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OF MOCKINGBIRDS AND WATCHMEN

What a literary classic has taught and continues to teach me about society today

Published

By Kerry Tinga

Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird.

Published in 1960, at the height of the American civil rights movement, it came five years after Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her seat to a white man on the bus, and three years before Dr. King said “I have a dream.” It recalls the memories and observations of a county in the Deep South during the Great Depression from the point of view of 10-year-old Scout Finch. She adores her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, who is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young “white trash” woman at a point of intense racial injustice. It is often considered a novel about race relations and, in recent years, I started to think it indeed was.

On Broadway I watched Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the novel as a play, starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, a prestigious role after Gregory Peck’s award-winning performance in the 1962 film.

It has been over half a decade since the novel’s publication. In that time, a lot has changed, and a lot still remains the same. There is still racial intolerance and injustice, ignorance and shame, but we have also engaged in greater dialogue that strives to include the voices of the underrepresented. In places like the US, it would be the racial minorities. In our own country, it would be the impoverished and the undereducated.

With 21st-century eyes and ears, it would seem that To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus Finch are not as progressive as I once thought they were. The minorities are one-dimensional plot devices for other people to project their attitudes and emotions on, a catalyst for the narrative to move. While Atticus reminds his children—and the reader—to consider things from other people’s points of view, explaining the actions of ignoramuses and bigots of the neighborhood, the novel fails to go into the point of view of the minorities who need it the most. If To Kill a Mockingbird were simply a novel that examines race relations, while heralded as a step forward in the 1960s, it is simply outdated in the 2010s.

But, and it is a pretty big but, I will continue to recommend To Kill a Mockingbird to anybody who would listen. I will continue to say that if a child should read one book during their childhood, it ought to be To Kill a Mockingbird.

The first half of the novel is about Scout, her brother Jem, and their neighbor Dill, playing around and doing what children do. They believe the scary rumors about Arthur Radley, who they call Boo, and roll around in tires and whatever they find for fun. Then they begin to see their town is not what it seems through their young, innocent eyes, some ways for the better, some ways for worse.

When Go Set a Watchman the “sequel,” which many literary critics agree was merely a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, was released a few years ago, many readers, myself included, were shocked by the portrayal of Atticus. The novel, set decades after Mockingbird, has Scout visiting her hometown, reliving old memories, and disillusionment. I remembered clickbait titles that read something like “Atticus Finch—a bigot and a racist.” Not entirely untrue, but common for the times in America.

When I think about it, the Atticus in Mockingbird seemed too good to be true, portrayed pretty much the way a 10-year-old girl would and should look up to her father. As Scout learns that the world around her is not as innocent as it seems, it would have only been a matter of time till she would have begun to see all the facets of her own father. And while he might have shown unlikeable characteristics in Watchman, he still defended a colored man in the Deep South during the Great Depression.

The charm and importance of Mockingbird is in how it captures the naivety of a child slowly beginning to come to terms with the harsh realities of an unjust society. That is why I still recommend it as a coming-of-age story that balances the loss of innocence with an understanding to still practice compassion and kindness. Nobody is perfect, not even, and it is difficult for me to even write this, Atticus Finch.

Today, there are many people whose views, splattered all over social media and on the news, I do not agree with. It would be easy to channel all my energy to extending my hate for what they stand for to a hate for them. But To Kill a Mockingbird taught me to climb into their skin—and I do, and I see a society that is to blame, not any single person but circumstances and a lack of education, so much so that people turn to the wrong person in their times of need. I learned to champion all my energy to instead work toward a better world for others, not against them.

The Kerry Diaries is a weekly youth column that discusses prevalent social issues and current events through a Generation Z perspective in the opinion of the author. Kerry Tinga is a feminist and contributing writer for Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. She is based in Metro Manila and can be found working at MINT College.

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