Books

Fifty years later, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' still sings

It's one of those rare books that needs no introduction. Harper Lee didn't want it to have one, either.

In writing the foreword to her Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird," Lee noted:

"'Mockingbird' still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble."

She's right about that. As the literary world celebrates "Mockingbird's" golden anniversary, it still says what it has to say. The story of Atticus Finch — a white lawyer who attempts to defend an innocent black man — is told through the eyes of Scout, his 6-year-old daughter. That story has stayed with me ever since I first read it in the eighth grade. Lee transported me to a world I had heard of but never been privy to: a Jim Crow world where racial oppression robbed children of their innocence and racial injustice was not only accepted, but also rewarded.

For me, "To Kill a Mockingbird" ranks with Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" as my all-time favorite novel. Lots of other folks love it, too, it seems.

Voted novel of the century in a 1999 poll conducted by Library Journal, "Mockingbird" has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and has never gone out of print. Adapted for the big screen in 1962, "Mockingbird" earned three Academy Awards, including best-actor honors for Gregory Peck, who played Atticus with understated dignity.

Click on "Mockingbird's" Facebook page and it's almost as if it's the center of a cult, with members testifying about the book's profound impact — that its many lessons have inspired them to become lawyers or teachers or owners of pets named Scout. Heck, British librarians have even ranked "Mockingbird" ahead of the Bible.

Well, I wouldn't go that far, but classics such as "Mockingbird" do prove that words have the power to connect — or to distance.

Unlike me, many African-American readers just don't get "Mockingbird's" appeal. Walter Greason, professor of history at Ursinus College, says he was more affected by such books as Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." "The story felt closer," he says. "Even the writing. It felt more rhythmical."

But it's more than that. For some African-Americans, Lee's prose diminished as much as it enlightened. That's because Lee, like many other Southern white writers (think Mark Twain, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams), not only wrote about blatant white racism, but also illustrated it by her liberal use of the n-word, sprinkled throughout the novel. This not only offended black readers, it also caused some school districts to ban "Mockingbird" from classrooms.

For me, the book's value and resonance lie in its honesty. Lee depicted her world: a cloistered white world in the Jim Crow South that she wasn't afraid to expose. A courageous act, drawing strength from the civil-rights movement that was gathering momentum throughout the country.

No one is disputing "Mockingbird's" relevance. But some do notice a double standard for black and white writers who write of the black experience. They say the white perspective is almost always the one publishers favor.

"It's as if (publishers think) white writers legitimize the black experience somehow," says Philadelphia's Diane McKinney-Whetstone, 56, author of five award-winning novels. "It's a bit of a tightrope because by questioning, people will look at it as a criticism," she says. "But it's a legitimate question — why do some (white authors) get the recognition and not (black writers)?"

When a black story is written by a black author, it doesn't seem to get the same support or readership, says award-winning author Bernice L. McFadden, 44, author of seven novels.

Marketing also differs according to the race of the author, which may express conscious or unconscious assumptions that hurt black writers' chances.

In a June 26 Washington Post article headlined "Black Writers in a Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making," McFadden notes that her first novel, "Sugar" — which, like Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" and Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees," was published by Penguin — was a tale of African-Americans living in the South, and received critical acclaim.

Yet, while the books by Stockett and Kidd, both white writers, were promoted to readers of all races, McFadden says her novel was marketed solely to African-Americans.

That extended all the way to the book covers. "The Help" and "The Secret Life of Bees" had covers that did not reveal the race of the main characters. "Sugar's" cover showed a black woman leaning against a screen door.

White publishers have taken it upon themselves to be arbiters of black stories for white readers, says McFadden. Maybe it's because black authors tend to write more poignantly and painfully about oppression. Tales of hardship or discrimination, as told by African-American writers, seldom sugarcoat or gloss over the worst.

What nobody can argue is the impact Lee's storytelling had on readers. "To Kill a Mockingbird," with its multilayered, intricately woven tales of family and community, is a commentary on race relations. A lesson on injustice. A coming-of-age page-turner. A guidebook to family dysfunction and mental illness. A love-thy-neighbor parable. And, lest we forget, a loving observation of single fatherhood.

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