Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘prejudice’

K is for To Kill a Mockingbird


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most read and most beloved books ever, though it garners criticism as well. Certainly it’s on the very top of my book list of personal favorites. I read it in about 1965 or ’66, then reread it immediately, again a few years later when I was in college, and during my two sons’ high school years so we could discuss the book. I’ve read it twice since, each time discovering something wondrous, gaining more insight, and always moved by the story.

It’s told from the point of view of Scout, the very young daughter of a small town 1950’s Southern lawyer. You don’t have to know much about American bus routes to grasp that it concerns racial prejudice, social inequality, and a legal-political tradition that safe-harbors injustice. It’s also about family dynamics and the social clumsiness of children who discover that the adult world is dirtier than theirs. It presents a criminal case where a black man is found guilty for a white man’s crimes. You have to be living inside your vacuum cleaner not to know that the characters were sketched from people Lee knew in the Alabama hamlet where she grew up, especially that Dill, Scout and Jem’s childhood friend, stands in for Truman Capote.

One of the most unusual characters is the shy recluse, Boo Radley. His reasons for hiding from the public appear strange if not bizarre, and augur Harper Lee’s adult voluntary social seclusion. Something from Boo’s past keeps him captive. The something in Lee’s life was the dizzying adulation of the world thrust upon her at publication of the book. The excessive stir  caused Lee to refuse to write or publish another book in her lifetime or to talk about Mockingbird. She’d done the celebrity thing and found it too painful to forget or repeat.

Which brings me to the tale of Go Set a Watchman, the book miraculously found by Lee’s trustee – after Lee’s protective sister, Alice, died, and when Lee herself was aged, frail, ill, blind, deaf, and may have been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Miracle of all miracles, the trustee found the secreted manuscript just as the very private Harper Lee was eager to seek new publicity and earn millions. Wonder of wonders, wasn’t it?

If you’ve managed to keep away from all things front page breaking news for the past ten years, you may not know about the background of the Watchman. It wasn’t a newly written manuscript that Lee wanted to publish – it was the original first draft of Mockingbird as presented to her original editor, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff knew the story as first written was not ready for publication but saw in its ragged genesis a gemstone ready for polish. With Hohoff’s assistance, Lee rewrote the first draft, (took a long time) and after several new title tries, settled on the memorable To Kill a Mockingbird.

Two things must be considered. The first is an admonition for the writer-in-waiting: your book, my book, is not ready, it’s not done, and when attentive people offer advice: put your ego in the shoebox, listen well, take notes, make appropriate changes, and get the job done. Just as Lee did. She might not have anticipated the painful glare of the limelight, but she was a willing rewriter. So am I. So should you be.

Second thing for me is this. I will not read Go Set a Watchman. Clearly Lee did not want the early draft, rejected by Hohoff as amateur and unsuitable in places, to be read by anyone else. It was a work in progress; the finished work as published was the one intended for the public eyes. Lippencott, the initial publisher, made plenty on Mockingbird. It’s interesting for writers to read another writer’s early attempts and to compare a finished product with a draft. But only if the writer is willing.

If the finished book promoted ideas of honor and compassion, I find it shameful and craven to read the early iteration, and I don’t believe for a moment that Lee authorized its publication. New trustee and cohort misappropriated Lee’s manuscript when she was too feeble to advocate for herself. Trustee, cohort, and publisher chose to capitalize on Lee’s name and stature in order to roll their bottom line into the big black column. I won’t help boost their bucks.

We will never really know if To Kill a Mockingbird set back Harper Lee’s literary career by stifling her ability to write another story, or if she really so dreaded all the public slathering that she couldn’t bear to tempt it again. I’ve long been disappointed not to be able to read another of her books, and if I can’t really understand her decision, (try to make me stop writing, just try) I surely respect it. I believe in social justice, equality, and opportunity for all people, and this book shows how a few citizens of a little town in Alabama stood up for what was right, even in the midst of threats and violence. I am still standing for same.

My favorite line from the book is the entire book. If you’ve never read it, go read it. If you haven’t read it in a while, go read it again.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since its publication in 1960. It was selected by American Librarians as the best novel of the twentieth century, is required reading in Great Britain and Canada as in most American high schools, and has been translated into more than forty languages. Don’t read it for all that adulation. Read it because it mirrors the tragic renewal of the same narrow, bigoted mind set of the last century blossoming in all it ugly bullying in this one as well. Read it because few other books will touch you as deeply and permanently.


Other books that were serious contenders for K:

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan


I look forward to learning about your favorite K fiction books.


Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins


O What a Life, Part V, Extraordinary Changes, C


My first grandson, two years old at the time, toddled at an indoor playground, climbing on giant cement lions and through red and blue walls pierced with cutouts meant to teach shapes. He loved every minute of play until he stood in front of a wavy mirror, one of those that you find at a funhouse. He looked at what he knew was supposed to be him. The twisted, misshapen little reflection that looked back made him shiver and turn away. Life is much the same. We don’t need funhouse mirrors to show us how much the rest of the world may see us as distorted. This is some of the story of the final two years I lived in Hawaii. From when I was 11 and in sixth grade until the end of seventh grade, Hawaii was my home.

The day my parents deceived me. I’d watched my dad dig out the driveway during a raging blizzard in New Jersey. Someone had called him to make a house call, and dedicated physician that he was, he would not say no. I stood at my window, crying as the snow and wind pummeled him. He couldn’t go to serve their needs until he could get the car out of the garage and down the driveway. My breath on the window, I pleaded for him to come inside where it was safe. He couldn’t hear me of course, and he would have ignored me if he had. Months later my parents announced we were going to move to Hawaii, to live there for only one year. Warm and tropical Hawaii was a melting pot where people of all races and religions lived in peace and harmony. My sister and brother were too young to understand the potential upheaval of their lives, but at 11, I had stakes in where I lived. Only a year? I could do that. A year was an adventure, and I told my friends and cousins we’d be back soon. I trusted my parents. I went without complaint.

But we didn’t go back to live. Ever. I only saw my friends and family a few times after that, each visit “home” awkward with newness and unsuited habits. I’d been deceived. We lived in Hawaii that second time for nearly two years, and when we returned to the mainland, it was to California, not New Jersey. No matter what is written or believed, you simply can never go back because what you left behind doesn’t exist anymore. The friendships melted like popsicles, the relationships with family thinned to gruel, and we, the transplanted members, were strangers all. I missed everything. I missed everything.

The first day of sixth grade in Honolulu. I’d left school in the middle of autumn so school was already in session in both states. There ends the similarity between those two schools. I started in a public school in the hills outside of Honolulu. We were renting a home in the heart of a tropical garden but my paradise ended at the school gates. The class was comprised entirely of Asian kids who sat in a divided room, girls on one side and boys on the other. Two sets of rows arranged the kids in partners of two, each desk butted up against the next. As in Trenton, I was one of the tiniest kids in this class but was still assigned the very back row next to a tall, big-boned girl. That was, I sat there for the first day. My second day of class, my desk had been pushed up against the teacher’s. It isolated me from the all the other kids. I wondered what deed had banned me to such far corner. Later I heard that the Chinese girl who’d been my one-day partner would not sit next to a Haole (white) girl, and her parents enforced the demand.

I dressed and looked different. I wore saddle shoes and bobby socks, crinolines under my skirts, and my blond curls obeyed no orders but their own. My fair skin burned quickly. My thick NJ accent made it difficult for the kids to determine meaning from what I said. The other girls wore slim, sleeveless shifts, their straight black hair sleekly tied in pony tails or held neatly by headbands. Nearly all the kids walked barefoot but that wasn’t even a discussion in my house. With no textbooks in the entire school, (there wasn’t at that time a single Hawaiian public high school accredited for college admission, making private schools mandatory for anyone hoping to attend college) the teacher taught by oral lecture, delivered in pidgin English. You’ve probably heard snippets of this dialect on TV shows. Da kine, lolo, and auwee are common and easy to translate. True pidgin is as hard to understand as Beowulf in its original dialect. Listening to an entire conversation confounded me as I tried to figure out what the teacher said on my first day in her class, the last day of that particular unit. They’d been studying Pennsylvanian coal mines in social studies, a subject I hadn’t studied in New Jersey. (Don’t ask me why a class of Chinese-Hawaiian kids were studying Pennsylvanian coal mines. It made no sense to me then or now.) I couldn’t understand anything she said and went home that night with nothing to study because there was no textbook, remember?

On my second day of school, the teacher passed out a 2-page test on Pennsylvanian coal mines. As I stared at dozens of questions on a topic about which I knew absolutely nothing, a pre-recorded voice came over the loud speaker, jabbering about bat-filled caves in New Mexico. Near panic about the test and now distracted by the noise over the PA system, I finally realized that if I could block out the New Mexico cave audio, I could concentrate on the test about which I knew nothing. What a great idea the Hawaiians had come up with! So I blocked the cave lecture, focused on coal mines, and turned in a test of wild guesses and made up responses. On my third day of school I sat at my desk, far enough that I would not contaminate the other kids (I guess) and watched in horror and shame as the teacher held up my coal mine test with the first “F” I’d ever received. Then she held up another “F” grade I’d earned – on the bat caves of New Mexico.

All through the school we could hear the screams of children being beaten by their teachers. Corporal punishment was permitted throughout the Hawaiian public school system, and this school exercised its rights regularly. Our teacher threatened often but I never witnessed her beating a kid. My little brother, only 6, was so terrified (his teacher did beat kids in his class, though never him) that he developed a stutter and no one could understand him. His smile disappeared behind a face pale with nerves.

Recess time required that you play. Simply wandering on the playground by yourself was not permitted, and refusal to join a game promised a kid a reason for a beating. Every recess proved a nightmare for me. No one would let me play in the games so I walked at the perimeter of activities, hoping that it looked to the supervisors as if I was engaged in playing on a team. It required careful placement of feet so I appeared to play without incursion onto the play courts where I was not welcome.

My life at Punahou School. Punahou means “new spring,” as in a surfacing of underground water, and the famous Hawaiian school is named for a beautiful natural spring in the center of the campus. My dad arranged through a colleague to have me tested for admission to Punahou in the middle of the year, something that almost never happened. But I got accepted and got out of the public school where I was hated to become a student at Punahou, a school founded in the 1800’s by Christian ministers. (We moved houses at about the same time, and my little brother also got transferred to another school where he eventually calmed and dropped his stutter as he learned to smile again.) Would love to say that they loved me at Punahou but they didn’t. I was the odd girl still, and I admit that I didn’t know how to make friends. Still, the choirmaster loved me. Well, he loved me the first day I attended his class.

He walked around the pews, listening to about 60 little voices, seeking two that could sing, a boy and a girl. I’d studied music in NJ, piano and singing, including a few summers with an instructor who taught us, a bunch of very young kids, not only how to sing in multi-part harmony, but to sing opera. We didn’t know we were too young to learn opera; hell, we didn’t even know we were singing opera. We just followed his directions and sang a bunch of songs in languages other than English. That young, my voice was pretty and dependable and very soprano. So when the Punahou choirmaster heard me sing, he thought he’d hit the musical jackpot. I was child who’d had training and could carry a tune. He selected me and one lucky little boy to sing the solo for the upcoming musical performance in front of the entire school. He sent me home with orders to practice.

Thing is, I am Jewish and the song was a Christian hymn about loving Jesus with all my soul. No way could I practice that song in my home. I was too terrified to even tell my mom what I’d been chosen to sing. So I did practice. I did everything my NJ opera teacher had taught us. I opened my mouth and shaped each sound, lifted from my diaphragm, controlled my breathing, pronounced each and every syllable succinctly, rounded the vowels, and projected to the back of the auditorium. Punahou’s auditorium was huge, with an enormous downstairs area crammed with wooden seats and a spacious balcony. I practiced soundlessly, lest my Jewish mother hear me singing about Jesus and send me straight to hell with a few of her famous punches and enough Yiddish curses to make Oahu blush.

On the day of the performance, I stood in the front of the entire choir next to the lucky little boy who had also been selected. We faced a packed auditorium and though I knew from theater and ballet recitals not to look directly at the audience but at an imaginary spot on the far wall, I still saw about a million pair of eyes staring at me. Me, the new little kid whom no one liked.

The choirmaster stood in the orchestra pit and lifted his arms to direct us. I did fine with the ensemble pieces – every individual voice got lost in the jumble of many kids singing. But when it came time for me and unlucky little boy to sing our solos – well, I did as I had practiced. I opened my mouth and lifted my voice from my diaphragm; I rounded the vowels and articulated the consonants. And I sang silently. Not one sound emitted from my throat. Couldn’t do it. Didn’t know how. Choirmaster’s eyes opened so wide I worried that they’d fall from his sockets. He gestured with windmill spins, opened his own mouth in a gape and pulled his shoulders high enough to touch his ears. The veins in his neck pulsed and his skin sunburned in front of me. I did the best I could, but a Jewish kid cannot sing to Jesus, and so my voice simply did not function.

Choirmaster never called on me again to sing though he demanded to know why I hadn’t performed. I stared at him, my voice struck dumb. It was not like me to ever refuse to obey a teacher but there was nothing I could explain.

The next day the Punahou kids finally welcomed me to their school. They planted a cockroach the size of a dinner plate inside my homeroom desk. Did I tell you how terrified I’ve always been of bugs?

I’d witnessed and suffered the shame of prejudice and humiliation of being different in the tropical islands that my parents insisted were a melting pot of races, cultures, and faiths, with Hawaiians joyously celebrating differences and commonalities. Hula and luau and stories of Madame Pele bound us in the myths that draw tourists to the islands in droves of happiness-seekers. I still have never returned though one day I would love to travel there and see it without the strange colors of my childhood to make it seem ugly. May God and all the gods bless the islands and people of Hawaii.



Image courtesy, public domain

The Revolution of Dreams

This is a tribute to Nelson Mandela, but you must bear with me to get to the tribute.

We moved to Oahu, Hawaii in late 1959. It was the second time my family had lived there, the first being the year when I turned four and my dad served in the US Army as a physician, doing his internship at Tripler Army Hospital after earning his medical degree. Our second venture, my parents had promised two things: that Hawaii was a melting pot of races and beliefs, and that we would only stay one year. An adventure from which we’d return to our lives in New Jersey and resume our East Coast friendships and pursuits. (Didn’t work out that way, but that’s another story.)

Now 11, I had a tough time on this island paradise. I wore bobby socks and saddle shoes, crinolines under my flared skirts, and spoke with a pronounced New Joisey accent. The local kids wore shifts (a sleeveless straight dress more like a slip than what I considered a dress,) went barefoot, and spoke Pidgin English. I’d studied classical ballet, opera, theatre, piano, French, and had read almost all the children’s classics. The Hawaiian kids went surfing, danced hula, played ukulele, strung leis, and knew all the ancient Hawaiian legends about the volcano goddess, Madame Pele, and the menehune, secretive elves who lived in the thousands of caves on the islands. Many of the island kids traced their lineage to Hawaiian royalty or to ancestors in Asia. I traced mine to Polish and Russian Jews who escaped Europe just in time. (For Jews who escaped Europe, it was always just in time.)

There was nothing wrong with the island kids. I just didn’t fit. I was outcast immediately at Punahou, the elite private school where Barack Obama was later educated. More than the personal torment from the island kids, who told me I would always be a mainlander in their eyes, and who put a fist sized cockroach in my desk as a way of welcoming me to school, was the torment I witnessed them inflicting on each other. Shifting social status was the norm, causing an uncomfortable ranking system. I was always at the bottom. Perhaps it increased my sensitivity to the plight of others.

You need to know that the center of Oahu is occupied by American troops. Everyone who lives in Hawaii is familiar with the military bases in the mountains. Ships of all kinds berth at the docks, and military transports fly in and out of the airbases on a regular schedule. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are all prominent. Young soldiers (I’ll call them all soldiers though I recognize that they each have specific identification depending on their military commitment) from their ranks often going into Honolulu on liberty to experience the bars and probably the brothels. Even at 11, I understood that my freedom and security were reinforced and guaranteed by the presence of these courageous troops who were only about ten years older than I and far from home.

Getting to and from school each day required I take two or three city bus rides that meandered through the suburbs. I sometimes walked the second transfer rather than wait for the bus, an easy task in the languid Hawaiian climate. One day as I walked, I noted two young Army soldiers about 15 steps ahead of me. They were dressed in uniforms sharply pressed and perfectly fitted, their caps at a jaunty angle on their short hair. They walked in long strides staying on the sidewalk, and if they spoke, I couldn’t hear them. Respectful and dignified. Did I mention that they were Black Americans? (Wasn’t the words we used then. I would probably have called them Negro and meant it with complete esteem.)

The bus I would have taken lumbered by, a steel cab of seats, wheels, and lights. Out of the open windows leaned its passengers, those who would have been my fellow travelers. They were the typical motley group of Hawaiian islanders in the late 50’s – mixed Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Haole (white,) Portuguese, the melting pot my parents had promised. It seemed the entire busload of occupants thrust their heads and arms through the windows, gesturing as if shooing foraging dogs. They screamed, “Go home, you niggahs, go home.”

Intaking daggers with my breath, I stopped walking for a few moments. The young soldiers did not. They didn’t respond in any way, at least not outwardly. The Pacific Command is headquartered in Honolulu. The safety of the passengers, of our country, was insured by the vast presence of military on the island, from where troops were trained and later deployed to fight in Japan and Korea, later in Vietnam, Iraq, other parts of the Middle East. That day the soldiers walked. Next month they might have been given orders to any dangerous hotspot in the world, and only God knows if they would have returned safely. The busload of passengers had reduced them to a nasty slur, discounting their sacrifice. In their prejudiced minds all they saw was the color of their skin and not the valor of their occupation, the dignity of their being.

It was probably a decade before I heard the name Nelson Mandela and knew who he was. It was a decade in which my sense of tolerance for those who are different from me grew with my frustration at the bigotry of so many. Mandela despised the moral turpitude that allowed the white population to discredit black people. He worked to right those social and political wrongs. Before I left Hawaii on my thirteenth birthday, he was already imprisoned for his actions against the government of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela spent his life working to build bridges between people of different colors, encouraging them to see that we are all connected by our humanity. He was not always gentle, he was not always soft spoken. He never gave up. He demanded opportunity for everyone; he demanded a voice for each person. He did not want to erase the color of one’s skin but praise the beauty of all people. He was anti-apartheid in a country ruled by the fist and power of a minority who saw him and his brethren as inferior and threatening and who controlled the native population by refusing to provide equal education to the children or options for advancement for the adults.

You scared me sometimes, Nelson Mandela. You woke me up to the injustices in South Africa. You won my admiration by the persistence of your devotion to universal rights. You showed us how a nation can be transformed. You inspired me. We will miss you but your legacy remains. The world is a better place for you having been in it, and I have no doubt that you are welcomed to whatever place of divine grace comes next.