We see what we look for, hear what we listen for. It’s one of many messages conveyed by Harper Lee in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published the year I was born and dubbed one of the great American novels. Harper’s writing is highly praised, as is her treatment of racial injustice in the American South. Central to the book, adapted for both screen and stage, is the trial of a black man accused of rape who’s defended in court by a white lawyer.
My only experience on the receiving end of racism was during ninth grade, when I lived in Hawaii and was one of just a few “haoles” at my school. I remember noticing that teachers never called on us, even when our hands were raised and we’d come to class eager to participate. Others have experienced far greater injustices caused by bigotry based on skin color.
But our family has lived for years with another type of discrimination, made more painful by the fact that few people even acknowledge its existence. We have a family member with mental illness, but there’s little public outrage when people ridicule such things. For all our progress as a society in championing the rights of LGBT individuals and raising awareness about families affected by autism, we’ve yet to truly see the 1 in 5 people in our midst who live with depression or other mental health conditions.
So I see in “To Kill a Mockingbird” both the tale of a black man falsely accused, and the tale of another man judged too quickly — the character called “Boo” who lives holed up in his house isolated from neighbors who ridicule him for being what they consider crazy. While I acknowlege the power of Lee’s book to heighten our awareness of racial injustice even as it occurs today, I see in her work something more.
The danger in drawing assumptions about anyone. Those with mental illness. Women. Children. White men. Lawyers. Those who commit crimes. Even novelists like Lee who choose to live a quiet existence outside of the public eye. I was reminded of all this today while watching a local theater company production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which affirmed what many have surmised. That the story is just as relevant now as it was when Harper wrote it. See it. Hear it. And act on it.
Note: Click here to read the “1 in 5” report from SAMHSA
Coming up: Remembering Anne Frank, Veterans who write