Sad to be afraid of your own shame

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

In 2018, the Biloxi, Mississippi Public Schools removed the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its eighth-grade curriculum while it was being taught after a mother complained to the superintendent that it made her son feel uncomfortable.

As it turns out, this mother’s child was far more tuned in than his mother was since “To Kill a Mockingbird” is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. That is the point of the book.

Mississippi has not been alone in these disturbing times, nor is “Mockingbird,” as “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Cay,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and “Charlotte’s Web” are among more and more books being banned in school systems and public libraries across America for their use of racist epithets that are, very sadly and most assuredly, part of our history.

“Those that fail to learn from history,” Winston Churchill said, “are doomed to repeat it.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960 at the height of the Civil Rights movement and was an instant success, immediately becoming a standard of American literature. The author, the late Harper Lee, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her enduring story of that little girl, Miss Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, as she patrolled the neighborhood and the ethos of the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the early 1930s

The character of Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, was based on Lee’s own father, a liberal Alabama lawyer and statesman who frequently defended African Americans within the racially prejudiced legal system.

“Maycomb was an old town,” Scout tells us in chapter one, “but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

“People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was 24 hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.”

I wouldn’t have known Harper Lee had she rolled up to my front porch from the inside of an old tire. Yet because of the gift she gave us, the sense of loss has been profound since the time of her death in 2016. Though she had not written since “Mockingbird,” we lost a voice very familiar to our being, and of our conscience.

“You never really understand a person,” Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, “until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of the first eye-opening experiences of my life and remains one of my most valued, not only for the ethics it provides, but for the avocational and professional incentives it has provided as well.

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read,” Scout says. “One does not love breathing.”

Growing up in our home, my brother and I were expected to read, as our mother was a lover and a teacher of English and literature. Yet somehow she was able to mess with our heads and get it through to us that reading, and reading whenever and whatever we wanted to, was not only a necessity, but first and foremost a privilege — by definition, “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

My brother didn’t need that kind of motivation, because he always just loved to read. But being the youngest in the family, I certainly believed I needed to be of that particular person or group of people.

Perhaps the trick came in telling us to turn out the light and put away the book when it was past our bedtime. If that was it, it worked, because it didn’t take us long to discover flashlights worked even better from under the covers.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” sealed our fate, first when we were allowed to stay up past those bedtimes to watch the movie on television, then to suddenly discover that a copy of the novel had existed in our home all along, giving us the opportunity to read it cover to cover, again and again, continuing through our adult years.

Every word has long been committed to memory, yet with each reading comes new and fresh enlightenment.

“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin,” Atticus says, “but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

It is a work that will stand the test of time no matter how hard aspiring fascists try to keep it out of our hands. It is so meaningful that every word, passage, insight and sentence in the movie stays true to the manuscript of the book. In most ways, it stands as one of the very few films that is as good as the book is, and we should pray Hollywood never comes to mind to remake it, because there is no way they are going to get it just right two times in a row.

Yet it is the book itself, whether read before or after seeing the movie, that has become so vital and necessary to countless generations of readers. Reading did become breathing, because after reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we needed to read more and more, anything and everything.

No, I wouldn’t have known Harper Lee if she had walked up to me on the street dressed as a ham. But through her, I, along with millions of others, began to learn and understand more about myself. I have read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and will never be able to read it enough.

Yes, we owe Harper Lee an enormous debt of gratitude. We owe her our appreciation; and our sense of loss remains profound. For if she were still with us, perhaps she would write a book about these times as well so we could all take a look at what we’re in danger of becoming.

There are no bad books, unless we’re ashamed of what we might find in them.

Banning books is fascist; banning books is a sin. Sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT