What is at the top of your list of favorite novels? You know the one you have read so many times you’ve nearly lost count. A truly great novel is like a great love affair, the experience of reading it can be that intense. The bond of affection you feel for your favorite novel is timeless, it’s impossible to erase. Such a novel can be literally life-changing and becomes forever a part of you. I’ll tell you mine and how it was life changing for me and how that i still relevant today many years after I first read it. I hope you will tell me about yours.
Last year I saw the Denzel Washington film, The Equalizer. If you’ve not seen it the film is about a man who believes he has put his mysterious past behind him and has dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life. But then he meets a young girl under the control of some violent Russian gangsters and he decides he can’t stand idly by, that he has to help her. I thought it was a very good and entertaining movie throughout but there was a minor side-story in the film I found intriguing.
Robert McCall, Washington’s character, was always reading a book in the opening scenes of the movie. It was revealed after a time that his wife had been reading the books on a list of the 100 best novels of all time but she had died before finishing the list. As a tribute to his late wife, McCall was finishing the list for her by reading the remaining books.
The idea of reading the 100 best novels of all time really captured my interest and so I searched the Internet for a top 100 novels list. I discovered that there are actually many such lists, but I settled on one of them and beginning this past January I started reading the books on my list.
Having been an avid reader since childhood, not surprisingly I had previously read many of the books on the list at one time or another during my life. But when I decided to commit to reading the books on my top 100 list I decided that I’d read them all, including reading again those I’d read before. At the moment I am reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s been one of my personal favorites for a very long time now. This is actually the fifth time I’ve read the novel. I believe I was around 12-years-old when I read it for the first time.
To Kill a Mockingbird is primarily a novel about growing up in the 1930s in the Southern United States. One of the things that makes the story so brilliant is that it is told from a child’s point-of-view, that of Scout Finch, a tomboy who lives with her brother Jem and their father Atticus in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama. The book covers a span of three years when Scout is aged 6 to 9.
Telling the story through Scout’s eyes, an innocent little girl, Harper Lee is able to discuss sensitive issues like the manner in which people of color were treated by whites in the Deep South during that time period in American history when racism was sadly so commonplace. As a child, Scout was able to make observations about racial slurs and racial discrimination that an adult would avoid or sugarcoat in the interest of political correctness since readers would be likely to be forgiving of a child’s perception whereas they might find it offensive for an adult to make the same observations.
Central to the book was the story of the character Tom Robinson, a black man arrested and tried for the rape of a white woman, a crime that he not only did not commit but that never even actually happened. Tom was vigorously defended by Scout’s father Atticus and even though Atticus proved Tom’s innocence at trial, the all-white jury convicted him nevertheless because he was black. That part of the book, the outcome of the trial, the fact that an innocent man was convicted of a serious crime simply because of the color of his skin made me angry even as young boy. That explains to a large degree why To Kill a Mockingbird for me was one of those truly life changing books. I came away from the reading of that book determined that I’d never treat a person of color any differently than anyone else.
Frankly, I’m not even sure I really understood what racism was at the time I first read that book. But reading it certainly made me aware of how wrong it was to use racial slurs or to discriminate against someone on the basis of race or skin color. One point that was forever driven home to me as a 12-year-old boy was that racism is produced by ignorance, only ignorant people are racists.
Reading the book To Kill a Mockingbird was not only a very formative experience for me but instructive as well given the era I grew up it. Segregation was still in effect in the public schools when I attended primary school. Whites and blacks attended separate schools. I remember watching the civil rights marches on the news on a black and white television set and saw on television Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. The first civil rights act was passed when I was aged 8. I personally witnessed racism and discrimination and know what it looks like and that it is ugly beyond tolerance.
It seems ironic that I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird once again at a time in this country when racial unrest between blacks and whites is perhaps the worst it has been in more than 50 years. In April 2015, violent protests erupted in Baltimore, Maryland following the death of a black man at the hands of Baltimore police. Riots that included the burning and looting of businesses on a scale that hadn’t been seen since the Los Angles Watts Riots in 1968 ensued.
More recently, racial animosity between blacks and whites reached a whole new level less than two weeks ago when Dylann Storm Roof, a mentally troubled and hate-filled 21-year-old white male, entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine innocent African-American men and women attending a Bible study. The firestorm of controversy that has erupted as a result has re-opened old wounds dating back to slavery and the American Civil War which ended 150 years ago. The United States is being portrayed throughout the world as a country mired in racism and racial unrest.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the 44th President of the United States was hailed as a water-shed moment for this country. As the first African-American to be elected to the nation’s highest office, many Americans as well as those of other countries regarded his election as the end of the shameful legacy of racism in America. Distressingly, race relations between blacks and whites in the United States rather than improving have steadily worsened during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Uniquely qualified and positioned at a time in history when he might have “bound the nation’s wounds” in a manner not seen since Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, President Obama has shown himself unequal to the task. Rather than the unity he promised while campaigning in 2008, it can be argued that the unwise actions of the president himself have encouraged the resurgence of racial divisiveness in America.
In addition to the leadership failures at the highest level of the federal government, the inconvenient truth is that there are still far too many people in this country, both white and black, who are intent on keeping racism alive to serve their own personal interests and agendas. Those most prominently featured in the news continuously lamenting racism and telling us all what a huge problem it still is, for the most part have earned their very livelihood off continually raising the specter of racism their entire lives, finding evidence of it around every corner and behind every bush. Without racism they would not only lose all relevancy but their powerful positions and paychecks. They can’t afford to let racism die and so continually administer CPR to the patient to keep it alive.
The horrific, mind-numbing violence visited upon those innocent people in Charleston, South Carolina should never have happened and is condemned by every decent American regardless of race. The institution of slavery that existed in the United States for more than 80 years is the most shameful period in the history of a country founded upon the very words “All men are created equal.” Thankfully that ended 152 years ago with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Today in 2015, there remains alive no one who gave the offense of slavery and no one remains alive who was offended. Yet the historical existence of slavery remains for some a ready torch to illuminate the specter of racism and to kindle the fires of racial strife.
I find the current events reported in the media today just as illustrative as I found reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. There still remains far too much ignorance in the United States, first on the part of history revisionists who loudly proclaim their ignorance of American history by shrill insistence that the sole cause of the Civil War was the desire on the part of Southern states to retain the institution of slavery when slavery was nothing more than a peripheral causative factor. Then we have the ignorance on the part of professional race-baiters who out of greed for fame, the trappings of power, and filling their own pockets with cash refuse to allow racism to die.
To paraphrase the words of Christ in Matthew 26 when he spoke of the poor, sadly it seems the ignorant we will always have with us too. But having been born and having lived during the era of segregation and open racial discrimination against black people, I have not only personally witnessed the ugliness of racism and inequity of discrimination, I have also witnessed the decline of racism and steady improvement in race relations throughout my lifetime. That is the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the achievements of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. Those telling Americans today, including the mainstream media that racism remains a huge issue in this country are quite plainly ignorant or intentionally pursuing some evil agenda.
Thankfully the vast majority of Americans of every race, color, and creed, are too decent, informed, and educated to believe that a person’s worth is to be judged by the color of his or her skin. The race-baiters and the hate mongers are the minority and I am confident that they will not prevail.
It both incenses me and offends me to hear people portray the United States as a country where rampant racism exists because I assure you it does not. The acts of one deranged, racist individual does not make all of the same race guilty by association.
Admittedly racism is not yet dead in this country but it is definitely on life support, being kept alive by artificial means by the ignorant. In truth, Dr. King’s dream has largely been realized during my lifetime and those who refuse to accept that diminish the legacy of arguably one of the greatest men in the history of this nation. I continue to believe that one day his dream will be fully realized, that one day “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.'”