Who could resist Scout? She was funny and strong and had a child’s fierce sense of justice. I felt a kinship with Scout. In my eleven-year-old imagination, Scout and I were a lot alike. Like Atticus, my father was also a trial lawyer. Tall, dark haired and bespectacled, he even looked a little like Gregory Peck. He was making a reputation for taking on tough cases that sometimes ran against the grain of our neighbors’ social sensibilities. Growing up in a small town in upstate New York I lived in a place where kids were free to wander, play outdoors, and create their own worlds apart from the world of adults. Tagging after my older brothers, I, too, was something of a tomboy.
But unlike Scout, I wasn’t much of a reader. Even though I was eleven, To Kill a Mockingbird was the first real book I had read. I only learned to read the year before thanks to the persistence and determination of my mother. My teachers simply thought I wasn’t very interested in school, but she knew something was amiss. After years of trying to figure out what it was, the school psychologist finally discovered that I was dyslexic and had been faking my way through without being able to read. A year of intensive tutoring helped me over that hurdle and finally unlocked the gates to the world of books.
I wish I could remember who gave me To Kill a Mockingbird. Whoever it was, I am eternally grateful to them. The people in this book were real. Told from a kid’s point of view, it brought me into a world that was filled by human contradictions – friendship and family, courage and meanness, a place where justice and injustice played out in everyday life. Fighting for what was right, knowing that the good guys don’t always win, and that life often isn’t fair - this was a story that helped me to reflect on the world around me, and grounded my sense of the country in which I live.
Most of all, in reading this book, I became deeply attached to the characters there. Scout, Dill, Atticus and Jem were somehow part of my life and my imagination. When I finished To Kill a Mockingbird I missed the characters so badly that after moping for an afternoon I began the book all over again, so I could share in their lives once more.
That book has long served as a touchstone for my cultural and social imagination. Over time, of course, my historical and geographic landscape expanded. But I remain attuned to artists and authors who draw from the hopeful striving of American culture – the sense of openness and possibility, the large landscapes, the chance to turn away from what came before, to reinvent, and create anew. I am moved as well by those who articulate and portray the distress and anger that emerge when our experiences fall short of our national aspirations. In art, music or politics, I find myself returning again and again to the great narrators of the American experience and the American spirit – Walt Whitman, Zora Neale Hurston, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Luther King, Orson Welles, Dorothea Lange, Alice Walker, Georgia O’Keefe, Maya Lin, Ansel Adams, and Nina Simone – to name a few.
That America of my early imagination – a place of Dreams and disappointments – has translated into a lifelong interest in democracy, politics and justice. A few years after I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I watched Barbara Jordan give the keynote address at the Democratic Convention. Coming in the wake of Watergate, political pessimism was the dominant mood of the era. Yet when Jordan spoke, in that commanding, from the heavens voice, she cited her presence on the stage as evidence that “the American Dream need not be forever deferred.” She acknowledged that many felt “cynical, angry, and frustrated” and suggested that Americans were at that moment “a people in search of our future.” As a teenager in a conservative rural high school in upstate New York, I once again felt a sense of kinship with this narrator of the American experience. I was inspired. I wrote to Jordan, and several weeks later she wrote back noting her amazement at the ability of Americans from different places, ages, and backgrounds to connect with one another.
This past winter I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is a powerful, beautiful, and troubling book. In this long letter to his fifteen year old son, Coates returns repeatedly to the theme of the American Dream. Coates sees the dream as a delusion, an erasure, and a justification. He writes “The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” I see the Dream differently. To me the Dream is an aspiration and a provocation. It provides the occasion for social critique (as it did for King, Stanton, and Douglass) and an affirmation of democratic voice. It invites reflection on whether Americans can ever imagine themselves as members of one community (not a community without difference, but a community with shared values and a shared vocabulary – one that fosters democratic inclusion and trust), and recognizes the violence and sacrifices that have occurred for those who aspire to a common community. Rather than an erasure, this expression of the American Dream serves as a spotlight, and in the space revealed by it’s uncompromising glare, great art and honest writing– as in the passages of To Kill a Mockingbird – can be found.
Postscript – A couple of weeks after I finished this essay, there was news of Harper Lee’s death. She left this world much as she had lived in it over the past five decades – leading a quiet life, beyond the glare of the media, in Monroeville, Alabama. Reacting to the news of her death, many felt compelled to talk about Go Set a Watchman – Lee’s controversial second book that was published in 2014 by Lee’s lawyer, with the author’s permission. Some dismissed Watchman as an unfortunate mistake – a literary inferior that disappointed many fans of Mockingbird with it’s updated portrayal of Atticus as an avowed racist. Others found continuity between the two works, like Mary Karr, who reflected that there is “deep, great truth in both of her books.” For others the continuities found between these works were less flattering. For Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Watchman affirmed her view that Mockingbird “taught white people to think about race, and it did so badly.” Since I have yet to read Watchman, I do not know what to think of the book or what impact it will have on my appreciation for Mockingbird. But in the year following Ferguson and the Charleston church massacre (and so many other similar events over the last many months) none of us should be surprised to learn that racial inequities remain a deep part of the American experience, and a deep challenge to any of us who aspire to make the dream a source of action and reflection rather than a comforting, immobilizing fiction.
As I wrote, to a friend, in a reflection on the Emanuel 9 last June:
The deaths left me with a sense of both anger and despair. I wondered about what this said about our country and what it said about our humanity. I wondered whether our country could bear another act of racial violence in this year of so many incidents of racial violence. I wondered if our nation would ever get beyond the legacies of slavery and segregation. I thought about other countries with tortured histories of racial violence or cleansing and the reverberations of those histories for decades or generations to come. I also felt deep despair about the chasm in our society between a white America and a black America that has been widened and made so visible by this horrible year. In reading and learning about Reverend Pinckney and his fellow congregants I wondered what kind of monster could extinguish the lives of those who were so good, and how their families and communities could possibly bear their loss. Yet in all of that, I also felt humbled by the incredible grace and fortitude of the family members who spoke at the first court hearing about forgiveness and their determination to honor those who died through Christian solidarity. Their example made me feel small, it inspired me, and it left me with a desire to recommit myself to work toward a better America. Thank you for calling upon all of us to reflect on these terrible events and what they mean.
About the Transformative Humanities Project
Faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences share a belief in, and speak often with our students, their parents, and the broader public about, the importance of the humanities for shaping deep and meaningful human lives. These short reflections by our faculty illustrate — in concrete and personal ways — how encounters with the stuff of the humanities have in fact been transformative in their own lives. In composing these reflections faculty were responding to the following assignment: Pick a single work in the humanities that has profoundly affected you — that inspires you, haunts you, changed the way you think about things, convinced you to pursue your life’s work, redirected your life’s work . . . in short, a work that has made your life in some way deeper or more meaningful.
This reflection is one of the many thought-provoking and inspiring faculty contributions to the “Transformative Humanities” project, part of the College of Arts & Sciences’ New Century for the Humanities celebrations. Read more of them on our New Century for the Humanities page.