Last week, I found myself on a privately owned Greek island with no shops, wi-fi, radio or television. Sprawled day after day on a swinging bed under a giant oak tree, I discovered that the book you take to such a remote place (a permanent population of three people, limited electricity, 2,500 olive trees, a yoga shala, some loud owls and a resident dog) is your connection to the less scenic world you’ve left behind.
On Silver Island – a four-hour bus, ferry and speedboat ride from Athens that’s more than worth the trouble – there was sun-drenched nature, a phosphorescent Aegean sea, lots of yoga.... and the book I’d brought with me. Anything could have happened beyond the island’s 60 acres and I would have been none the wiser.
In fact, things were happening a stone’s throw away, to the Greek economy. Worse things had happened further afield, I found out, when I emerged seven days later. A white man called Dylann Roof had gone into a black church in South Carolina and shot 10 African Americans, killing nine. The book I had taken with me connected me to the outside world without my realising while I was there. I had packed Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; I wanted to revisit Scout’s segregation-era Alabama before Lee’s follow-up, Go Set a Watchman (out in mid-July), in which Scout, now adult and probably going by her proper name, Jean Louise Finch, returns to the South to visit her father, Atticus Finch. The story, I remembered, is about childhood before it becomes one about racial oppression; and it’s all the more shocking when this latter adult world intrudes on the innocence of Jem and Scout’s childish one.
After Charleston, To Kill a Mockingbird seems less a historical novel about racism than a contemporary story about the insidious legacy of slavery and segregation. Fewer “respectable” old ladies like the novel’s Mrs Dubose can get away with being so openly racist, but the book is still sadly relevant to America today.
There is also the politics of its writing. A white author, raised in the segregated South, dramatising this subject in 1960 was a brave thing, though critics have pointed to gaps in its subjectivity. The American author James McBride calls Lee a “brilliant writer” but wonders why the book’s black characters, courageous as they are, don’t survive. Why don’t we see Calpurnia, the housekeeper, when she leaves the Finch’s? Is she only relevant in this world and not her own (though we do have that evocative church scene, in which the black congregation surprises Jem and Scout by singing hymns line-by-line, following the pastor).
Others think it serves to liberate the Southern white male, not just its black counterpart: is it not through the heroic figure of the white lawyer, Atticus (or Gregory Peck as we know him from the film), and his defence of a black man charged with rape, that the book helped to liberate the black South? McBride, quoted in a book of essays by Mary McDonagh Murphy, Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird (Arrow), discusses Lee’s achievement and her limitation: “I think Martin Luther King was brave, Malcolm X was brave, James Baldwin...was brave .” “I think she [Lee] did the best she could, given how she was raised. That still doesn’t absolve the book or this country of the whole business of racism.”
Some have noted the convenience with which racism is ascribed solely to the American South, as if it were a regional scourge and not an endemic, institutionalised way of being. I wondered, when I heard about Charleston, whether this act of terror had inspired the same outrage and the same demand for white Americans to apologise for this appalling act that has accompanied criticisms of other groups who commit horrific acts, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Because although I had missed it, this should surely have been described as nothing less than terror, and one that fits into a pattern of white-on-black violence in America.
Moving films such as Selma and 12 Years a Slave have dramatised the dark heart of American history; there was also this week’s Carnegie Medal Award winner, Buffalo Soldier, by Tanya Landman, a children’s novel about a former slave who disguised herself as a man to join the army; as well as Jon Walter’s recent My Name is not Friday, also about slavery and the American Civil War. They all present painful portraits of racial oppression, but at the same time they are sealed off in their historical genre. Given recent events, there seems far less of a safe distance between history – the crimes of “then” – and the continued trajectory of atrocities now.Reuse content