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To Kill A Mockingbird and Black Like Me

What have you been reading lately?

My daughter had to read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) for class and encouraged me to read it. For months she patiently tried to gauge where the book was on the two-foot high stack by my bed. Was I reading it yet?  I know I read it as a kid, a few years after publication, but that was so long ago I had no details in memory.

Finally this summer I got to it again.

It was thrilling to read the suspense the three kids (Scout, her brother and the summer visitor, Dill) created during long summer days in a small town and it was chilling to realize the small town hatred that would live right next door to kindness.

Harper Lee had a lot to say about how people of white skin and people with darker skin got along and kept one another at bay. She gave us both sides of the color line and what it meant to dance in-between. There was the white man who acted drunk so the white folks would think he was too crazy to know what he was doing when all the while he was in love with his wife of color and kids. He was just acting for the white folks, giving them a show to protect his family.

I’d forgotten about Scout interrupting a lynching with her polite appeal to a neighbor who was all set to drag a man from jail. Children cross the color and economic lines so easily. Unless the cruelty of a parent and poverty make them pawns, as was Ewell, the white girl whose false accusations sent Tom Robinson to jail.

Harper Lee kept the suspense going until the very last page. Even if you read it long ago you’ll still remember the mysterious and reclusive neighbor Boo, the mad dog, Atticus, the single father and the neighbors on the street. Lee’s snapshots of The South before the advent of highways and electronics moving faster than the speed of light are all focused by one small precocious tomboy. She was smart, relentlessly curious, and very demanding. You can just imagine that child in your classroom….or maybe you were that child wondering what the heck the grown ups were thinking. Why can’t they just get along and be just?

One thing leads to another, so I after I finished To Kill A Mockingbird I had to reread Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (1961).   The early Sixties were a terrific time for writing. The white journalist risked his life to cross the very color line Scout deftly explored, except fiction is smoother than real life. The real life Griffin went from white to black with pigmentation and stain. The transformation was such that he was unrecognizable—even to himself. The contrast in treatment was as extreme as day and night. He was at the back of the bus, on the side streets of cities he had known since childhood.

The most extreme revelation for me was his conversations while hitch-hiking. The white drivers would talk about their sexual exploits with women of color and ask to see his penis. The sexual lines tangled up with the color lines to provoke as much trouble as possible.  The sexual lies in To Kill A Mockingbird cost a man his life in Lee’s fiction. “Southern Trees Bear a Strange Fruit,” as Billy Holiday sang in 1939.

John Griffin wanted to know the experience of people of color. He learned in a few hours what that experience was and he only remained there for a few weeks. His family was forced to move after publication of his book and extensive television interviews. He gave white readers a window into a world they had created for people with a drop of black blood. He wrote with a white gaze looking into a black world with a white world education and expectations.  He was brutally surprised at the double standards for people based entirely on skin. Even though he could take off the stain and go home, he left us a tale few have been willing to tell.

What would such an undercover investigation reveal today?

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