Nelle Harper Lee–the pen may be still, the message still alive

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”—Atticus Finch

In 1960 a small hardbound book would appear on the shelves of libraries and bookstores across America. The author, a young woman from Monroeville, Alabama, would soon rocket to new found fame and become the center of discussion and literary circles throughout the globe.

Miss Nelle Harper Lee penned a coming-of-age novel during the heat of racial tension inside the United States. She, like myself, grew up in the South. My grandparents were honest hardworking individuals who held strong to beliefs and values forged through years of living through the Depression, both World Wars, and the Civil Right’s movement.

Although I lost my grandparents in the early 90’s, modern civilization did not replace those ingrained lessons and ideals. It was growing up with my grandparents; I slowly understood the effects of racism and how the beliefs about culture, race, and one’s place in society served as fierce obstacles in a community.

Miss Lee lived center stage during the time of the Million Man March, the letters from Birmingham Jail, and witnessed live the power of I Have a Dream.

However, Miss Lee fired the first shots against the hatred of the South, drew first blood against the bigotry gripping so many homes in America.

At the age of 34 Alabama’s Southern Belle elected to speak or write about courage and the need for a Nation to take a stand. In simple language she described the world through the eyes of a 10 year-old girl. A girl who questioned the bravery and wisdom of her father but soon learned courage is not earned through violence or persecution but the willingness to risk all for one’s beliefs.

If you are still at a loss about the book I speak—To Kill a Mockingbird.

Society’s reaction to Kill a Mockingbird was sift. Many praised the insight and brutal honesty of the author’s words, while others condemned the book as an evil creation meant to spread immorality and insurrection throughout the veins of Americans.

Miss Lee, unprepared for the success and the popularity of the book sought refuge inside her home and except for a few essays her pen would remain still until her death.

I am well acquainted with the novel. I enjoyed teaching young people this masterpiece of literature. I became dismayed as schools and scholars started to shy away from the “classic” believing more modern writers capable of telling the same story.

I disagree. America has produced some literary giants and very capable writers. However, none have been able to duplicate the message or lessons contained inTo Kill A Mockingbird.

I could argue that Lee’s work derived from the heart of an individual wise beyond her years. Lee penned a confrontational stand for whom many others were killed or brutally punished by society. Forgiving the cliché—Lee stood in the mouth of the lion daily witnessing the struggles of friends, neighbors, and strangers to navigate a better life and opportunity for all in society.

She understood death, evil, courage, and witnessed each of these grip all in cold and calloused challenge to decency and compassion.

I am not making light of the challenges modern authors face today. Yes, riots regarding race and socio economic placement still exist in our society. However, many times these events are spurred on by the coverage of today’s media and our need as a society to place blame.

Miss Lee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Harriet Beacher Stowe, and others sought not to paint people or society with blame but advocated for a better life—a life free of judgment and oppression.

John Grisham’s novel, A Time to Kill explored some of the same issues as To Kill A Mockingbird; however, the novel cannot compare. Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and others have continued the plight of Miss Lee, yet they could never replace her work or her words.

The brutal honesty resonating from the pages of To Kill A Mockingbird still weld the power to convict, challenge, and humble the reader. The moment Scout confronts the angry crowd, it is in that minute of time, Miss Lee confronts the reader. She challenges the individual to examine their core values and in picturesque clarity we receive understanding as to who we are as a person.

Some classics can never be replicated nor can they be replaced.   In ways, Miss Lee recognized this very statement. Her masterpiece crafted, the event finished, she lowered her pen forever.

You dismissed your words as mere drivel. The world embraced your characters. With your pen, you exposed the bigotry and hate of the Jim Crow South. A young girl with raised fists, and a steadfast moral father taught the world of justice, love, and loyalty.

You may have left this world; however, your words continue to stoke the emotions of one’s heart and challenge the callousness of one’s thoughts.

Heaven gained a sage, the world lost a writer.

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