16 July 2013

Our "Race" Problem

I just finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, that wonderful American classic, for the first time since I started writing my Angela novels. As an author you begin to see much more in the fiction you read, elements you never saw before or you paid little attention to, because you have become focused on the interaction of characters and many other elements of writing a story. I would like to point out two important aspects of that book.

The first is voice. The narrator is a fictional character created by Harper Lee: Scout (Jean Louise) Finch. It is the adult Scout telling us about her childhood experiences, recounting them with humor, insight, and an adult perspective. At the same time, Scout's actions and dialogue in the novel are typical of a six-to-nine year old, her ages in the story. The adult voice and child mentality work together seamlessly. It is an amazing accomplishment, all the more so because Lee went against the prevailing modernist practice of telling non-stories. In so doing she produced what may be the best American work of fiction in the 20th century.

The other element I wish to discuss fills me with sadness in the light of the events of the last week. After the jury convicts Tom Robinson, a black farm worker, when it is clear from the evidence presented at the trial that he is innocent, Jem, Scout's older brother, complains to Atticus (his father) that maybe we should do away with juries. Keep in mind that Scout and her family are white and respected in their town even if they are considered eccentric. Atticus' answer, referring to the trial and to an earlier event in which a group of men tries to pull Tom out of jail and lynch him is:

"Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom's jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn't go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads--they couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those are the facts of life."

A little later down the page Atticus says:

"As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it--whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."

Ouch! Will we ever change? My life experience, and the events of last week, convince me that it will not. I long for the day when the phrase "...with liberty and justice for all" becomes a fact.

I touch lightly on some of these issues in my Angela series. You can get the first of the three books at www.amazon.com/author/bedforddavid . Ask for the new trade paperback issue, much cheaper than the hardback, of which Amazon has a few left and wishes to unload. But it's too expensive. Get the paperback at $9.50. The second book will appear in the fall and I am writing the third now.

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