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An old narrative that never dies

Posted: April 12, 2012 10:53 a.m.
Updated: April 13, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Hollywood's version of Harper Lee's brilliant novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" turns 50 this year, which offers President Barack Obama a rare opportunity. For once, he can venture, however cautiously, near the touchy topics of race and justice without risking too much of a political backlash.

That's the unspoken irony in the first biracial president's showing of the Oscar-winning movie at the White House on Thursday. His praise for Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which he has called one of his favorites, reminds me of how Abraham Lincoln is said to have greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery best-seller "Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly" in 1862: "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

I attribute the iconic endurance of both books to their depiction of a narrative that haunts our collective American memory. It is a basic narrative of brave, moral, everyday heroes trying to bring fairness to an unjust social order. That narrative culminates in "Mockingbird" with a trial in a small Southern town in the 1930s. Ten-year-old Scout watches from the "colored balcony" as her lawyer father Atticus Finch tries courageously but in vain to defend before an all-white and male jury a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman.

I admire Lee's work as a masterpiece of subversion. She subverts an unjust social order by exposing its contradictions through the eyes of a child, a time of life that seldom accepts contradictions without raising questions.

Show, don't tell, young writers are advised. Lee shows us an unjust social order in operation and leaves it to us to pass judgment.

As much as Stowe's narrative stoked the passions that led to the Civil War, Lee's book and the movie, which she praised for its faithful translation to the screen, helped build the emerging national consensus in the early 1960s of support for racial justice and the civil rights movement.

But the years since have disrupted the civil rights era's clean narrative of good-vs.-evil with harsh complexities of real life.

Most harshly, we saw the "Mockingbird" narrative turned on its head in 1995 with another dramatic moment, played out this time on live television: the racially divided reaction to the O.J. Simpson double-homicide verdict.

As one side of our divided television screens we saw black folks reacting with joyful relief that a wealthy black celebrity could receive a fair trial -- or, at least, as fair as money could buy. The other side caught white folks horrified that a double murderer may have been set free by a mixed-race, mixed-gender jury.

The horrifying new narrative speaks to inequities and injustices more fundamental than racial inequality. It also speaks to an old concern that people freed from one system of injustice must be particularly careful to avoid repeating those abuses against others.

Which brings us to the current arguments surrounding the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. His death at the hands of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, might well have been no more than a local story were it not for the racial angle. Martin was black, Zimmerman is the son of a white father and Hispanic mother. Questions of whether a hate crime was committed hang in the balance.

After weeks of rallies and media chatter, many wonder whether Zimmerman, if arrested, can get a fair trail and whether the public will accept it if he does. But the pursuit of fairness is the reason why we have real courtrooms in the real world and don't rely on the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, it was only after weeks of inaction by local police and prosecutors that Martin's family turned to the court of public opinion. It was as "The Daily Show's" "senior black correspondent" Larry Wilmore put it, "the only court that would hear his case."

As I watch the Trayvon Martin story unfold, I am reminded of Harper Lee's memorable message recalled by Scout: "Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them." That's a message worth remembering as we search through the facts in pursuit of the truth.

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