An open letter to Harper Lee

Mockingbird America, then and now

Dear Harper Lee,

I’ve wanted to write to you for years and share with you what I witnessed of your Mockingbird America when I, a native of Germany, first visited your country, shortly after you published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. And I wanted to look at your America today. Unfortunately, on February 19 you left this world for good. However, let me send my letter all the same, celebrating your 90th birthday on April 28th.

Lee, beyond the winter of her discontent.

Good friends had invited me to the 1962 British premiere of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird in London with Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, and Lord Snowdon, her photographer husband, attending. As soon as Princess Margaret stepped out of her Rolls Royce, people applauded, but when her husband of two years — a former “commoner” — appeared by her side, some Londoners screamed at him from the other side of the burgundy-colored rope: “What’s this photographer doing here?” The ugliness of class discrimination in Britain matched the ugliness of race discrimination in the U.S. I was reminded of the almost daily scenes on British TV, showing white Americans hurling abuse at African Americans for the crime of being black.

‘No dogs, no Negroes’

The film hit me hard. Your message came through powerfully. The audience clearly appreciated not only the actors, but your willingness to address a sensitive subject in thought-provoking ways: unconcealed racial discrimination that turned deadly. I left the cinema disturbed, deep in thought.

Two years later, I won a scholarship to study in the U.S. and was invited to a privately owned swimming pool in Kansas, greeted by a sign at the entrance: “No dogs. No Negroes.” When I challenged the owner, he screamed at me, called me a “Nigger lover,” and kicked me out. At that moment, I found myself in the world of Atticus Finch — isolated, unwanted, endangered, and troubled by the depth of racial hatred in the U.S., especially as I had seen hundreds of signs that barred people of color from using water fountains, restaurants, and motels.

By 1965, your novel had circulated all over the U.S., often against the resistance of school boards. The world watched your Mockingbird country with growing concern.

Across the tracks

Ms. Lee, how right on target you were with your description of the South in the 1930s that had not changed much in the early 1960s. Tom Robinson, the defendant and silent hero of your novel — a good man, innocent of the charges against him — was murdered because he had the wrong skin color, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 because he had the courage to speak up.

However, I believe that America may be slowly recovering. I recently attended Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of your novel at the Media Theatre directed by Jesse Cline, a Southerner himself who grew up in the mill village of Newton, N.C., where his entire family worked in the cotton mill.

“We lived on the wrong side of the tracks,” he recalled to me. “We were one-step above the African American population — or so we thought. ‘Niggertown,’ as it was referred to by many, was also on our side of the tracks. Our textbooks were used in the African American schools after they were used in the white schools. Their streets were the last to be paved.”

In addition to hiring professional actors, Cline invited the pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Media to play Reverend Sykes, together with members of his black congregation. As soon as they arrived on stage, the predominantly white audience welcomed them with a long and supportive applause — and therein lies hope.

Then vs. now

Looking at the main characters of your novel, and the adaptations based on your masterpiece, I see that your Mockingbird America is still alive today — for better and worse.

Atticus Finch, the Maycomb attorney assigned to defend Tom Robinson, lives on in lawyers and academics who want to make a difference, like Professor Lawrence Marshall and his students at Northwestern University, who have dedicated themselves to winning freedom for innocent people on death row.

Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman, resurfaced in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which young black teenagers labeled “the Gang of Five” were wrongfully convicted of raping Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white jogger. Even though all under-age defendants pleaded not guilty, they were sent to jail, with sentences ranging from five to 13 years, in spite of the lack of any evidence.

Unfortunately, in today’s America we still see deadly violence directed against the Tom Robinsons of the 21st century, with enough killings by police officers to give rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Miss Stephanie Crawford, the town gossip, spreads rumors and false stories. She likes to over-dramatize situations and shake up her listeners, quite a few of whom hang on to every word of her accusations. Similarly, in 1989, the young Donald Trump, without any evidence, incited New Yorkers when he took out full-page ads demanding that the “Gang of Five,” teenagers, be executed. In 2016, now a successful presidential candidate, Trump — worse than Miss Crawford — maligned millions of Muslims, Mexicans, women, and many other groups. Yet Trump has continued to sit at the top of almost every Republican poll.

Last but not least is the spirit of Scout, your honest narrator. She lives on in the work of courageous American writers who try to expose injustices in our own time.

Painful last months

Dear Ms. Lee, it grieved me to hear of the pressure you must have felt when your first novel, Go Set a Watchman, was published last July, with a number of people wondering publicly whether you had been coerced into publishing the literary forerunner to your world-famous classic. That apparent first draft of your novel caused great pain to many readers who discovered that you had originally portrayed the beloved Atticus, symbol of honor and respect for the down-trodden, as a segregationist.

Whatever the facts, I hope you lived the last months of your life knowing that whole generations of Americans grew up with your Mockingbird experiences and that you contributed a great deal to an awareness that we must change, mature, and learn to respect each other, irrespective of any differences — real or perceived.

Through your novel I got my first taste of life in the American South and began to understand the roots of ignorance and hate. Although we still have a long way to go, I want you to know that I feel more hopeful with each day. What matters is that we have the courage to share and learn from each other, including an honest reassessment of earlier aspects of our lives and the things we said or wrote. You certainly had that courage to say “yes” to your past, and for that I salute you.

Happy Birthday, Ms. Lee, wherever you are.

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