Sunday, 21 February 2016

Harper, Maya, and me

This is a post about my growth as a person through encounters with books. I make no claims about how what understanding of American race relations translates into my activities challenging racism, and acknowledge I am still learning.

Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" became my favorite book midway through my teens, dethroning Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" with its resonant message about parenthood, precocious children, and difficult worlds. I read that book in school (it is one of the handful of great American books, with Gatsby and either Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, but not both, that have been allowed onto British school reading lists). I read it dutifully in the right way, as a story about injustice and segregated America, but that was only part of what captivated me. I preferred the story of Scout and Jem and Dill, their growing up, growing apart. I was captivated by Lee's evocative language, her rich complex female characters (to this day Miss Maudie Atkinson tops my list of fictional characters I would like to meet). In truth, I didn't yet have the historical knowledge or the analytical tools to understand all the parts of the story of Tom Robinson, or understand the monumental nature of Calpurnia's decision to take the children to First Purchase. Even back then, when I decided (to show how smart I was) to write an essay on "racism as a theme in To Kill A Mockingbird" i quickly felt ill equipped. My arguments were weak and I knew it. I should have written about " parenting as a theme in to Kill a Mockingbird" instead.
I've revisited that book so many times I can recite it. I have come to relish its depth more and more with every reading. The intelligence of Lee's device (to have an adult Jean Louise tell the story from a child Scout's point of view) allows such flexibility, deftly used. It allows the narrator to know things Scout would not have known. It allows the future to be alluded to. And it also leads to one of the great, and perhaps most questionable ellipsis in litterature. In the key scene where Atticus goes to sit outside Maycomb jail by night to protect Robinson from the lynch mob, at no point does Lee's adult Jean Louise spell out what is happening. We are told that the child Scout doesn't realise until later. But why does the adult Jean Louise hide from stating what is at stake, plainly, and clearly? Is it perhaps because the horror of that truth would make that scene's denouement hard to stomach, and make Atticus's pronouncement the next day sound hollow?
It was my encounter with another great American book that made me see the limits in Lee's novel as a tale of Southern Racism, and that made me see how much of a fiction even that book's limited victories were. While at University I read Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings". I do not know if Angelou had to Kill a Mockingbird in mind when she wrote her autobiography, but the parallels are very striking. Against fictional smart, white Scout, we have real smart, black Maya Angelou. Against fictional too good, too perfect Calpurnia, we have the Real Grandmother. So many of the scenes in Caged Bird echo scenes in Mockingbird, but tear down what little Lee left worth saving in white Maycomb.
Perhaps the key scene for me is the one where she describes how, one night, as a lynch mob is rampaging through town, the white sheriff rides up to the Grandmother's store to warn her, and tell her to hide her crippled adult son from them. The grandmother thanks him, and Angelou describes her uncle painfully squeezing himself into the space under a fruit display. Angelou concludes with a searing accusal of the sheriff that struck me forever (I am writing this from memory so forgive any error):
"If I came before God in Heaven and had to say a good word about that man I could not do it. He did nothing to oppose, and in fact supported, the system that made my uncle hide that night"
Through that book, I began to see all that was missing from To Kill a Mockingbird, that made it both a fairy story, and a flawed depiction of the Jim Crow south.
I still love to Kill a Mockingbird. But I am fiercely grateful to Maya Angelou, and all the other black writers who have helped me move past viewing as more than what it is: an exquisite piece of fiction, but no more a definitive portrait of the South than Gone With the Wind.

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