I remember a distinguished professor, designer, and artist named Walter Hood telling his compatriots at dinner, “When I was growing up there was one thing I knew: if a white woman ever asked me to come bust up her chifforobe, I was going to say no thank you,” he said, citing an infamous scene from To Kill a Mockingbird. “I did not even know what a chifforobe was, but I knew a black man would get into a world of trouble for busting up a white woman’s chifforobe.”
Black folk and white folk tend to take dramatically different lessons from Nell Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I know at least ten white female lawyers (and an abundance of white male lawyers) who trace their careers to the 1962 motion picture. In 2003, the American Film Institute even named Atticus Finch America’s all-time-favorite hero.
No wonder, then, that last year’s release of Lee’s early draft of and sequel to the iconic first novel caused so many shudders and cries. Atticus Finch a member of a White Citizens’ council? Atticus Finch questioning the humanity of good Tom Robinson? Our beloved Scout not becoming a combination of Virginia Durr, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Gloria Steinem?
In 2006, I moderated a panel of civil rights attorneys gathered to discuss the film and the book. After watching the movie, a black mother rose and said she regretted bringing her daughter to see it. The film registered differently to her now than when she was her daughter’s age. For her, the visions of patriarchy and paternalism recalled a rather recent era and offered a bitter reminder of how little things had changed. The famous post-trial scene where the black folk rise in honor of Atticus was now a mockerydocile, voiceless negroes embracing their subservience and dependence.
As James Baldwin once wrote of Uncle Tom‘s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird is “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which, “whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.”
When I think of Nell Harper Lee, I like thinking of the woman with the steel-trap mind who accompanied her eldritch little friend, Truman Capote, to windswept Kansas, listening to the stories of the everyday folk of Holcomb. She knew all sorts of truth. Can we handle the truth?