There’s no doubt about it, the Big Read is a cool concept.
Getting thousands of people in one community to read the same book and then discuss it can be a powerful process – especially when the book is as thought-provoking as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The novel by Harper Lee explores racism in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s.
What’s that have to do with Monroe, Michigan, in the 20th century?
It was clear to me from the Big Read panel discussion on diversity last night that “Mockingbird” offers plenty of lessons for Monroe in 2008.
There seemed to be general agreement from the panel members that racism still exists in Monroe. It’s more subtle than 70 years ago. It’s closely tied to socio-economics – that is, the combination of poverty and racism together are a tougher foe than either by itself. But it’s still evident – in the segregation of the “East Side,” in achievement levels in school, in arrest and conviction rates in the judicial system.
One of the themes throughout both “Mockingbird” and last night’s discussion was that education is the most powerful tool we have in the battle against racism. The more people look beyond their narrow circle, the more they expand their horizons by reading and studying others’ thoughts and ideas, the more likely they’ll embrace people who aren’t like them and be tolerant of diverse cultures and lifestyles.
Another theme that ran through both the novel and the panel was the importance of parenting. Atticus Finch, the lawyer in the novel who defended a young black man accused of raping a white woman, constantly, patiently, explained to his children the importance of putting yourself in others’ shoes – viewing life from their perspective. It’s not an accident that Atticus raised thoughtful, respectful children, and his closed-minded sister raised spiteful, bigoted children.
Perhaps, in my opinion, the most important theme from the book and the panel was the interpersonal role we all can play. In “Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch wasn’t just a rich lawyer who defended poor black people. He was a friend and companion of everyone in his small town, whether they were black housekeepers or poor white sharecroppers.
A highlight for me of the panel discussion was the audience member (I wish I had caught his name, maybe someone can add it in a comment) who asked the panel members if any of them had personal friends of another race – implying that ending racism is a one-on-one issue.
I agree with the point he seemed to be making. Monroe County, for all its faults, is a wonderful place filled with caring, decent people. They’re quick to help a neighbor or a stranger, and they’re willing to step up and make a difference when needed.
For the most part, they live with the subtle racism that still pervades our community because it doesn’t touch their daily lives, doesn’t affect them in any way they notice. It’s easy to ignore something that you don’t see. If they were more aware of the problem, I’m convinced they would want to be part of the solution.
That’s why the Big Read and panel discussions like last night can be so valuable. They help us come face-to-face with issues we otherwise just let slip by.
Racism continues to be a serious problem in America. But we don’t have to look to the Mexican border or the inner city of Detroit to find it. It’s right here in Monroe County.
And the solution is right here, too. In education, in parenting, and in each of us.
It was a privilege for me to be a member of the panel with Judge Pamela A. Moskwa, chief probate judge for Monroe County; Larry Arreguin, vice president of government affairs for VisionIT and chairman of the Hispanic/Latino Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party; Kelvin McGhee, Monroe City Council, third precinct; and Jeffrey Kodysh, editor of The Agora. Also thanks to MCCC and the staff of the Agora for hosting the event.
If part of the problem is that Monroe County residents aren’t as aware of race problems as they should be, part of the blame must fall to The Monroe Evening News. What are your thoughts on what the newspaper and its Web sites should do to help raise awareness of race issues in the county. Please share them here, or send me a private note at firstname.lastname@example.org