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To Kill a Mockingbird, Family Stories and History, and Other Learning Notes

January 28, 2009

One day last week, Sarah and I watched a bit of the inauguration and read part of To Kill a Mockingbird, which she finished the next day. I thought it was incredibly powerful, setting aside a portrayal of racism in Depression-era Alabama — a world that existed around the time my father was born–to watch our first bi-racial president sworn into office. “In one lifetime,” I told Sarah “We’ve come this far in one lifetime.”

We’ve been talking off and on about race relations, and the enormous changes I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s a tricky thing, because bigotry is complicated. It’s kind of like layers of sediment in the ground under our feet. When we wear down one layer, we glimpse another underneath. Nevertheless, I am dazzled by the changes that have happened in my and my parents’ lifetime.

I told Sarah a bit about how my mom felt growing up in Mississippi in the 40’s and 50’s. She grew up immersed in a pool of racism in its most undiluted form. My grandmother would even refuse to pay the “nigras” who worked in her cafe. (Unsurprisingly, they all quit.) Amazingly, my mom was raised this way without these attitudes seeping through her skin. She always knew racism was wrong. She didn’t have anyone to tell her, she just knew. As she got older, she’d have spirited debates with people in the cafe. She gave some of the locals food for thought. ๐Ÿ˜€

Mamaw, Papaw, and Mom served coffee and biscuits, in the cafe, to the local white farmers who were about to head out to the fields. Once Mom watched a fellow named Exxo Bassey leave the cafe, get into his car, and crash into an ancient pick-up truck driven by a black man. Exxo was totally in the wrong. Just because you’re living in a tiny town in the butt-crack of the deep South where — as far as I know — they’ve never gotten a proper stoplight to this very day — well — that doesn’t mean you don’t have to look before you pull away from the curb. But the black fellow got out of his truck, not daring to meet Exxo’s eyes of course, and apologized profusely. The consensus in the cafe was clear. “That “nigger” had no business being there to begin with.”

Mom told me this story 40 years later, and it seemed as vivid to her as if it had just happened. After we’d read about Tom Robinson, I told Sarah about it. Having grown up in a racially mixed community, surrounded by bi-racial families, it’s hard for my kids to grasp these things. It’s even hard for them to imagine that, when I was in elementary school in North Carolina, black and white kids almost never sat together at lunch. But it’s important. I want them to know why some things matter. Like the election of a “black” president. And when they glimpse those deeper layers in the earth, I want them to have some notion of how they evolved.

I also told Sarah that I thought Tom Robinson’s character was pretty stereotypical. (Yes, we’re back to Harper Lee). He was a “humble Negro.” (Ick!) Later authors (Richard Wright comes to mind — well look at that, he’s also a Mississippian) would create more “real,” complex characters who were victims of racism. I still think To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful book, and it has an important message, but it is what it is — it’s a product of its time, I guess. Hmmm … just for kicks, I just Googled “Tom Robinson stereotypical” and found this. It looks like it’ll be worth a read.

Monday morning, Sarah and I walked 2 miles at the YMCA. We talked a bit about movies, and I tried to explain the symbolism in the novel The Secret Life of Bees. She doesn’t really “get” symbolism yet. I thought this would be a good discussion to cut our teeth on, since the bee symbolism in that book is not subtle.

Sarah has been really absorbed in watching movies and writing reviews on her blog. I love seeing the intensity with which she’s honing her skills as a movie reviewer. ๐Ÿ™‚ One day last week, we watched a seriously weird independent film. It seemed to be a coming-of-age story about a gay boy. But I don’t know whether the guy ever “came of age” (and out of the closet) or not, because the plot was indecipherable to me. ๐Ÿ˜› Anyway, I chatted with her a little about symbolism in that.

Sarah been attending her two classes, which has involved writing several extemporaneous essays and doing grammar and vocabulary, among other things.ย  She’s really struggling in her ceramics class. Hands on things are difficult for her.

This morning, I woke up to find the ground covered with ice. (It has been WAY too cold for my thin Southern blood.) School was cancelled, so I happily went back to bed for a while. We all took the day off. (Sarah did some homework and watched movies). I stayed in my nightgown all day and did some serious catching up on work for my job. A good day! Tomorrow the schools are on a 2-hour delay (I have to take Sarah to class around 11). So my alarm clock is on a 2-hour delay too. 8:30! Woo-hoo!

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