I was perusing facebook yesterday when I discovered that it is Banned Books Week. Sponsored by the American Library Association and held during the last week of September, the event seeks to celebrate the First Amendment while spotlighting actual and attempted book bans across the U.S. I’m all for reading and against banning books and even expected some of my favorite books to be on the targeted list. I was a little surprised, however, to see my favorite book of all time on the list, the book that has probably influenced me more than any other (aside from Dr. Suess).
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
I read it for the first time in junior high, and then reread it and reread it. I watched the movie at around the same time and ever since then Atticus Finch has been my ideal of what a man is supposed to be – intelligent, rational, compassionate, willing to do the right thing even at risk to oneself.
Let me acknowledge that I am a vocal critic of Hollywood’s “great white savior” stories, movies where white (usually) men go into communities of color and lead them to a success that they apparently could not accomplish on their own – whether it be inner-city school kids or Native Americans or Japanese samurai. And if “To Kill a Mockingbird” were set in modern times with Atticus cast as such a savior, I would be appalled. But the reality of history is that there was a time when there were no or few black lawyers in this country, and the only legal defense they had was via representation by a white lawyer, whether the lawyer cared about justice or not. And in the end, Atticus was no savior. The fact that Atticus proved Tom Robinson’s innocence beyond any reasonable doubt and yet Tom was still convicted by an all-white jury drove home to me the devastating injustice of racism. It was the lynching of another black man carried out via the orderliness of a court proceeding. Writing this now, it sounds so naive. Of course I know that our court system is riddled with systemic racism. But it was “To Kill a Mockingbird” that first made it real to the 10 year old me.
One cannot think of “To Kill a Mockingbird” without thinking of race. Race is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the social justice implications of the book. But the novel deals with many other issues as well. There is Boo Radley, the person in the neighborhood who is “different,” of whom the neighborhood kids tell stories, and who is the subject of childhood pranks and teasing. Scout and Gem are good kids but they spend a fair amount of time engaged in such activities. How amazing is it then when it’s revealed that it is Boo Radley who saves Gem and Scout from harm towards the end? And how interesting it was that the sheriff and Atticus conspire to protect Boo from criminal proceedings, and my 10 yr-old brain agreed with their decision, agreed that the law serves justice, not the other way around.
And of course, the entire story is told from Scout Finch’s point of view, a little girl with whom I could very much identify. Scout runs around in jeans, climbs trees, and is entirely unfazed when she is informed that “You’ll have a very unladylike scar on your wedding-ring finger.” She does not consciously try to rebel against prescribed gender roles; she simply is who she is. Moreover, Scout talks to adults as if they are her equals, not her superiors, with neither disrespect nor rebellion. She simply believes in her own inherent worth and dignity. And Scout being who she was told me that it was ok to be who I am.
In so many ways, I cannot imagine who I would be if I had not read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a child, if it had been banned. Take a look at the list of classics that have been targeted or successfully banned at various times. Chances are good that some of your favorite, life-shaping stories have been deemed unfit for print. What would the world be like, what would you be like, without them?