Killing Mockingbirds

Years ago, on Oct. 10, 2006, I wrote an article entitled “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was published in the digital version of the periodical Clave. I wrote the article to speak about literature and film – about Nelle Harper Lee’s* famous novel and about director Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation of it. Simultaneously, I was protesting against the perpetrator of a hate crime that had been committed recently in Santo Domingo.

The shooter in a nightclub was a security guard – a person of color with orders to prevent the entry of people of color, in a country composed of people of color – who took his job too seriously when he fired at a group of dark-skinned youth, a killing that is still imprinted in my mind.

Not all episodes of racism in private nightclubs end tragically, but more than a few have indeed ended in tragedy. The worst thing, though, is that the intolerance lingers, the discrimination lingers, and in many establishments in our beautiful country, people of color are still denied entrance. It’s very possible that our glorious homicidal security guard is still free, even working again in the same job.

The intolerance described in “To Kill a Mockingbird” has not gone away in the United States. On the contrary, it’s getting worse. The U.S. has just 5 percent of the globe’s population, and it has the largest prison population on the planet (2.2 million). Next come China, Russia and Brazil. But what is really shocking is that the black population of the United States is 6.5 percent of the total population, but it represents 40.2 percent of the prison population. Another very high figure is the percentage of Latinos in prison, but then again, being Latino is just a variation of being black in our northern neighbor’s democracy.

Killing mockingbirds, the way the novel’s meaning hits me, continues to be almost a sport up north. And so it is important to bring back and unfurl the anti-racist manifesto of Lee, who happened to be a dear friend of Truman Capote. Before I do, I should clarify that the word “mockingbird” has been incorrectly – or perhaps poetically – translated as “ruiseñor” (“nightingale”), but the mockingbird, the copycat bird that imitates others, should correctly be translated as “sinsonte.” Still, I prefer the error, or the poetry. *

Gregory Peck was once a hero standing for kindness and goodness in the U.S. when he played the role of Atticus Finch, an unbiased white lawyer in the deep South, in the heart of racist America, in Monroeville, Alabama. This character − from Lee’s first and only novel, brought to the big screen by Mulligan, where it won awards and shook the American conscience − raised his children with ideas about tolerance that were based not in Calvinist fundamentalism, but in the loftiest liberal tradition.

The action of the story takes place in a time (1935) when many barber shops hung signs to prohibit the entry of dogs, Negroes and Jews, in that order. A widower, Atticus preached tolerance in a racist society. He taught by example. He faithfully educated his son and daughter (by educating their feelings) to love their neighbor regardless of race. He explained to them that killing a mockingbird is a crime that the Lord abhors. The implication was that racism, too, is a crime that is abominable to God. Racism, for a person who respects him or herself as a human being, is the same as killing a mockingbird.

Atticus is the most important lawyer in the community of Monroeville; he is a principled man who is respected by both the white and black populations, and he does not value one group over the other.

For this reason, the family of a black man who is accused of raping and beating a white woman solicits Atticus’ services. No other lawyer wants to defend this man, as the accusation hits upon the most sensitive racial taboo of the time. Atticus accepts the case without hesitating, and he fights it well despite the fact that the case causes a social scandal among friends and in the larger racist white society. Unhappy white townspeople stalk Atticus’ children and watch his home.

Atticus is faced with a situation in which he must risk everything for his principles, because principles only exist – as someone once said – not because they’re exercised when nobody pays attention, but because they’re exercised when they might hurt you.

In court, people of different classes and color are physically segregated on two levels. The whites are on the ground floor and the blacks sit above in the balcony. But Atticus’ children sit with the black population, protected by the community leader, the Rev. Sykes.

Atticus proves, before an all-white jury, that the black man who had been accused of rape was in fact himself either a victim of rape or at least had been seduced, and that it was possible that the very father of the girl in question was the person who had beaten her; it was the father who, to find a scapegoat, accused the black man. Atticus’s defense is unacceptable to the jury, and they condemn the black man to death. In other words, once he is proven innocent, he is declared guilty. Soon thereafter the condemned man dies – but either by suicide or murder.

The dignity and emotional eloquence of Brock Peters, the actor who played the role of the accused black man, was outstanding. And it went unnoticed during the Oscar nominations. Maybe this was another way to kill a mockingbird.

In a memorable scene, one that represents both history and reality, when Atticus is defeated in court and prepares to leave the courtroom, the members of the black community stand in recognition of his courage, and the voice of the Rev. Sykes can be heard speaking to Atticus’ daughter, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a choral symphony of works – the novel, the film, real life – where the only real protagonist is the town of Monroeville. The town emits a message of intolerance, but there is also a better message of tolerance, humanity, and unbreakable loyalty. In Monroeville, courage isn’t shown in great feats, but by a lifetime of goodness. When a scrawny, rickety and drunk man confronts the solid Atticus, calling him a “nigger lover” and spitting at him right between the eyes, Atticus calmly looks at him for a few seconds. All it would take is an easy punch to knock the man unconscious, but Atticus clears the saliva off his face with a cloth and responds with a gesture of disdain, leaving the drunkard impotent. Atticus has no intention of fighting in the dirt with a dirty racist man.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” according to the January 2006 issue of National Geographic, “isn’t just a novel set in Monroeville, Alabama. It’s the town’s obsession.” In Monroeville, they put on a production of Lee’s novel every year, in which they always emphasize Atticus’ dignity with actors taken from a community of no more than 7,000 people. Among others, ministers and lawyers take part in the play, and around 5,000 people attend. Only the author misses the event. She has won the Pulitzer Prize, she has sold 3 million copies of her book, and her book was made into a movie, but she avoids fame. She shies away from the limelight, and hasn’t written more books. Nor does she accept interviews. Her talent is big and her ego small. She visits the town often and goes out in public, but just with her friends.***

Here in the Dominican Republic, in our mixed-race community, as Corpito Pérez Cabral**** called us, we kill mockingbirds in clubs that, someday, won’t even let the president of the country in, if his skin is too dark. I recall the sadly famous case of a club on the strip in Santo Domingo where the Italian owner denied entry to Dominicans of color. It seems that the Italian was linked to some unsavory groups who later “took care of” him. I also recall that recently, the guard at a racist nightclub killed an olive-skinned and beautiful mockingbird. And I recall that there are still nightclubs – party spots – that deny access to Dominicans of color. Perhaps they forget that we are all “of color,” and they kill mockingbirds for sport.

*Translator’s note: The translator has chosen to use the translation “mockingbird,” although the author continues with “ruiseñor.”

**Editor’s note: Nelle Harper Lee was better known by her pen name, Harper Lee.

***Editor’s note: Nelle Harper Lee died on Feb. 19, 2016, in Monroeville.

****Editor’s note: Pedro Andres Perez Cabral (Corpito) was a Venezuelan lawyer, politician, journalist and educator who died in 1981.

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