I am going to take a short break from the series I began only a few days ago, because I was struck this past week by the death of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, one of America’s great books. Lee’s story about race remains one of the most banned or opposed books in American libraries.
I don’t know when I first read it, but I do recall that though the novel held my attention, I somehow did not adequately grasp its message. As a white Canadian from a white town, I had little personal comprehension of the hateful prejudice that Lee’s book was addressing. When I made a journey to the southern states for the first time, many realities of the Black/White divide in the “Deep South” began to seem real.
The year was 1970, a week before Christmas, when I agreed to accompany a free-lance journalist on a bus trip through several southern states, on the way to the home of an African-American artist. When we got past Knoxville, Tennessee, and into the Carolinas, I became conscious of having entered what I distinctly felt was a “Twilight Zone,” from the name of a popular television series of that time in which normal people suddenly had strange, disorienting experiences.
Through the window of the Greyhound bus, I started to notice that some stores had little red signs above the entrances with the letters “KKK” in white. Were white people supposed to shop only there, I asked myself, and were “colored people” supposed to keep out? Other glimpses of racial segregation passed by the window, culminating in one horror of a message on a large billboard. I could scacely believe what I was seeing. Framed inside the advertisement’s larger-than-life borders was the picture of a mounted and hooded “klansman” of the infamous white supremacist organization, and around the hood and the uprearing horse was boldly written the words, “This is KKK country — Love it or leave it! “
Eventually, the journalist and I reached our destination, past the outskirts of a middle-class white town, in a quiet rural field on which a dozen older houses stood. They were dwellings of wood lacking any fresh coat of paint, yet the houses seemed to be bravely holding their chins up, for though the sparse neighborhood was obviously poor, there was an unadvertized dignity here.
We received a friendly welcome and were ushered into the home of “Sadie,” a black woman in her sixties with a round happy face almost like that of a child. She soon took out a sheaf of large papers on which she had drawn pictures with crayons in bright shades of all colors, flowers and leaves, animals and trees, all dancing and moving as it seemed.
The journalist began his questions and note-taking, for Sadie was to be the subject of his next article, and while this was proceeding, I noticed that at the far side of the home, in a darker room at the back, we were being watched by a very elderly thin woman. I walked over to her to say hello, and she invited me to sit down with her. This was Sadie’s mother, about ninety years old. She appeared eager to tell me about the pictures and their significance.
At an early age, she said, Sadie started to draw her dreams, not the metaphorical kind but her actual overnight dreams, which were often pleasant. The mother encouraged Sadie in this since it was a positive experience for her daughter and others in the family. But Sadie’s father opposed it, saying that this was not a practical activity that would help his daughter through life.
One day, when the “waste of time” really bothered him, the father grabbed the whole stack of accumulating artwork, threw it all into a metal garbage drum outside and started a fire. As he was walking away, a torrent of rain suddenly began to fall. Rushing back to the house, he noticed that the rain had quickly extinguished the fire, so he scooped out all the pictures and brought them inside. “The Lord wanted to save these,” he said, and he never again spoke against Sadie’s habit of drawing her dreams.
Through a local friend, Sadie’s pictures eventually came to the attention of a New York art gallery owner who held a showing of them and published news about it in the New York papers. And that is how it was that my journalist friend and I arrived in the Deep South.
This had been my first more intimate acquaintance with a non-white family, and I began to think about how they felt, how they believed and faced life. It had also been my first personal exposure to the racially-charged culture in which they had to make their way. I started to discern more deeply what Harper Lee had known and had so vividly portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird.