(In a parallel track to the South African authors we have been looking that, this post reflects on two North American works wrestling with the ugly bigotry triggered by the color of skin.)
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” (Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird)
Last week I had the experience of considering two more viewpoints in the significant issue of how we perceive and judge according to color. I saw a live stage play of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the movie “12 Years a Slave” almost back-to-back. It was intense: two, powerful first-person stories that unwrap the bandages and show the wounds resulting when we humans descend to discriminating against one other on the basis of skin color. The juxtaposition alarmed me: the simplicity with which both persons saw through the false pretense was painfully obvious. Yet a brutal system persisted because so many “good” people did nothing.
The story tellers in these works are without guile: a white child growing up in the deep South and a free black man from Saratoga, New York, kidnapped and sold in the South. Their stories play out as encounter person after person unable to accept Truth plainly told, preferring to weave explanations and excuses.
Scout Finch is only ten years old, but her common sense and integrity (being raised by a lawyer with true love of Justice and fellow man) cannot fathom the attitude of Macomb County which legally murders an innocent black man because his accuser is a white woman. Scout watches her father, Atticus, stand alone in the gap of understanding between the colors. The one “good person” who did something, his efforts could not hold back the ignorance and malice of the mob. He is a picture of grace, as he answers Scout’s objections against the white people: he tries to explain their stunted world view. While clinging to justice, he still reaches out in hope to the minds that have twisted it.
Solomon Northrup is the teller of “12 Years a Slave”: a true story about a talented violinist shanghaied while on a trip to Washington, D.C. His brutal treatment at the hands of slavers graphically portrays the dehumanizing process which made people tractable and “useful” slaves. One is immediately reminded of Nelson Mandela’s observation that this type of treatment is as dehumanizing to the perpetrators as the victims, and it is only too evident as the story emerges.
The major factor which keeps Solomon enslaved for so long is fear. When Solomon tries to tell people he is free, he is savaged, and the scars from that beating will give testimony to his status as a slave. After that, when he encounters someone he hopes might be able to help, fear is still the issue. He is afraid to tell people he is free. They are afraid to hear it. They are afraid to do anything about it. No wonder, then, it takes twelve years for someone with the fortitude finally appears. Even that man admits his fears for his own safety, should he do Solomon the favor, but his character is up to the challenge.
Fear is the thing that keeps many of us from stepping beyond the borders of our lives to make a difference. I kept asking myself as I watched theseheart-wrenching stories: what would I have done? and: what is the injustice going on around me that I am doing nothing about?
When Scout wonders why her father, who is a crack-shot with a rifle, doesn’t use a gun to get his point across or defend his position, he wisely tells her:
“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Atticus knew he could not win against the public tide. But he would not be swept along with it.
Solomon’s courage is remarkable as his story descends into hopelessness. He fights the temptation to give up, despite failed attempts to communicate with his family and the system designed to prevent slaves from escape. The builder who finally carried the letter for Solomon that led to his release did succeed. His risk resulted in Solomon’s rescue. But that freedom was tainted by the backdrop of the slaves left behind, still victims of an oppressive system allowing people to treat others as property.
These are stories that we ignore or sideline to our peril. As the human race goes forward in progress, we tend to regress in humanity. Neither of these stories verbalizes the answer, but it is pointed to in every particular: we are people imprinted with an image we have flawed.
Our work, the work of courage, is to reconcile people to ourselves, one another, and the Maker of our image.