Laughter sweetens bitter truth

I would come, many years later, to understand why To Kill a Mockingbird is considered an important novel; but when I first read it at 11, I was simply absorbed by the way it evoked the mysteries of childhood, of treasures discovered in trees and games played with an exotic summer friend. I loved that the narrator was a girl with the marvellously ungirly name of Scout. I loved her unsentimental nature, her sharp tongue, her volubility and her humour.

She reminded me of the imagined version of myself I liked best. Her knowing, older brother Jem was very much like my brother, Okey, whose happy shadow I was, and her small southern American town, Macomb, was similar to my town, Nsukka in eastern Nigeria. It was a place of open doors, of the one strange family about whom everyone gossiped and of petty hierarchies and loyalties: a place both smug and safe. But Macomb was also much less sophisticated than my town, in a way that was fascinating, with little boys who did not bathe for weeks and deals sealed by spitting into palms.

I was taken by how incredibly funny the novel was, in a deadpan way, with laugh-aloud scenes, such as when Scout’s teacher at school is horrified to discover that her pupil is literate.

I read the novel with great delight. Or rather I read the first part with great delight and mostly skipped the second part. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t able to understand the social and political nuances or because I was unprepared for the collective loss of innocence that the second part represents — when Scout and her brother observe their father’s defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman. The racism alluded to in the first part explodes in all its savagery and the town — which seemed to be guilty only of a forgivable insularity — becomes a cesspit.

Rereading the novel as an adult, I came to admire it for its clear-eyed depiction of American tribalism in its three major manifestations: race, class and region. Few contemporary literary American novels have such a sweep and fewer have the confidence to take on social issues in the way Harper Lee does. Much literary writing today about racism is cloaked in irony or in so much lyricism that it becomes gaseous. Lee refuses to hide behind aesthetics. Her writing is so beautiful, so steady and even and limpid, that she might have evaded confronting these tribalisms head-on, but she doesn’t.

Neither does she create saintly characters — although Atticus Finch comes close. She complicates them all, so that although Scout is the lovable narrator whose family deplores racism, we are not allowed to forget that she and her family benefit from the privilege of being white. When their summer friend Dill is upset by the dehumanising way that the black man is questioned in court, Scout says “He’s just a negro”, with the certainty that comes from being complicit, simply by virtue of birth, in a system of institutionalised inequality. It does not occur to Scout to question this, as it does not occur to her to question the idea that four black adults rise in a courtroom to give up their seats to little white children.

The most moving line, for me, is spoken by the accused black man, Tom, who, in response to a question about why he was scared even though he was innocent, says: “If you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.” That simple statement says all the reader needs to know about the larger system that Lee questions, in which being black was synonymous with guilt.

That other great chronicler of the American south, William Faulkner, writes of racism as though it was an inevitable occurrence, a foundation already laid by the heavens, and merely portrayed and explored in fiction, whereas Lee writes with a fiercely progressive ink, in which there is nothing inevitable about racism — its very foundation is open to question. But she does so with confidence and skill that always carries the reader along.

Her children characters may be politically astute but they are nevertheless still children, rather than adults in little bodies. Her rage is present, her sense of the ludicrous keen, but the issues are always encircled in a wonderful humanity.
Although racism might be America’s gravest sin — and it certainly is portrayed as such in this novel — class discrimination comes a close second. Macomb does not appear to have middle-class black people, or if it does Scout does not encounter them, but the class distinctions in her white world are glaring. The Ewells are despicable because they are racist but almost as much because they are “trash”. They sign relief cheques and never bathe and somehow serve as a form of self-congratulating entertainment for the better-placed whites. The white woman who accuses a black man of raping her is so unused to being spoken to courteously that she thinks she is being mocked.

Upper-class people are indulged: Mr Dolphus Raymond is a wealthy white man from a “fine old family” who prefers the company of black people. He is not ostracised, however, as a lower-class white person would be, because he is buffered by his wealth and heritage.

It may not be mentioned very often, but the North looms large in the imagination of Lee’s Southerners, as a place of uppity people who think they know better than the Southerners; a place where a white man sends his mixed-race children because they might be better treated there and a place generally resented for winning the Civil War.

Sometimes novels are considered “important” in the way medicine is — they taste terrible and are difficult to get down your throat, but are good for you. The best novels are those that are important without being like medicine; they have something to say, are expansive and intelligent but never forget to be entertaining and to have character and emotion at their centre. Harper Lee’s triumph is one of those. — Guardian News & Media 2010

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