Dancing in the White House

Civil Rights now and in To Kill a Mockingbird

A Review by Kate Wilson

It’s feels like a sad coincidence that Harper Lee should die three days before a remarkable 106 year- old black woman, Virginia McLaurin, got her chance on 22 February, 2016 to dance in the White House and make her mark for black history. Things have really changed for blacks in America, avows Ms McLaurin, there were places I couldn’t go, and now I go everywhere. She might be the one to know. As a little child she could have sat in the lap of a great grandmother, who whispered to her astounding stories from 1861 of upheaval and change, courage and sacrifice.  This is the stuff of which myths are made. And what would Harper Lee have said to the dancing lady in the White House, as a writer who herself has become a part of the American psyche and created a myth of her own?  What Obama has referred to as “the steady expansion of human rights and dignity and justice for all” [1] is what we soothe ourselves into thinking is a validation of Lee’s iconic message in To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960)  - that the only way to understand the meaning of freedom and equality is to put yourselves in the shoes of those who have neither. “Justice”, says Obama “grows out of a recognition of ourselves and each other.”[2]  But Obama’s words come in response to the killing of nine black people by a crazed white youth of 21

who said he wanted to ignite a race war. There is still a sickness in American society - Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, Charleston - which reads like a litany of madness, the “something in our world,” according to Atticus Finch “ which makes men lose their heads”.  If the insidious cycle of misunderstanding between black and white has not yet been broken, there is little point, some say, in still looking to Harper Lee for redemption and healing.  Lee talks of a time no longer our own, and which perhaps never belonged to anyone, except in her fairytale written for children. Bonnie Greer, in conversation about Go Set a Watchman declares of her father “there were no Atticus Finches in his life”[3]. Which is to say that To Kill a Mocking Bird  resonated less with black people than with the Northern White Establishment at that time in its determination to define itself ahead of the civil rights movement and to resolve the moral ambiguity at the heart of post- Lincoln America. That 10% of all Northern white males of fighting age and 30% of all Southern white males died in the American Civil War had to count for something. 

So what is the appeal of To Kill a Mocking Bird? It presents a simple story about a six year- old girl, Jean Loiuse 'Scout' Finch, waking up to the viciousness and irrationalities of race hatred in the Deep South of the thirties. The central driver of the novel is the court scene where her father Atticus Finch, lawyer and kindest man in the fictional Maycomb County, defends a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The subject was highly contentious, making many Americans aware for the first time of the civil rights movement. The book presents a world easy to understand, but not to admire, With the homespun Southern dialect a constant echo in the background, the arguments for equality, justice and compassion seem all the clearer out of the mouths of the children, Scout and Jem, a point Gregory Peck is at pains to make in his dramatic introduction to the 1962 film of the book, in which he stars as Atticus Finch. Here are Scout and her ten year-old brother, Jeremy Atticus 'Jem' Finch, thrashing out the debate about difference: 

(Scout) ‘Naw, everybody’s gotta learn, nobody’s born knowin’ ( …) I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.’

Jem turned around and punched his pillow.

‘That’s what I thought, too,’  he said at last, ‘ when I was your age. If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?[4]

The film won three Academy awards and boosted sales of the book into its millions. The innocence and directness of the child heroine lends the book an aura of freshness  and incorruptibility which has ensured its status as a shining star in world literature. In 1999, a poll of the American Library Journal voted it “Best Novel of the Century.” Over here, it just keeps on topping the must–read book lists for adults, more than half a century after its publication[5].

What of the book’s purely literary qualities, as opposed to its genius for polemic? One of the primary qualities of great literature is that it takes us into a complex world below the surface of our everyday ways of seeing. Harper Lee is less challenging, keeping above ground where human action is in plain sight. Another expectation is that the language of a great writer should surprise our senses and jolt our sensibilities.  Lee’s pared down style, on the other hand, has at times a numbing, bone-bare mundanity about it, which places her writing on the far side of any kind of poetry.  Her focus is on the everyday things of life: the shelling of peas, the red ear-syringe on a washstand, a watch ticking, the faint crackle of a starched shirt, the twelve banana peels on the floor by a bed, the loving, the lying, the fighting and the dying which sum up a world where doing the right thing might change things for the better.

And things are getting better, so Ms McLaurin says. Well, she might be the one to know.

[1]  Eulogy for the black Reverend Pinkney murdered in the Charleston shootings, 26 June, 2015

[2] Ibid.

[3] Front Row, BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 14 July, 2016 with Bonnie Greer, Erica Wagner, introduced by John Wilson

[4] To Kill A Mocking Bird, Arrow Books, Random House, London, 2006, p.250 -251

[5]David McCandless’s amalgamation across many of the major booklists, sees 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' rise to the top place: http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/mar/14/information-beautiful-books-read-100

See also Amazon’s '100 books to read in a lifetime', which places 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' at the top of the list: http://www.amazon.co.uk/b?node=4656884031&pf_rd_i=1846147387&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_p=817946307&pf_rd_r=1GF6CKQAQ96E1M2AXM 

The film won three Academy awards and ...

And things are getting better