The year 2009 marked the 50th Anniversary of the publication of the book, "To Kill A Mockingbird". It's one of those books everyone had to read in junior and senior high school, like "A Tale of Two Cities" (check), "Catcher in the Rye", (check) and "Pride and Prejudice" (check).
I confess that I haven't read it since, which is odd, because what I remember most about the book is the awareness it raised in me about racism, and the commitment it created in my heart and soul for the Civil Rights Movement.
Inspired by the anniversary and confounded by the racism inherent in the Tea Party Movement, I put it on my list of books to read again. That was last summer. I'm just getting to it. Finished it Friday night, in fact.
I thought this would be just a pleasant little stroll down Memory Lane. A little measure of how far we've come, baby. Perhaps, even a measure of how far I've come.
I'm discovering that Memory Lane is not always an enjoyable place.
Yes, I know that it was author Harper Lee's one and only book, which became an instant classic as well as a much loved movie.
Yes, I know that the book is a portrayal of Alabama in the 1930's, so it is about a specific period of time and a specific cultural attitude.
However, it also remains required reading in many junior and senior high schools, and Atticus Finch, the council for the defense of Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of the rape of a white woman, has become something of a role model for the legal profession.
Therein begins my problem.
Let me begin with identifying my perspective. First of all, while I am a voracious reader, I am not a literary critic. I wouldn't know how to begin to critique a great work like this, much less an article in People Magazine. So, if you're expecting an in-depth critical analysis of this work, I suggest you look elsewhere.
Secondly, I am identified in the Census as a fairly well educated Caucasian woman of middle class means who has shared her life for the past 34 years with another woman.
Because I can't separate the prejudice I experience as a woman from the prejudice I experience because of my so-called 'sexual orientation', I tend to see all oppression as being part of an interconnected web.
I am, therefore, passionate about multiculturalism which includes fighting against prejudice and oppression in all of its forms - race, ethnicity, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, class, financial status and physical or intellectual ability.
I am, therefore, highly resistant to the impulse to set up a hierarchy of oppression - as if one were worse than another.
That often causes my African American friends to wince. I understand. The sin and stench of slavery still function like the sting of the master's whip. Were I African American, I would, no doubt, have the perspective many do - that anti-oppression work begins with a full-frontal attack on the evils of racism.
I'm not and I don't. I believe it begins with the sin of the oppression of one human being by another and that collaboration among the wide variety of those who suffer oppression is the key strategy to liberation and equality.
That's my starting point and I do not apologize for it. That doesn't mean that I don't believe we should not have a full-frontal attack on the evils of racism. I do. With all my heart and soul, my mind and strength.
Indeed, whenever I see the evil of racism, I jump in both feet. You may have noticed that I also do the same for the issues that most concern me - sexism and misogyny, heterosexism and homophobia.
And that, my friends, is how it is for me. The personal is always political and structures and systems of prejudice and oppression are highly political beasts which need to be fought at every turn.
I simply don't see the benefit of establishing a hierarchy of oppression when collaborative efforts have, historically, been the most successful (See also the Quaker activism which included a dual approach to the abolition of slavery and activism for the suffrage of women - Frederic Douglass being a prime example of that strategy.)
'Sister Outsider', Audre Lorde, said that you can't dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. In other words, you can't free yourself from oppression by oppressing others - even in the most benign way. Anti-oppression work is whole cloth with many different threads. Pull on one and the whole work begins to unravel.
So, you won't be surprised to hear me say that my first response to re-reading "To Kill A Mockingbird" was to be stunned - an horrified - by the racism inherent in the book - and in confronting my own racism once again.
However, as the story unfolded, I was also horrified by the flat-out misogyny, sexism, heterosexism, and classism that worked hand-in-hand with racism to convict Tom Robinson.
I was even more stunned that I had completely missed that factor when I first read the book at age, oh, I don't know 14 or 16 years old. It even passed me by when I saw the movie as a young adult.
First of all, Atticus Finch is treated as a hero - even among the African Americans in the book - when the guilty verdict is rendered against Tom Robinson. If Finch were a Civil Rights hero, he would be brimming with rage against the unjust verdict. He isn't. He's full of accommodation, not reform.
He makes excuses for the people of Maycomb, forgiving them their sins from a "sickness" - the inability to see a black man as a human being. All men (men!) he believes, are just alike. Except, of course, when they are not.
When the subject of the presence of the Klan in Maycomb is brought up, Finch brushes it aside saying, "They paraded by Mr. Sam Levy's house one night but Sam just stood on his porch and told 'em things had come to a pretty pass . . . Sam made 'em so ashamed of themselves they went away."
But Finch does not want to deal with the existence of anti-Semitism. He wants to believe in the fantasy of Sam Levy, down the street, giving the Klan a good scolding.
Somebody cue Rodney King, "Why can't we all just get along?"
It's a naive statement - one known to folk across the racial spectrum - that promotes accommodation. However, it is reform, as history proves, lamentably, which is the only path to assurance of some small iota of cultural harmony through compliance with the law.
Finch will stand up to racists. He'll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of his relationships with people like Mr. Cunningham - the poor white farmer who leads lynch mobs against black people. Or, Mr. Sam Levy. Or, the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.
He refuses to see the structural dimensions of prejudice, much less the systemic problems of racism.
Accommodation does not change prejudice. Change the law, and hearts may follow. Or, not. But, at least there will be the law of the land and consequences for breaking that law. This is an important point to remember when we return to the Tea Party folks.
I want to talk about Mr. Cunningham for a moment because it's a fine example of how class status weaves its way into the mix.
Finch likes Walter Cunningham. Cunningham is, to his mind, the right sort of poor white farmer: a man who refuses a W.P.A. handout and who scrupulously repays Finch for legal work with a load of stove wood, a sack of hickory nuts, and a crate of smilax and holly.
Finch tells his daughter that Cunningham is "basically a good man," who "just has his blind spots along wit the rest of us."
Blind spots? Excuse me? It just so happens that one of his "blind spots" is a homicidal rage against black people. In my book, that considerably diminishes his status as "basically a good man."
This, however, is part of the defense Finch uses for his client. Robinson is the church goer, the "good Negro." Mayella Ewell, the alleged rape victim, comes from the town's lowest breed of poor whites.
"Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells," Scout tells us. "No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings."
They live in a shack behind the town dump, with windows that "were merely open spaces in the walls, which in the summertime were covered with greasy strips of cheesecloth to keep out the varmints that feasted on Maycomb's refuse."
Bob Ewell is described as a "little bantam cock of a man" with a face as red as his neck, so unaccustomed to polite society that cleaning up for the trial leaves him with a "scalded look; as if an over-night soaking had deprived him of protective layers of dirt."
His daughter, the complainant, is a "thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labor."
See? The Ewells are trash.
When the defense insinuates that Mayella is the victim of incest at the hands of her father, it is not to make her a sympathetic figure. Rather it is to impugn her credibility.
Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But as a good Jim Crow liberal he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.
This new insight caused me to gasp out loud and burst into tears. Why hadn't I seen this before? Why hadn't there been any class discussion on this when I was in school?
This is what happens, I suspect, when you interpret the picture by looking only at the broad brush strokes of good and evil, black and white. You miss the nuance and subtlety, the subtexts and subplots - the shades of gray, as it were.
It's fairly easy to spot a bigot. They can actually become humorous to watch - like Archie Bunker - as long as you don't have to live with them. As long as they don't have any power or authority.
Watching the book's hero disintegrate into someone willing to broker class and gender for race was like watching him take his shoes off and discovering he had clay feet.
The author saves the worst for the last. Bob Ewell has become humiliated by the trial. In revenge he attacks Scout and her brother on Halloween night. Boo Radley, the quiet and reclusive neighbor of the Finches, comes to their rescue, and in the scuffle, Radley kills Ewell.
Sherrif Tate brings the news to Finch and asks him to lie about what really happened. The story will be that Ewell inadvertently stabbed himself in the scuffle. Finch buys into the story and then tells Scout, "Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?"
Forget about the good lawyer and the sheriff's complicity in obstructing justice. Forget that they told a flat out lie and engaged minor children to collude with it.
Atticus Finch had been faced with jurors who had one set of standards for white people like Ewells and another set for black folk like Tom Robinson. His response was to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell.
That's when the mockingbird died for me.
I suspect, in that moment in the book, that it did for Scout, too. It just took longer for my innocence to die - 40 years or so, in fact - and for me to begin to understand more deeply how innocence and ignorance continue to be the seeds upon which the Evil Birds of Prejudice and Oppression feast.
So, here's the thing about Tea Party members - especially those groups of Tea Party members who call themselves Tea Baggers - the thing about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and the rest of the good folk who, oh gosh, just want to get America back on track and give 'the land of the free and the home of the brave' back to the people of these United States.
I know there are intelligent, educated members of the Tea Party - people like Diana Reimer,
featured today in this NY Times video - who were jolted into the movement when the economy tanked.
They were, by their own admission, pretty much asleep - fat, happy, and uncaring about the world of politics or the welfare of anyone else. They had theirs. Why should they worry about yours? Now they are wide awake and angry. One man in the clip calls them "The National Guard" of the political movement.
I'm sure they fancy themselves as contemporary Atticus Finches and Sherrifs Tate. You do what you gotta do. By any means necessary. Even if that means you have to lie - to others and yourself - to protect what's true for you.
The Tea Party members and Tea Baggers talk about 'giving America back to the people' but we all know that is code language - conscious or unconscious - to cover their outrage that a Black man is in the White House.
While that is odious enough, it is critically important to remember that whatever traction this movement gets will be absolutely dependent upon the complicity of issues of class and gender - as well as sexual orientation.
This is about 'brokering' the various prejudices for the preservation of the dominant cultural paradigm.
Think this can't happen? That this is just the stuff of 50 year old novels about what happened in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s?
We only need to look more closely at the "reform" of the health care insurance industry which was brokered on the backs of the reproductive rights of women of poverty - many of whom are people of color.
One of my colleagues has also discovered that, while her health insurance will still be "allowed" to be covered by her partner, who is a state employee, her partner's insurance premium used to pay for her health insurance will now be subject to tax.
Starting to get it? Perhaps you already have. Perhaps you got it years ago.
I'm still mourning the killing of the mockingbird, which, as the myth goes, is a sin.
We would do well to remember that famous quote by Martin Niemöller:
"THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
THEN THEY CAME for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up."