Annette John-Hall: 'Mockingbird' still sings

Fifty years after publication, Harper Lee's classic continues to speak its truth - though some black readers hear a discordant note.

It's one of those rare books that needs no introduction. Harper Lee didn't want it to have one, either.

In writing the foreword to her Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee noted:

"Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble."

She's right about that. As the literary world celebrates Mockingbird's golden anniversary, it still says what it has to say. The story of Atticus Finch - a white lawyer who attempts to defend an innocent black man - is told through the eyes of Scout, his 6-year-old daughter. That story has stayed with me ever since I first read it in the eighth grade. Lee transported me to a world I had heard of but never been privy to: a Jim Crow world where racial oppression robbed children of their innocence and racial injustice was not only accepted, but also rewarded.

For me, To Kill a Mockingbird ranks with Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon as my all-time favorite novel. Lots of other folks love it, too, it seems.

Voted novel of the century in a 1999 poll conducted by Library Journal, Mockingbird has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and has never gone out of print. Adapted for the big screen in 1962, Mockingbird earned three Academy Awards, including best-actor honors for Gregory Peck, who played Atticus with understated dignity.

Click on Mockingbird's Facebook page and it's almost as if it's the center of a cult, with members testifying about the book's profound impact - that its many lessons have inspired them to become lawyers or teachers or owners of pets named Scout. Heck, British librarians have even ranked Mockingbird ahead of the Bible.

Well, I wouldn't go that far, but classics such as Mockingbird do prove that words have the power to connect - or to distance.

Unlike me, many African American readers just don't get Mockingbird's appeal. Walter Greason, professor of history at Ursinus College, says he was more affected by such books as Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. "The story felt closer," he says. "Even the writing. It felt more rhythmical."

But it's more than that. For some African Americans, Lee's prose diminished as much as it enlightened. That's because Lee, like many other Southern white writers (think Mark Twain, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams), not only wrote about blatant white racism, but also illustrated it by her liberal use of the n-word, sprinkled throughout the novel. This not only offended black readers, it also caused some school districts to ban Mockingbird from classrooms.

For me, the book's value and resonance lie in its honesty. Lee depicted her world: a cloistered white world in the Jim Crow South that she wasn't afraid to expose. A courageous act, drawing strength from the civil-rights movement that was gathering momentum throughout the country.

No one is disputing Mockingbird's relevance. But some do notice a double standard for black and white writers who write of the black experience. They say the white perspective is almost always the one publishers favor.

"It's as if [publishers think] white writers legitimize the black experience somehow," says Philadelphia's Diane McKinney-Whetstone, 56, author of five award-winning novels. "It's a bit of a tightrope because by questioning, people will look at it as a criticism," she says. "But it's a legitimate question - why do some [white authors] get the recognition and not [black writers]?"

When a black story is written by a black author, it doesn't seem to get the same support or readership, says award-winning author Bernice L. McFadden, 44, author of seven novels.

Marketing also differs according to the race of the author, which may express conscious or unconscious assumptions that hurt black writers' chances.

In a June 26 Washington Post article headlined "Black Writers in a Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making," McFadden notes that her first novel, Sugar - which, like Kathryn Stockett's The Help and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, was published by Penguin - was a tale of African Americans living in the South, and received critical acclaim.

Yet, while the books by Stockett and Kidd, both white writers, were promoted to readers of all races, McFadden says her novel was marketed solely to African Americans.

That extended all the way to the book covers. The Help and The Secret Life of Bees had covers that did not reveal the race of the main characters. Sugar's cover showed a black woman leaning against a screen door.

White publishers have taken it upon themselves to be arbiters of black stories for white readers, says McFadden. Maybe it's because black authors tend to write more poignantly and painfully about oppression. Tales of hardship or discrimination, as told by African American writers, seldom sugarcoat or gloss over the worst.

McFadden says that's what Stockett did in The Help.

"I would have gone into more detail where [Stockett] didn't take the opportunity to explain," says McFadden. "I guess that's what [publishers] want. They don't want books that delve into the heart of these issues because it would be too offensive" to white readers.

Maybe, says Herman Beavers, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, acceptance by white readers depends on the way white characters are portrayed. While Beavers lauds Mockingbird for its beautiful prose and well-drawn characters, he points out that Lee cast protagonist Atticus in a benevolent light, which made the story easier for white readers to digest - even though Lee puts most of the book's white community on the wrong side of morality.

"What makes it palatable is reading about the courageous white hero who stands up for a person of another race," Beavers says.

Doesn't matter how the truth goes down, just as long as it goes down, says Philadelphia writer Karen E. Quinones Miller, author of nine books. She argues that white writers help combat ignorance when they write of black life for a readership that previously may not have known, or cared.

"Books like To Kill a Mockingbird and even Huckleberry Finn are needed because they changed sentiments," Miller says.

What nobody can argue is the impact Lee's storytelling had on readers. To Kill a Mockingbird, with its multilayered, intricately woven tales of family and community, is a commentary on race relations. A lesson on injustice. A coming-of-age page-turner. A guidebook to family dysfunction and mental illness. A love-thy-neighbor parable. And, lest we forget, a loving observation of single fatherhood.

"I wanted to be Scout because I wanted Atticus to be my father," says Miller, 52, who grew up in a single-parent household in Harlem. "I wanted to have the safety net of the community and a father I could go to at any time."

Philadelphia writer Solomon Jones, whose sixth novel, The Last Confession, drops in November, recently took time out to read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time.

Weeks later, it's still on his mind.

"Incredible. It was just incredible," Jones says. "It did what all stories should do - it made me feel something."

That's from neither a black nor a white perspective - it's purely from a book-lover's perspective.


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read her work: http://go.philly.com/annette.