Atticus Finch is one wise old soul. Or more accurately, Harper Lee is a wise woman.
I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird for the second time, and I must say, it’s a great book. Harper Lee knows what’s up and I’m so glad she had the courage to write the things she did. I enjoyed the classic the first time through, but I must say, after my trip to New Orleans, it takes on a whole new meaning.
Maycomb isn’t that different than Council Bluffs or Storm Lake or really most other towns in rural Iowa. We still have racism and hypocritical people and those willing to let one man stand up and take the fall for an uncommon opinion. We have discrepancies between our public lives and private lives. We have unfair trials and and unjust decisions based on prejudice. We are cowardly and make excuses. We are quick to judge and a little less eager to “consider things from his point of view – climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The last six months, I’ve experienced some of the same emotions as Jem, Scout, and Dill. No, I don’t have a Boo Radley next door, though there is a house with mysterious neighbors I never see. We don’t live in the 1930s where minorities are treated like dirt. But we do live in a world where though we say there are freedoms, they’re limited. The courtroom, “the one place where a man ought to get a square deal, be he any color of the rainbow.” is part of a flawed “justice” system. Racism is a very real and alive thing still happening in society. People are demeaned based on their skin color, whether that’s to their face or behind their back. It happens. and it’s sad.
I could easily relate with Scout and Jem as they processed what their father was doing by representing Tom Robinson. I had some of these same feelings this semester as I took a class on race, class and social justice issues. I walked out of the room each Monday frustrated and upset with America, the human race, and the government. Injustices were brought to light, flaws in the criminal justice system, systematic racism was explained and I saw the light. The dreadful light that helped me understand our country and the people in it a bit better.
I could understand Dill’s frustration with Maycomb and how they treated negros. He started crying in the midst of the trial because of how Mr. Gilmer was talking to Tom Robinson. It was derogatory and disrespectful. “It ain’t right, somehow it ain’t right to do ’em that way. Hasn’t anybody got any business talkin’ like that – it just makes me sick.” At the time, that was common way of treating black people, but Dill, a child, is the one who saw the injustice and was upset by it. “Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry…cry about the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.” Now, I didn’t have exactly the same experience as Dill, but it was similar enough.
We toured the Louisiana State Penitentiary while we were in Louisiana and I must say, it was life changing, eye-opening, and heart breaking all at the same time. We met some of the prisoners, most of whom were sentenced to life in prison. And honestly, I was apprehensive about touring Angola, what used to be one of the most violent prisons in the United States, but the people were really nice. I thought I would see a place filled with rapists, murderers, and thieves, but I was able to see past that and look at the people as people. I didn’t care what their skin color was, I didn’t really care what they had done, I saw them as people with families and friends who loved them and missed them. I saw them as repentant individuals who made bad decisions and fatal mistakes that essentially cost them their life. I looked at them with grace in my eyes and pain in my heart that they wouldn’t receive a second chance. This was made all too clear to me when we entered the room holding the lethal injection table. I sat and listened to the explanation of the process with misty eyes. It was sad to see. And then the man said something about a viewing lottery and I became angry. And then I looked at the table and the straps hanging down and pictured a person and saw their family weeping at home while perfect strangers were sitting behind a glass wall, enjoying the taking of a life. It tore me apart and the moment I walked through the door to leave, I lost it. Like Dill, I couldn’t keep it together anymore and wept for the families, and the prisoners, and our country, and minorities, and humanity, and my life as I just started to realize all the crap in this world I was blinded to. It was an unfortunate, but much needed experience in my life to understand my place in this world, my views and beliefs, and to help me see the changes I needed to make.
College has steadily chipped away at my naivety little by little. This trip knocked off a chunk, which may cause some of you to worry about my good-girl, christian soul. I’m fine. In fact, I’m great. I’m seeing how growing up with a fundamentalist faith shaped me and how I don’t necessarily appreciate that, but I realize I can’t change it. I can see where I came from, own my faith and my life and shape it based on my convictions…not my parents’ or my pastors’. Instead of rules, I want to practice grace. Instead of judgment, empathy. Instead of prejudice, be open minded. I want to care about relationships and transparency and justice. I want to be more like Atticus and less like that dreadful Missionary society in the book.