'Mockingbird' sure to spark tough talk on race and alienation

Claudia Durst Johnson has a prediction for Chicago: Expect some controversy.

Johnson is the foremost academic expert on Harper Lee and Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," the 41-year-old novel that has been selected by the Chicago Public Library for its ambitious project to get all Chicagoans to read the same book at the same time.

"Mockingbird," Mayor Richard M. Daley's all-time favorite, isn't as simple or heart-warming as it may seem in the memories of many adults, said Johnson, a professor of English at the University of Alabama. Indeed, it is likely to spark hard-edged discussions and even heated debates.

The Chicago reading initiative, called "One Book, One Chicago," is aimed at building cross-cultural ties in an extremely multicultural metropolis and at fostering throughout the citizenry a greater love of reading. And "Mockingbird," which tells the story of a white lawyer defending a black man wrongfully accused of rape in 1930s Alabama, will do that, Johnson said.

"It's about outsiders, and almost everybody's felt like an outsider at least at some point in his or her life," she said. "Readers, both black and white, have recommended the book as an interesting and valid take on a situation and a time and a place -- and a person of conscience."

But, since its publication in 1960, the book has angered some readers because of its use of the "n" word, she said.

Indeed, last week, as the library was announcing its selection of the book, Oklahoma newspapers were reporting that officials at a high school in Muskogee in the southeast corner of the state were removing the book from the freshman reading list because "we didn't want to put any kids in an uncomfortable situation" of having to read the "n" word.

The Oklahoma ban is far from the first for the Lee book. In 1972, for example, the Indianapolis school system dropped "Mockingbird" and Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" from recommended reading lists because they were potentially offensive to African-Americans.

Objections shortsighted

Yet, Johnson, the author of "Understanding `To Kill a Mockingbird,'" said such objections, while understandable, are shortsighted.

"To avoid it in such a book would be to make the history of that period prettier than it was, and the real racial bigots seem more sensitive than they were," she said.

Actually, in the text of the novel, Lee makes clear what she thinks of the word. Scout, the young girl who narrates the book, comes to her father, Atticus Finch, and uses the word in asking if he is going to defend the accused black man, Tom Robinson.

Finch tells her it's wrong for her to use the "n" word, and then explains the even deeper issue of why he's willing to risk the criticism of the white community to do the right thing and represent Robinson.

Avoiding trouble

Critics have also objected to Lee's portrayal of Robinson as too servile. Johnson said, however, that Robinson displays the sort of "obsequious posture that many black people had to assume at that time" to avoid trouble -- and even lynching.

Reginald Gibbons, a poet, novelist and English professor at Northwestern University, said, "I'd love to sit in a [reading] group that had both black and white members and listen to that discussion."

A teenager in a white area near Houston when he read the book nearly four decades ago, Gibbons said the local A&P had two water fountains, one for white and one for blacks.

He was deeply moved by the book, but some of his neighbors had other reactions. "An idealistic white lawyer trying to help an unjustly accused black man was something that was going to stir up a lot of feelings back then," he said. "Among white readers, a lot of people either hated him or loved him in the South."

In modern-day Chicago, the discussions of Lee's novel could be fascinating.

"If they really can get people reading this book," Gibbons said, "it will be interesting to know what recent immigrants -- people who have been here a while but belong to different ethnic minorities, whether they're from Bosnia or Vietnam -- think about it.

"There are going to be a thousand different reactions to this book."

At Women & Children First, a bookstore in the Andersonville neighborhood, co-owner Ann Christophersen said Lee's novel is "a book I continue to think about, in part because we carry it at the store, and it's a book that sells regularly. It was, for me, a formative book. . . . [It was published] right when the civil rights movement was finally catching people's attention."

Lee's use of Scout as the narrator helps give the book its near-universal appeal, she said.

"The choice of seeing the story through the eyes of an impressionable, precocious youngster was a brilliant choice. It allows the story to unfold as a sort of learning experience in a way that isn't threatening to adults."

Go by the book

She has her own advice for people taking part in the library's "Mockingbird" initiative: Don't cheat. Read the book first. And then watch the movie.

The 1962 movie, which starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, is done so well, she said, that, if seen first, it will strongly influence the way a person reads and experiences the book.

While Muskogee High School may be banning "Mockingbird," many Chicago-area schools make sure their students read the classic.

At Loyola Academy in Wilmette, it's one of three books that incoming freshmen have to have read before arriving for classes, said Francis Phillips, the chair of the English department.

`Great for discussion'

"It's a great book for discussion," Phillips said.

"You can talk about it in modern-day. Have the rules changed? Or even reversed themselves? We bring up the O.J. case. And what about so many athletes or people with great lawyers getting out of certain things?"

In fact, it's a measure of the progress that remains to be made in race relations, Phillips said, that "there's always something every year that you can compare and contrast to the story."

This year, for example, he noted, there was the controversy over whether the predominantly black St. Sabina Catholic grammar school would be permitted to join a sports league made up of predominantly white Catholic schools.

Dempsey Travis, a historian of black Chicago as well as a successful real estate businessman, said he would have preferred if the library had chosen several books for this year's initiative, which will culminate at the second annual Chicago Book Week: City of Big Readers, Oct. 8-14. The Chicago Public Library is expected to formally launch the program later this month.

"There could have been a book by or about black people," he said. "And a book about the early Irish immigrants. And a book about the early Jewish people in Chicago."

But Travis acknowledged that Lee's novel has definite echoes in 2001. Robinson, he noted, is much like young black men today who are stopped by police simply because of their race.

"This guy was profiled. He wasn't guilty," Travis said.

"It applies today. It's a good story."

And it's also a story, he said, that will be attractive and accessible to readers from a variety of educational backgrounds. "It's a light read. It works. It's not Mt. Olympus," he said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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