On Harper Lee


I was very sad to hear about the passing of Harper Lee. Disproportionately so; after all this was an 89 year old woman who I didn’t know and had never met and she had had a “good innings” as the saying goes.

Harper Lee wrote one of my literary loves “To Kill a Mocking Bird” published in 1960, winning the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1961 and then: nothing. She effectively lived as a recluse before publishing “Go Set a Watchman” in 2015.

I first read “TKMB” when I was 13, year 9 English Literature. I instantly loved it; I have re-read it countless times since, I watched the Oscar winning 1962 film adaptation laughing at the vision of Scout dressed as the ham for the pageant.  The story: the unfairness of it all, narrated through children’s eyes, children who do not see these things, these differences that adult’s create. Tom Robinson an innocent man, accused of a crime he was incapable of committing, defended by Atticus and still convicted, because he was black and his accuser a white woman. Then murdered in prison.

“Go Set a Watchman” was only published in July, I had pre ordered it, and devoured it. Now Scout is a woman she can see the flaws in her father’s character, someone she had placed on a pedestal as an example of good; he has prejudices, and shockingly to Scout, he believes in segregation. The title for the book comes from the book of Isiah (21:6):

“For thus the Lord said to me “Go, post a lookout, let him announce what he sees. When he sees riders, horseman in pairs, riders on donkeys, riders on camels, let him listen diligently, very diligently.

Isiah is saying that we must have a watcher for dangers, for when we stray from the path of goodness – our conscience, and we should listen to it.

Harper Lee wrote “GSAW” first; but the publishers wanted to hear more about her childhood so she wrote TKMB. Surprisingly to me a lot of people seemed to overlook the fact the Tom Robinson was convicted and later murdered. Atticus was a hero. I don’t think “GSAW” necessarily takes away from that. We just realise that Atticus is not, as many made him out to be, including his daughter: a perfect man. Atticus has prejudices and character flaws.

I have white privilege. I don’t have the same experiences as someone who is black or brown, or Asian, living in a predominantly white society, and they don’t have the same experiences as me. We are all a product of our environments and our experiences.

I am the daughter of two teachers, they are open people, they are well travelled and are interested in other cultures, they have friends of different backgrounds and races to themselves and always taught my sisters and me that you judge a person by what they do and what they say, not how they say it or the colour of their skin or the religion they follow. They also taught me that in every group of people there will be some “good eggs” and some “bad eggs” and that you do not judge a whole on the actions or words of a few.

As a consequence, I knew that racism was a reality, for a while I went to school in Lewisham, and Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack down the road in Eltham: that tragedy led to the biggest investigation into institutional racism within the Police in the UK and lots of changes were made, that case made me want to study law. However, equally, because of my privilege in the way that I grew up I have never experienced racism. Sexism, sure. But not racism.

For example, I didn’t know that anti-Semitism was still a “thing” until I went to University and dated a Jewish boy – I thought we had sorted that out in the World War II – surely no one would still be stupid enough to hate Jews? Wrong.

I think Harper Lee waited to publish “GSAW” to teach us that we still need to post our watchmen, that we have a long way to go. Look at our world: Police in the UK may not be shooting unarmed black kids on the regular, but instances of racially motivated attacks on Muslims are on the rise, anti-immigrant and Muslim sentiment is expressed in mainstream media and there has been a rise in the support for far right parties like UKIP, despite the fact that we are facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to fear, or ignorance (in the least judgmental sense of the word), and oftentimes: both. If people don’t know any people of colour, or any Muslims, or any Jews, or anyone who is in anyway different to themselves, then it seems to be quite easy to categorise them as “different”; it’s easy to forget about them, they are “not the same”, and so it doesn’t matter. It’s a “Them vs. Us” mentality and it’s completely contrary to how we were made to live.

Essentially, we all have prejudices, nobody is perfect, and it is sometimes hard to recognise those in ourselves. We all judge people, whether we like to admit it or not, by the shoes they wear, the way they speak or behave. I have a particularly hard time with those that vote UKIP or express views that come out of fear even though I know that I am sometimes guilty of that (the fear. Definitely not the UKIP voting). Those judgments and prejudices must be kept in check and we should not surrender to fear of difference and the unknown. As Yoda so wisely says: “fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.”

I have friends of different colours, religions and sexualities to me and to each other. I talk to my neighbours and colleagues, who are Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Atheist, white, black, brown, men and women. I have contact all day every day with people who are different to me – I live in London. What I know from this is that we are fundamentally the same where it matters, in our hearts and souls: we all love our kids and our families and our friends, we all get annoyed by the trains being delayed.

I am very judge-y about judge-y people, and oftentimes that is justified and sometimes anger and strong words are needed but, quite often, they won’t get you very far. We need people, people like Harper Lee and Glennon Doyle Melton who can tell stories and who can teach change and taking a long hard look at ourselves. Glennon’s recent work with The Compassion Collective has made a few people I know feel differently about the refugee crisis. We also need the voices of more people of colour, novelists and bloggers like Austin Channing Brown and Deidra Riggs and Maya Angelou.

I hope that post Harper Lee’s death there is a treasure trove of unpublished works found, I hope that she has more gifts to give the world and more lessons to teach us. I hope, because I hate to think of the alternative: that she got scared by her success and didn’t write again. That would be a terrible waste.

I will continue to expand my reading, looking out for other writers who can talk authoritatively on these issues, who can educate me and challenge me and make me feel a little bit sad and a little bit ashamed and make me want to do better, be better and encourage others in the same way.

If anyone has any recommendations for how I can expand my world view and discover new writers (maybe some British ones!!) and as Glennon would say “put on my perspectacles”, please let me know.

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