One of the first lessons we learn in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is that “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.” When I first read the novel, as a teenager at school, this was a familiar lesson in terms of its message, but a harder one to put into practice when looking at issues of race and discrimination. What could I, a middle class white girl, possibly understand about what life can be like for someone from a completely different cultural background?
It’s impossible, of course, to know entirely, but we can listen to each other, and not deny that white privilege exists. We might not be able to walk around in a different skin, but we can trust other people to share their experiences and understand the limitations of our own perspectives.
One of the ways I try to do this is through stories - those told by people around me, and those fictionalised in print. Novels allow us to take a trip outside our own skin, to experience new perspectives. To Kill a Mockingbird came up briefly in a long and illuminating Pajiba Overlords’ discussion on race, gun crime, discrimination and police brutality this week. You may have seen Lainey’s Pajiba Love entry last Wednesday, which led with this story about the death of 18 year old Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer.
It may seem trite to compare real life tragedy to a novel, and by no means am I intending to diminish the heartbreaking tragedy and hopeless anger of this case, but I would argue that comparing the murder of Michael Brown — for that is what it is, murder — to a fictional narrative helps us to expose one of the underlying causes of this particular issue. It is the narrative that has been constructed socially, around race, police and (yes, I’m going there) guns, that led to this unarmed teenager being shot at ten times by a police officer carrying nonlethal alternatives.
Atticus told us this, a long time ago, during his closing speech at Tom Robinson’s trial:
“The witnesses for the state (…) have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption — the evil assumption — that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber.
“Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women — black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.”
What he is doing here is identifying the narrative and showing its flaws. It’s a narrative deeply rooted in the (white) West’s self-professed ‘superiority’ and patronising, derogatory ideas of ‘the other’. It’s a narrative constructed on binary oppositions of good and evil, civilised and savage, black and white. These binaries do not make for solid foundations, because they do not hold up to scrutiny of any kind. But they are still there - the West’s dirty, unspeakable secret - and they are not only killing people, but being used to justify murder after the fact.
Tom Robinson’s case was so straightforward that Scout, a nine-year old, could see it clearly. Of course Tom Robinson was innocent. The only ‘crimes’ he was guilty of were being black and showing sympathy for a white girl.
Was Michael Brown any different? The last time I checked, shoplifting a packet of cigarillos and running from a man with a gun were not capital offences. The transcript included by The Root shows that Darren Wilson’s legal team objected to the idea that Brown was unarmed, positing the idea that his body itself was a weapon. Are we meant to entertain the idea that a police officer armed with pepper spray, a Taser, baton, and gun on top of the instrumental power of his badge and uniform, felt that an unarmed teenager was a threat to him? Brown was tall, yes — but let’s be honest, it was his skin colour that led to him being perceived as a threat.
Wilson’s narrative has all the advantages of a lie. Its characters — hero cop and threatening African American male — are, sadly, still easily recognisable. It is simple and short.
The truth is always harder to process and digest — and we are living in an era that seems to abhor complexity. When news needs to be easily condensed into 140 characters, there is no space for nuance. When we want straightforward brevity, we turn to those binary oppositions again; when we want an easy answer, sometimes a convenient lie is preferable to the dark, unspeakable truth. But a lie only benefits the liar - and even then, it is temporary; the truth has a way of making itself known. This is the case with Michael Brown - the lie did not hold forever.
I said earlier that this narrative is social - that makes it ours, and it means there is the potential for change. But that will require an extraordinary confluence of events.
Unless everyone understands that black lives matter, this will happen again. Unless people step out of their bubble and realise that yes, of course, all lives matter, but black lives are under threat in a way that white people can’t comprehend, this will happen again. Unless America does something about guns, this will happen again. Unless those in power realise that relying on lethal force undermines authority rather than solidifying it, this will happen again.
Looking at the evidence around us - it will happen again.
What happened to Tom Robinson was enough to make Atticus Finch bitter:
‘Atticus-’ said Jem, bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. ‘What, son?’
‘How could they do it, how could they?’
‘I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it - seems that only children weep. Good night.’
It is not only children weeping now.
‘If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time…it’s because he wants to stay inside.’