, even if after the Civil War free black men and women picked the cotton that supplied the means of life to the new owners of the land. Guilt is something that is born by all of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment