Unlike many people, I only came across the novel To Kill A Mockingbird in my 20’s. No, it was not because I studied it as a Literature student but it was work that brought about the encounter. From the first reading, I was sold on it. The sleepy fictitious town of Maycomb and the curious citizens, some rather eccentric captivated me. The bigotry and racial discrimination against the blacks and people who are different incensed me.
But it was really the message that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird that hit me hard. Unbeknownst to me, it changed my life in more ways than one. Here’s how:
- It awoken the latent activist in me although I don’t think I’m really one because seriously, I am afraid of activism. But I’m a fighter for the underdog, a champion of the down trodden, a supporter of the minority and in this wise, I guess there is some activism in me. I think of myself more as being somewhat anti-establishment. But then that might be too strong a word too. Yet, I think I do have a tendency to look suspiciously at establishment especially if I sense them to be foolish and self-serving. The novel has brought up these tendencies in me because firstly, it made me suspect certain leaders around me and secondly, from it I’ve learned that being a bystander and doing nothing when you see wrong being done is as bad as performing the wrong deed yourself.
- Reading the novel marked the beginning of the end of my religiosity. I didn’t know it at that time but the message that being a Christian doesn’t give me a God-given right to anything was etched in my psyche. In the novel, all the characters were Christian to varying degrees. I distinctly remember the description of a group of “foot-washing Baptists” who spewed scriptures at Miss Maudie Atkinson, one of the good characters in the novel, for spending too much time in her garden tending to her flowers instead of praying and reading the Bible. They made me question religious fanaticism. But it was the episode of the missionary tea which affected me the most – in the novel, a group of religious women had gathered for tea to discuss supporting a missionary in his work in a foreign country helping natives. In the same breath, they were supporting white supremacy and debasing the blacks in their own, praising the merits of keeping their black maids in their place so that they will not at any time think that they are anything better than their servant status. I saw the hypocrisy of church goers and the shameful use of God’s name to push one’s own agenda. Is this fiction? I see too much of these things going on around me to think that it was simply a figment of imagination in the creative mind of Lee. I have since given up on religion and religiosity. I can’t bear to see hypocrisy and wrong done in God’s holy name.
- I am Atticus and Miss Maudie in a single person. At least I think I am and wish to be so. These 2 characters have become my role models in life. I want to be like Atticus, the lawyer who fought for Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman; like Atticus, I want to be fearlessly fighting for what is right, even if it costs me an arm and a leg. I don’t know whether I will be able to have the kind of moral courage that he had…to risk everything and fight a whole community for what is right. But I hope that I would if confronted with something as big as his. In the novel, Atticus talks about moral courage: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” As a human being, I fear the extent of such courage. But in my own way, I’ve spoken out and acted against what I think is wrong, although I must admit that I don’t have his polish and gentlemanliness. And I get into trouble ever so often for opening my mouth. But that’s the price I know I have to pay. I want to be like Miss Maudie, the sharp tongued lady of Maycomb who thinks nothing of telling town gossips how stupid they are, sarcastically and sharply. Like her, I don’t suffer fools especially those who think they are wise and clever. And believe me, there are plenty of such fools with so little self-awareness around.
- Most importantly, Mockingbird made me a human being. I want to be like Scout, the young daughter of Atticus. Like her, I’ve much to learn, whether it be in dealing with people or in responding to moral issues. Of course, in the black and white world of the novel, things are more clear cut. In our real world, things get very complicated with many greys mixed with the confusing cesspool of emotions, social forces and real time politics. But I do hope that like the innocent Scout I will learn a very simple lesson and that is: it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. And I will learn that I’m imperfect and have lots more to learn. But I am first and foremost a human being.
Nelle Harper Lee passed away last week. She has gone to a better place. Hopefully, she will find it better than this world so that she will not need to be so reclusive any more.
But her one-hit lives on. She only needed one best-seller to precipitate change in her homeland. But I join the millions worldwide who have been moved and touched by her novel. She is not only the conscience of a generation; she is the conscience of all generations and all societies. The fight for rights have not ended with the blacks.
So it is farewell, Harper Lee; long live Mockingbird.
Quotable Quotes from To Kill A Mockingbird:
Watch clips of the 1962 movie in YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x6njs-cGUE&index=6&list=PLC2383F4CE69173C2