A letter never meant to be sent
Dear Nelle Harper Lee,
This is the letter I never elected to send you while you were living. This letter does you about as much good living as dead, so I opted to share it only when doing so wouldn’t disrespect the bounds you so clearly set forth in your life. Even in the tired, old town of Monroeville, Alabama, you couldn’t see a moment’s peace that wasn’t overshadowed by someone wanting something from you, insisting on their self-importance as a means to justify your time. This letter isn’t to ask for anything — only to thank you. I hope you’ve now found the peace you so longed for in your earthly life.
It is because of you and the world you created through ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ that I’m not ashamed of where I come from, because I know that it doesn’t dictate who I am or who I have to be. The first time I read ‘Mockingbird’ as a ten year old you showed me that being from Alabama doesn’t make you a racist by default. You showed me that it’s possible to practice Southern hospitality even towards people who don’t look like me. You showed me what abiding by a moral code really looks like, which was more than any church pew could ever do.
Every time I read ‘Mockingbird’ I longed for an Atticus of my own. I wish I could say I had a family member, or even a teacher, during those formative “Scout years” that stood as a shining example of right in a world so filled with wrong. Instead, I was given an elementary school principal who, upon watching the school’s only half-black, half-white child pass down the hall, shook her head and snarled, “Blue birds mate with blue birds, and red birds mate with red birds. That’s the way God intended it.” Atticus was more than a character in a novel — he was larger than life, a deity acting always in moral rightness. Atticus was the closest thing I had to God, since I couldn’t believe in the one so many Southerners did, whose church preached from on high that dark skin was a curse. I, like so many Southern children, did not have the role model Scout had. I had no flesh and blood exemplar, so Atticus was my Atticus.
I was Scout reading in her father’s lap, and I was Scout jumping hedgerows and crawling under garden fences. I was Scout whispering, “Hey, Boo,” and I was Scout at the dinner table, cursing the damn ham. I was Scout romping in the watermelon patch, and I was Scout in the courtroom, standing as her father passed on his way outside, having just seen an innocent man condemned despite Atticus’ best efforts to free him. On his way out he passed under the balcony where his children and all the colored folk sat — now standing. I was Scout then, and I still am. A part of me will always be that little girl wondering why things have to be the way they are and feeling powerless to do anything about it.
I don’t mean that I believe ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is the definitive novel on race. I don’t — because it was written by a white person for white people. In the United States, because white people are the primary arbiters of racism, ‘Mockingbird’ has been instrumental in making white readers examine our prejudices, question the direction of our moral compasses, and seek opportunities to use our white privilege for good. These are things I fear I might never have done, or done much later, if it weren’t for you. And despite how uncomfortable I have at times felt when doing these things, it is infinitely better than being spoon fed the hatred that so many Southerners endure to espouse.
My life has been shaped by asking myself “What would Atticus do?” The strings of a “WWAD?” bracelet drawing on my wrist are almost palpable. I strive to make Atticus proud, but there are times when I don’t. I’m not a nonprofit worker or a human rights lawyer, and despite thinking it’s a worthy cause, I can’t say I’ve ever been to a Black Lives Matter protest. There are a lot of things I haven’t done and even more, that I regret not doing, though I like to think Atticus has inspired me to live my daily life in a way that respects my fellow human beings, regardless of the color of their skin. I will be the first to admit I have more work to do, and I believe we all do.
I have revisited that memory of my elementary school principal many times, wondering what I should have or could have said. At the time, I said nothing. My thoughts were a flurry from suddenly realizing that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ wasn’t historical fiction — the story was very modern and held truths about which I knew nothing. I didn’t make Atticus proud that day. The truth is that these embittered Southerners are generally never as sweet as the tea they drink because they are as broken in spirit as the tornado-swept trailers they inhabit. The principal I was supposed to revere was no different. She was not my Atticus. She chose not to be.
Harper, you and Atticus were there for me when the adults in my youth failed me. You were there on the days I felt crippled by the ignorance and ambivalence of my family and community. You were there on the days I questioned the gap between “bless your heart” and having a heart. You were there when I questioned how it was possible to have a reputation for Southern hospitality when the South was so damn inhospitable. You were there when I questioned everything in Alabama, right down to the red clay dirt. You were there on the highway when I passed the old “Go to Church or the Devil will GET you!” sign and I saw that the Devil had already come. He came in the night, wearing white sheets and carrying a burning cross.
I’m not proud of the South’s history, though I’m loath to despise it, either. In the midst of Tom Robinson’s trial, and even when it was at great peril for him to do so, Atticus didn’t revile his fellow Southerners. He assumed the night watch outside the jailhouse door, prepared to defend Tom to the last from the angry mob that wanted to kill him, and Atticus along with him for daring to believe in the truth of Tom’s innocence. He chose to lead, even when his fellow Southerners refused to follow. The South can file a good soul down to its nub, never more so than when you’re asked to stand guard, one person facing down the centuries of animosity stacked against you, the ones they call “tradition” and “heritage.” You have never felt so small.
Harper, you didn’t teach me that there was blinding light at the end of the tunnel, only that we choose whether or not to contribute to the surrounding darkness. Some days — on the days when Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and countless others like them are killed with impunity — I wonder if there is a light at all, and I fear what we become when we lose all hope, succumb to the darkness, when we refuse to look into the eyes we most need to see ourselves reflected back in.
Harper, you gave me so much through ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. You showed me that there was another way to live, and how I could live with myself. You showed me that everyone carries a flash of hope for the future, and maybe one day, when more people ignite the hope within themselves, there will come a time when the Tom Robinsons of the world will receive the justice they deserve. A day when a teenage boy can go to the corner store for Skittles and tea without fearing a vigilante neighborhood watchman. A day when a child can play at a park without being assumed a criminal. A day when a woman won’t die in the custody of the very people entrusted to protect her.
Some might think that I’m seeing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ through the rose-colored glasses of my youth. Maybe Atticus was a racist too, like all the others. Maybe the truth about Atticus is that he was more like your own father — like the Atticus of ‘Go Set a Watchman’. Your father was not your Atticus either, so in ‘Mockingbird’ you created the father you wished you had. My heart ached with each turn of Watchman’s pages because I knew that, like me, you were Scout too. You were that little girl, now grown up, who still wondered why things had to be the way they are and wondering if they will ever change.
Harper, you showed me that sometimes all you have is your voice. So you have to use it in the best way you know how. Even when that means creating the perfect father figure from your imagination and decades later, upon finding too little had changed, showing Southerners what the Atticus of ‘Mockingbird’ couldn’t save them from. I don’t think you wanted ‘Go Set a Watchman’ published, but I understand why you didn’t fight it.
Harper, you are the one who first inspired me to write, and it is with the hope of affecting change like you did that I continue to write. Thank you for striking a match against me and through the resulting friction lighting my flash of hope. Should our paths cross in the hereafter, I’ll whisper to all the souls around, “Stand up. Nelle Harper Lee is passing.”
Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama home. She writes fiction and personal essays about books at the intersection of culture and politics. Her work is forthcoming in Deep South Magazine.