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In praise of Harper Lee

Harper Lee's novel both captured a moment in history and taught eternal lessons

When Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, it was an instant success. The book won the  Pulitzer prize the following year and was immortalised on screen two years later .The story, as seen through the eyes of a child, presents a certain charm in its portrayal of innocence and discovery.  

At the time of the novel’s publication, race relations in the southern American states were reaching a boiling point. This was the year when a series of sit-ins by mostly black youths began to take place in segregated establishments across the South and a year before Freedom Riders riding interstate buses into segregated states were met with violent mobs.

It had also been six years since the Supreme Court had ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, yet episodes such as the attempted integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas in 1957 continued well into the 1960s. 1960 was also the year in which John F Kennedy became president and white southerners feared that the new president’s liberal agenda would introduce policies that would disturb a way of life that had placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom of the social order.

That Lee chose to assign the rape of a white woman as the crime for which Tom Robinson (the black sharecropper whose trial is at the centre of the book’s narrative) is accused is telling.

Among the many justifications for the perpetuation of race-based segregation in the South was the pervasive fear of sexual intimacy between black men and white women. In the popular southern imagination, the biggest threat to the virtue of white women was the perceived sexual licentiousness of black men which was met with harsh punishment, often in the form of mob lynchings.

A decade before Lee’s birth, D W Griffith’s film Birth of A Nation offered a glimpse of this perceived black sexual threat, and that narrative would continue to play out in real life as Lee was growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. In her youth, Lee would have been aware of high profile cases such as those of the Scottsboro Boys and the Groveland Four where black men had been accused of raping white women. It is also very likely that Lee would have been familiar with the story of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi after reportedly flirting with a white woman.

In Mockingbird, Lee describes a world that is familiar to her and operates with its own norms and values. Yet, this also presents a clear crisis of conscience that mirrors the social context of the book’s publication. Whether or not this was intentional is unknown but inconsequential. For decades after the release of Mockingbird, Lee remained a recluse, only granting the occasional interview and refusing to speak about the book publicly. What is clear however, is the message what the novel teaches its young protagonist - and young readers: that there is courage in doing the right thing even when it easier to abide to the status quo.

Charlene is the commissioning editor, World for Little Atoms.