On February 19, her life came to an end—right in the middle of Black History Month. There really was no other way for the script to be written. No other way for the story to close.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama—the same setting of her death nearly 90 years later. It was a town we all knew well, only we knew it as “Maycomb.” Lee first welcomed us to the backdrop of her childhood in To Kill a Mockingbird—her Pulitzer Prize-winning, fictional story that paints a picture of the all-too-non-fictional segregated scene in the south during the 1930s, as seen through the eyes of a perceptive, six-year-old white girl named Scout.
Following Lee’s death last week, I pulled her classic off the shelf and reread it cover to cover. I went back to Maycomb for the first time in years and was surprised by what I found.
It’s amazing how a story changes when your perspective shifts. Today, reading it now through the eyes of a parent, the story took on a whole new meaning. Passages that I once hurried through now halted me, forcing me to consume them.
Atticus was now more than just Scout’s dad. He was a voice of reason. A light shining in the darkness. An admirable example of how I hope my son sees me:
“He would return his hat to his head, swing me to his shoulders in her very presence, and we would go home in the twilight. It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
And quotes by him humbled me:
“Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him . . . if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him. I don’t want to lose him and Scout, because they’re all I’ve got.”
But it was also amazing how the more things changed the more they stayed the same. I saw in this reading that life in the 1930s really wasn’t that much different from life in the 1960s—when the book first came out. And sadly, the story still maintains its relevancy, with far too many similarities between life back then and life right now.
The same kind of hatred and discrimination is still alive and all too unwell today. It might come in a different form or carry a different tune, but it still rises up from the same malicious roots.
And so the same lesson Harper Lee tried to instill in us then, most definitely still applies today:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . .until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
What if we started there?
What if we spent a little less time shouting, hating, and killing each other—with our actions and with our words? What if we spent more time crawling inside each other’s very beings?
Maybe we wouldn’t like what we found there. Or maybe we’d find the mockingbird doing but one thing there…singing its heart out for us to enjoy.
Thank you, Ms. Lee, for sharing your song with us all.