In light of tonight’s news, I am re-posting this essay, which was originally published on September 15.
Every person has that book she hasn’t yet tackled, the revelation of which causes friends to gasp in horror. For me, it was To Kill a Mockingbird (go ahead—gasp). Despite my intentions (and friends’ entreaties), I somehow never got around to it.
I finally decided to remedy this lapse in August. I’d just read a series of books that proved disappointing. I turned to Harper Lee’s classic knowing I would love it. I turned to it happily.
What I didn’t anticipate was its timeliness. Days after finishing it, the events in Ferguson erupted. All of the elements from the novel seemed to be playing out in real time: lack of due process, blindness to facts because of systemic prejudice, aggressors acting like victims while victims are treated like criminals, and a sickening outcome. One man killed Mike Brown, but many parties (a whole community, institutions of power, decades of history) had their hands on the trigger.
In both the fictional Maycomb and the real Ferguson, a black life is taken as a result of white fear. An encounter occurs between two individuals (one black, one white) that is unknowable, yet endless conjecture about what “must have happened” ensues. The stories that get spun—which seem to defy logic—are meant to stir sympathy for the aggressor. At their root, an unspoken message:You know how those people can be.
The gift of literature is that it can resonate over time. I wish To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t feel uncanny in its relevance. I wish it felt dated, the door to that period of American history closed. It is a testament to the open wound of race in this country and to Harper Lee’s talent that a novel about Alabama from 1960 can speak to us still.
Had I read Mockingbird at any other point in my life, I would have reacted to it differently. In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about Atticus Finch. A well-regarded member of the community, Atticus is appointed to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman—not a role he would have volunteered for, he tells us, but one from which he does not shy away.
Justice never arrives on time. It didn’t for Finch’s client, Tom Robinson. It didn’t for Mike Brown. But Lee’s novel reminded me that how we react to injustice is no small matter. When enough people act like Atticus Finch, speaking up, speaking out, even if it feels futile, especially when it feels futile, then justice eventually lumbers in. Slow, late, vague about how long it will stay, but finally, fleetingly present.
To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me of my own voice. Some would say that there’s no point in using it. Facebook posts, Twitter shares, blog posts—what can these possibly accomplish? Better to share vacation pics that will get actual “Likes.” Better to write an essay about that other novel you read. No one likes the preachy, the indignant. How much easier to be funny and popular.
But silence means complicity. This, too, is something I wouldn’t have considered had I not read Lee’s novel. Scout Finch, Atticus’ daughter, wishes to visit the house of Calpurnia, their black housekeeper. Scout’s aunt forbids it. “The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only” are conspicuously silent. They give neither Tom Robinson nor the Finch family their support. Within the codes of “proper” Southern life, rigid socioeconomic and racial hierarchies are not to be disrupted, even by an eight-year-old girl.
Had I not read Mockingbird, I don’t know that I would have spoken up about Ferguson as much as I have. Perhaps I would have felt too self-conscious, as if it were not my “place.” But such notions of place and propriety are part of the problem. Ultimately, the very worst thing to feel is alone in our suffering. “Your burdens are my burdens.” This is the message behind kindness, behind community, behind literature. Scout’s desire to be Calpurnia’s “‘company,’ to see how she lived, who her friends were” is the same desire that prompts us to read.
Before reading this novel, I’d always wondered about its title. Few titles begin with an infinitive verb, and I contemplated its strange temporality. Not Killed A Mockingbird or The Killing of a Mockingbird, but To Kill, suggesting possibility, being on the cusp.
To kill or not to kill: that is the question. More than fifty years later, it still applies.
We are called upon by events like Ferguson. When we witness violations of basic rights, when we observe the purely wrong, we have a choice, a bird in our hands. There it sits, pulsing, quivering. Is it our future? Our innocence? Perhaps it is our very humanity.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a title as well as a choice: to be silent or to speak, to close our hands to what we hold or to open them to our own possibilities.
Maya Lang is the author of The Sixteenth of June, which has been long listed for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan Prize [my review is here]. She is a recipient of the Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Scholarship in Fiction and finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Lang graduated from Swarthmore College, earned her MA at NYU, and holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from SUNY Stony Brook.