Harper Lee only had one book in her; thankfully it was To Kill A Mockingbird. It was originally published in 1960, and I received my first copy that year on my thirteenth birthday. My radical, black sheep, outcast aunt gave it to me. She inscribed it:
Jo, this will shake something loose. Whatever falls out, use it. Ronnie
Follow me behind Mrs. Cleaver's brooch.
Imagine my life in late 1950/early 1960: northern New Jersey, WASP town, upper-middle class, not a single person of color in my school until tenth grade - and then only one African-American. There were a few Jewish people in town; but they didn't circulate in my parents' sphere so I knew nothing of their lives. And they were indisputably "white." We were thoroughly cocooned and protected. There was no poverty, no ugliness, no material want. We collected funds for the church's missionaries who worked in some far away country where there was terrible poverty and children went to bed hungry. We knew that happened; it just happened very far away.
This makes us sound very naive, and we were. We didn't have 24 hour news; we had 15 minutes of Walter Cronkite and HE never mentioned anything as crude as race. My father and I read the newspaper together and he even took me to political meetings, but my parents would never discuss anything ugly in front of their children. My life was was mostly horses, Girl Scouts, the French horn, and trying to convince everyone that girls should be allowed to wear pants to school.
Then I read ...Mockingbird at thirteen, already restless but not knowing why, already in trouble because "She's such a tomboy! Can't she ever act like a little lady?" This combination proved fatal to my parents' peace. I read the book in one sitting and then raced downstairs to confront them with outrage and incredulity and pain. Was it true? This happened to people in the USA? They reluctantly admitted that it could be true, although they had no personal experience of life in the South. They didn't think it was ongoing. The book was surely not about current times; that was the Depression when things were bad. I walked around in a rage for a few days and then went to the library.
There I found books to educate my white bread mind. There I found Frederick Douglas, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston - and later James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara. The librarian must have thought me demented. I didn't understand half of what I read; I had no context. But I kept reading.
The following summer I was allowed to visit my cousin whose husband was stationed at Camp Lejune, NC. I got off the train in Rocky Mount, saw the 'Colored' bathroom and the 'Colored' drinking fountain, and I wept. Then I talked to all the wrong people, asked all the wrong questions, and after only two days I was put back on the train and told I needed to learn how to "act properly--there are some things we just don't do."
Eventually my life expanded. That was a great decade for expanding. War protests, civil rights marches, the feminist movement (yippy for pants in school!); meeting so many people so different from me--it was very exciting. Harper Lee's one-and-only book started it all - was my wake up call, lightning strike, Road to Damascus Moment all in one. It was life changing. Would I have changed without ...Mockingbird? Perhaps, change was part of the times and I was aware and curious - just enough to be restless. But I am not so sure what would have been the extent of change--you see my sister, three years older than me, who has never read anything more controversial than "Vogue," is socially/politically a dead ringer for Ann Romney. And I am politically/socially a dead ringer for my beloved Aunt Ronnie - who went to jail for her beliefs - and who, at the age of 86, still finds it hard to "act properly" in the face of injustice.
I did not become the person my parents (particularly my mother) would have wanted, for which I am eternally grateful to Harper Lee.
3:09 PM PT: Thank you to all who have commented and rec'd my diary. What fantastic, thoughtful comments. I am awed that you have all taken the time to read and comment. This was my first diary and I am thrilled by the response.
Happy New Year!