Some of you may have read my previous post about the soldier in Iraq who emailed me to ask whether I’d inscribe one of my books for his girlfriend on her birthday. “Sure,” I said. He sent me the book, a book by another Lee Martin, and I looked up that fine gentleman on the Internet, found his web site, and sent him an email to explain the situation. I sent the book along with the SASE that would deliver the signed copy back to the soldier so he could present it to his girlfriend, and the other Lee Martin was kind enough to take care of things from there.
End of story, right? Um. . .not exactly.
My correspondence got my email into the other Lee Martin’s address book, and now it appears that someone has hacked into that book and has sent a message to everyone in it,
So for the record, let me make it clear that I wasn’t in London on a short vacation, and I didn’t get mugged in the park near the hotel where I wasn’t staying. My cash, credit cards, and cell phone are all still in my possession. Yes, I still have my passport with me, but it too is safe here at my home and isn’t in London, where I’m not talking with the embassy or the police. I don’t have a flight that leaves three hours from now. I don’t have an issue with the hotel that’s demanding payment. I don’t need you to wire me money. Above all, I am not “freaked out at the moment.”
Well, at least not about any of that.
But there was an item in yesterday’s newspaper that got under my skin a little. Seems that a high school in southeastern Ohio was to host a performance by a traveling theatre troupe, a performance of To Kill a Mockingbird. The performance was canceled because it was deemed inappropriate for the students to see. Why? The N-word. Seems parents were complaining, so the school officials decided it was better that their students not be exposed to this tale of racial injustice in the South in 1935, this story of the attorney Atticus Finch and his efforts to defend Tom Robinson’s innocence (“In the name of God,” Atticus exhorts the jury in his closing argument, “do your duty.”)
Without a doubt, the word in question is ugly and hurtful, and, as a white man, I certainly can’t claim to know the pain a person of color suffers because of it. I wonder, though, if, like the jury in the novel, it’s our duty to attend to that word and all it so unfairly represents, particularly when it comes to us as part of a piece of literature that intends to expose and then condemn the racism that victimized Tom Robinson and continues to victimize far too many of our citizens. I wonder how many students at that Ohio high school will now somehow be less because they didn’t see that performance and didn’t experience the consciousness-raising that it attempts. Art at its best can take the ugly and use it to create something beautiful. Something that lasts. It can make people who open their hearts and minds to it better. It can make our society better. Every time I see the film of To Kill a Mockingbird, I wait for the scene in which Gregory Peck as Atticus leaves the courtroom after the jury has turned a blind eye to the overwhelming evidence and declared Tom Robinson guilty. The black members of the community are in the balcony of the courtroom, put there by the custom of the time and place, and none of them have left. They wait as Atticus gathers his papers into his briefcase, and as he starts up the center aisle to the courtroom doors, one by one the people in the balcony begin to stand, to pay their respect for this man who has fought the good fight for the sake of Tom Robinson and by extension for all of them. Atticus’s children, Jean Louise (aka Scout) and Jem, and their friend Dill are in the balcony, invited there by the Reverend Sykes.
At this moment in the novel, Scout says,
Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
Even now, typing that passage, I feel the chill up the back of my neck. Every time I see this scene in the movie, the same thing happens. I want to be Atticus Finch. I want to be as good and as noble as he is. I want to live better, be a better person. It is, for me, a spiritual moment, one that I need to revisit from time to time.
I’m sad that the racial situation in our country is still such that the use of that word, even within the historical and artful context that Harper Lee provides, is so volatile. More than that, I’m devastated that those students at that school didn’t have the chance to see the scene that I describe above, didn’t have the chance to experience this work of art that asks us to consider how to treat one another with fairness and dignity and love. I can only hope that they’ll encounter the book, the movie, or the play at some other time in their lives, some time when it’s not too late to still make a difference.
A friend tells me that this school that denied their students the chance to see this production is in the same county where recently eight horses died in a barn fire, a fire that was deliberately set as part of an anti-gay hate crime. I don’t believe I need to point out the irony here. I’ll say it again: Art can change us; it can make us better.