A musing on the To Kill A Mockingbird read-a-thon

BN To Kill A Mockingbird Readathon roster

Pittsford, NY Barnes & Noble roster for the “To Kill A Mockingbird” read-a-thon.

This will be a quick post, informal and to the point. I hope. Often I have great ideas and because I want to be profound I put off writing and then lose the idea and never write it down.

And I don’t want to do this with what’s running through my mind.

So if it feels like maybe I’m rambling or am not making my point, or if you see typos or mistakes or places where maybe you think I haven’t thought through an idea, keep in mind that I’ve got just a few minutes between places I need to be this afternoon, and I’m writing this in between where I just was and where I’m going.

I got to take part today in Barnes & Nobles “To Kill A Mockingbird” Read-a-thon, to celebrate the release tomorrow of Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman”. The readings started at 9 am this morning and end at 9 pm tonight, with guest readers taking half hour time slots to read the entire book from cover to cover. It’s a nationwide event, and I was at the Pittsford Barnes & Noble.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” is one of my favorite movies, not only because it’s so brilliantly done, but because it so brilliantly follows Lee’s book. (It’s pure joy when a movie does justice to a book, isn’t it? And it so rarely happens.) We could talk all day about characters and setting and story, but for now it’s enough to say that when I got to B&N,  I got sit and listen to chapters 17, 18 and 19, read by Judy Shomper, chair of the theater department at Brighton High School and Beth Adams, morning show host on WXXI.

BN To Kill A Mockingbird Readathon Judy Shomper

Judy Shomper, chair of the theater department at Brighton High School, reading from “To Kill A Mockingbird”.

As I came into the store, I could hear the sound of the reader echoing throughout the entire store, although I wasn’t actually listening to the words. But after I’d checked in, said hello to Beth and chatted for a minute, I settled in to listen to Judy Shomper and then Beth Adams read from the famous courtroom scene. You know what I’m talking about: Atticus is questioning Mayella Ewell about her beating and the accusation that it was at the hands of Tom Robinson, a Negro.

The word “nigger” is used throughout the text.

Atticus is walking Mayella through a series questions to get her to acknowledge that it was her father that beat her, not Tom Robinson, that in fact Tom Robinson couldn’t have beat her owing to his deformed arm.

It’s stirring to me that when he calls her Miss Mayella or ma’am, she’s offended. Here’s a girl who’s never been treated with respect and assumes she’s being mocked. She’s so used to to being abused and beaten down that she responds to respect the way a feral cat responds to a soft touch.

You don’t have to be Mayella Ewell to connect with that sentiment, do you, ladies?

BN To Kill A Mockingbird Readathon Beth Adams WXXI

Beth Adams, morning show host on WXXI, reading from “To Kill A Mockingbird”.

I confess, it felt uncomfortable to listen as the tale of Harper Lees Southern town and its crimes were read aloud for our modern consideration. Every use of the word “nigger” was like a sharp slap across my sensibilities. I was aware of how offensive that word is, how deeply the attitudes about race divided – and still divide – our nation, and how the book so profoundly makes me think about it all. Were shoppers aware of what we were reading? Did they have thoughts about hearing that word used in the store? Had they ever even read the book, thought about the story beyond just a famous movie staring Gregory Peck?

BN To Kill A Mockingbird Readathon me

I read Chapter 20 and part of Chapter 21 at the “To Kill A Mockingbird” Readathon.

When it was my turn to read, I read the testimony of Tom Robinson, the real story of what happened between himself and Mayella and the travesty of justice that was his arrest, followed by most of the summation of Atticus Finch about the crime that was really committed on that November day: that a white woman dared to be attracted to, and kiss, a Negro; the guilt that followed; the accusation she made that would put that guilt away from her and condemn an innocent man to death; and what everyone suspected: that the girl was savagely beaten by her own father.

There are so many thoughts running through my head about race, women, poverty, the old South, the new South, the same South, the old America, the new America, the same Amerca. About the way Mayella is treated by her father and society; the way Tom is treated by society; the decency with which Atticus treats them both; the way Jem and Scout come to understand their father and prejudice.

It made me want to go back and read the book again, right now, today. The message is so relevant and has much food for thought.

Anyway, like I said, I have no profound thoughts or conclusions, or even why it all felt so moving to me. We were just reading a book in a bookstore. But when something happens that makes me think this way it helps to set it down on paper (even if it’s cyber paper) so that I can muse about it later -and so you can share your thoughts.

I want to know where we’ve been, as a culture, and I want to know how to get to where we want to be. I know where my own experiences have tainted my thoughts about others, and how my eyes have been opened to new perspectives, to places where I’ve been wrong and where I’ve had to admit it.

I know where, in the past, I’ve reached out to ask for guidance, because I want to be more accepting and more tolerant and more understanding, and I know where those efforts have been welcomed – and thrown back in my face. I’ve said that I want to understand and been told to come back when I understand; I’ve asked for help to learn more and been told to educate myself. I’ve also had my questions met with patience and love and tolerance, and had my own views profoundly changed s a result.

I want to do better, be better, know better. Why are the conversations so difficult?

And yet there it is, in this classic novel that speaks so openly and honestly, in language that is both beautiful and biting, with words that are at the same time moving and distasteful. It’s truth, right there for our consideration. It’s the issue, laid out for whoever wants to see it.

Reading those words aloud was profoundly more difficult to ignore than reading them alone, in my head. And it’s probably why my mind is a bit unsettled.

The topic of race or gender or tolerance has been all over social media lately, and while it’s good that we’re having discussions, I don’t think online is the place where real change is going to take place. I think it has to be face to face, one on one, where we can look each other in the eye and see how our words really impact our fellow humans, where we can inhale each other’s words, where we can genuinely seek understanding and accept where we’ve failed – all of us – as well as acknowledge how far we’ve come, and work together to continue to move forward.

Maybe it happens over the discussion of a book, this beautiful, haunting book. I don’t know. Like I said, I’m just thinking out loud, and I’m halfway between where I just was and where I’m going.

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