In the Deep South where I live, it’s mockingbird season. In this case that’s not license to shoot but to sing. As we enjoy the first few tendrils of spring reaching their way into our backyards and flower beds, the tentative hot pink azalea blooms, the deeper wine explosion of the red bud and Japanese magnolia, and the intoxicating scent of the tea olive, we are also serenaded by the mockingbird seeking a mate.
The single male uses song to attract his partner, and not just any song. It’s more like every song. With an unequaled exuberance, he borrows a bit from the titmouse, chickadee, robin, and blue bird, among others, and even the odd dog, cat, or frog. He’s not particularly discriminating. And from his potential date’s perspective, the more complicated the song the better. As he soars through the warming air in a vibrant display of winged beauty, he trills out a medley of the melodies he hears around him. In essence, he’s telling other birds’ stories.
In Alabama the mockingbird is sacred. It was enshrined in our collective consciousness by Harper Lee and her pivotal novel that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. We may not agree on our football teams, our politics, or whether you should put sugar in corn bread, but we do agree on this. The mockingbird does nothing more than give us song and to destroy so magnanimous a creature would be a travesty.
Without question To Kill a Mockingbird is a parable of the virtue of justice, integrity, and the evil that is born out of the destruction of innocence. It has earned its place as one of the great moral tales of American literature. But it is more than that. The heart of To Kill a Mockingbird reflects that of its namesake. Our hero Atticus imparts this wisdom to young Scout during one of their evening talks on their wisteria-vined front porch.
"First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-"
"-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
More than just a parable, this novel gives eloquent voice to those often not heard. Under Calpurnia’s watchful eye, Scout is careful not to stray too far from her Maycomb yard, yet her emotional journey is long. Through Walter Cunningham, Mayella Ewell, Tom Robinson, and Boo Radley, Scout and the reader hear the stories of the other side of the economic, racial, and social divide of the South. Through these characters the novel speaks vividly of what life is like outside of the cloistered circle in which Scout lives. And her awakening to how experience and circumstance can dramatically alter a person’s story is our awakening.
In this seasonal time of renewal and rebirth, the death of Harper Lee has prompted many of us to reflect on her life and its contributions and what her remarkable novel means to each of us. To me it has offered a tenet for living, that we cannot know another human being until we hear their story, and it has provided me a path, to earn that living by ensuring those rarely voiced stories are told. It is the reason for my own Mockingbird, and like so many others, to Ms. Nelle I am grateful.