Sunday, February 28, 2016

Why it took me so long to read To Kill a Mockingbird.

This week, I made Harper Lee a Rursday. Unfortunately, it was a posthumous honor, but at least I managed to read To Kill a Mockingbird before she died.

As I said in my review, it began when I admitted on Facebook not long ago that I had never read the novel. A number of people whose opinions I respect were surprised, and told me I needed to get on it right away. So I did.

But why did it take me so long?

I suspect it's partly my Northern upbringing. I understood that To Kill a Mockingbird is a Southern novel, and even in the 1960s and '70s, the South was thought of as a different sort of place than where I grew up. And yet, Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s is not all that unlike northern Indiana in the 1960s, in terms of the way whites treated blacks. Our schools were integrated, but our neighborhoods were not. We didn't have separate water fountains for whites and "coloreds," as the South did, but the prejudice was certainly there, and so was the mistrust between the races.

A few blocks from the house where I grew up was a little neighborhood beside the railroad tracks where several black families lived. (At the time, the correct term was Negro; it became "black" while I was still in school. Eventually, America realized that not every "black" person is actually black, so the preferred term now is African-American. The derogatory term has remained consistent; I don't use it, although some of my relatives did, and do.) I have a clear memory of a girl who lived in one of those houses riding her bike down my street. She wasn't in my grade, but we rode the same bus to school. She came into the yard, and we played outside for a little while. Then we went inside. I don't remember which of us proposed it, and it doesn't matter; what matters is that my mother immediately told us to go back outside. And she made it very clear to me later on that it was not to happen again.

I thought the whole thing was crazy. We went to the same school. And my father was friends with one of the men who lived in the girl's neighborhood; the gentleman in question had helped my father and my uncle build our house.

Anyway, when I had kids of my own, I was determined to raise them without any sort of prejudice. We lived in an integrated neighborhood, and my kids' books and TV shows had characters of all sorts of colors and ethnicities. I remember practically bending over backwards to describe people in terms other than skin color. And it worked -- until the first time the girls' school had a Black History Month program. Kitty came home from school incensed: "Why didn't you tell us any of this stuff?"

Well, because I wanted my kids to think skin color doesn't matter. Because it doesn't matter -- any more than does eye color or hair color or native language, or headscarves, or henna, or that dab of ashes Catholics wear on their foreheads in the spring.

And yet, of course, it does matter. Because humans have not yet reached the level of maturity at which skin color and religion are just another way to describe our fellow humans -- and not a reason to hate, mistrust, and even kill them.

Tomorrow is the last day of this year's Black History Month. I wish we lived in a post-racial world, but we don't. In too many ways, we're still stuck in the mindset of Maycomb, Alabama, circa 1935.

And yet I still hope that someday, we can get to the place where religion and skin color are nothing but ways to describe our fellow human beings.

These moments of bloggy diversity have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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