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A book worth reading

Joe Licandro | Wednesday, November 5, 2003

File this under the absurd and the ridiculous: Over break, I came across an article from the Oct. 21 edition of my hometown paper, The Louisville Courier Journal, that struck a nerve with me. A few weeks ago, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People pressured a high school drama group from Columbus, Ind., to halt production of a theatrical adaptation from Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the grounds that the play used pejorative language to describe African-Americans.

I am willing to bet that a majority of Notre Dame students have read this novel. If I remember correctly from both reading the book and watching the Academy Award winning movie in my eighth-grade literature class, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is arguably the most influential American novel of the 20th century precisely because it exposed the horrors of racism rampant in the 1960s that the NAACP once fought so hard to stop. For this reason, it makes no sense for the NAACP to be intolerant of a play about tolerance.

Admittedly, the novel’s lying villain Bob Ewell frequently spews disgusting pejorative language from his mouth to describe African-Americans. This crude language however, serves only to expose Ewell for what he truly is – worthless white trash. On the contrary, the novel’s protagonist Atticus Finch, a common man of uncommon integrity, teaches all of us lessons about humility, character and integrity.

Finch, a white lawyer practicing in rural Alabama, puts both his personal and career reputation on the line when he agrees to defend an African-American man named Tom Robinson falsely accused of raping Ewell’s daughter Mayella. From the beginning, Finch, a hero in every sense of the word, knows full well the cannot possibly win the case in front of an all-white jury, yet he still attempts to regardless.

I can think of reading only one other work of American fiction that rivals the importance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which vividly revealed the evils of slavery to a nation unwilling to confront reality. If you have not read either of these novels, than you need to do so. While fictitious in plot, these books, in content, spoke the truth. The power of these novels are without equal because they forced an entire nation to examine its conscience. So impressed by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Abraham Lincoln credited the novel with inspiring the North to fight for an end to slavery in the Civil War. The president once fondly referred to Stowe as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this big war.”

I shudder to think what this country would be like today if Stowe had not written such a poignant novel attacking the revolting practice of slavery in this country. I am just as afraid to imagine what race relations in this country would be like today if Lee had never written “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Who knows? We might still be living in a segregated country today if not for this book. In a testament to their longevity and relevance, these novels are equally as important today as the time periods from which they were written. But if we were to follow the NAACP’s logic or better termed illogic, then we would never have the opportunity to read such books or witness them acted out on stage. Sadly, hearts and minds would remain the same. Progress towards a more harmonious, accepting society would not be possible.

The NAACP is guilty of censorship not constitutionally permitted in this country, yet the students from Columbus, Ohio, succumbed to the organization’s unwarranted threats and unfounded allegations. Unfortunately, the students paid a heavy price (literally) for their acquiescence because now they will be unable to use the expected proceeds from the play to finance a spring theater trip to Scotland.

To bring my remarks to a close, the NAACP and its tag-team partner the American Civil Liberties Union need to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” because they – more than anyone else – need a lesson in tolerance these days.

Joe Licandro is a senior political science major. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at licandro.1@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.