Lights, Camera, Action… Read!

Lights, Camera, Action! Read To Kill a Mockingbird!

By Hope College English major, Katharyn Jones

He set the stage.

One week ago I joined the standing room only crowd gathered in Winants Auditorium to hear Hope College’s own, Dr. Fred Johnson, introduce Holland’s Big Read: To Kill a Mockingbird. I must admit I went to the keynote lecture entitled “Bathing in the Sunshine of Despair” out of principle. My thoughts and anticipation were drawn to the impending visit of Harper Lee’s friend and fellow resident of Monroeville, Alabama, later that week (more on my conversations with this dear woman to come!) I was prepared to be bored. (The guy is a history professor, after all!)

I was far from bored.  Dr. Johnson’s talk was like a spotlight piercing my confusion.

Dr. Johnson brought the story the story to life by recounting the historical tensions of the Jim Crow Era. If I were a child growing up in segregated south like Scout, there were laws stating I could not play cards with another child if they were black. The accusation of rape by a white woman of a black man was a death sentence. Lynching was a social event and recreational outing published in newspapers, so that families could watch. Maybe even bring a picnic lunch. Pose and take a picture with the body. (If you want to know more, check out the website Without Sanctuary. It is a catalogue of photographs taken of lynchings.)  Racial tensions were only exasperated by the economic tensions of the Great Depression. Although To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, the book takes place in 1935.This is the scene in which Harper Lee chose to set her masterpiece and cry for innocence. Publishing her fictional status of the status quo was quite a courageous step on Lee’s part. It certainly steps on some toes.

“Bathing in the Sunshine of Despair” was also a call to action.

The former marine’s talk, (once a marine, always a marine), pointed out something that seemed to apply directly to the message of the Holland Big Read. One of the elements of American slavery was to keep slaves from becoming educated, and, more importantly, to learn to read.  The blood spilt in the Civil War temporarily brought a semblance of educational equality, until segregation threatened to tear reading, education and everything they represent away from half of the South’s population again.  As Scout said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Atticus Finch battled for the breath of his neighbors. He fought for their right to really live. The value reading and the freedom it represents is what we celebrate by coming together as one community and reading one book for the Holland Big Read! We are celebrating a book that sparked change and  voiced difficult questions of equality, independence, and understanding what it means to stand in another’s shoes.

So, as you crack open To Kill a Mockingbird this month, remember to set the stage. And remember that Harper Lee’s message means so much more when you consider the historical tensions fueling the events of the book. And join a book discussion! And remember that former-marines-turned-history-professors are actually very engaging speakers!

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