…His sermon was a forthright denunciation of sin, an austere declaration of the motto on the wall behind him: he warned his flock against the evils of heady brews, gambling, and strange women. Bootleggers caused enough trouble in the Quarters, but women were worse. Again, as I had often met it in my own church, I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen.
— Miss Scout Finch, a gradeschooler
One reason I’m re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird is actually because one of my daughters and I are letting Sissy Spacek read it aloud to us. Another reason is because Harper Lee’s novel reminds me of some things growing up as a preacher’s kid; my first nanny was named Nancy, an African American woman in Corsicana, Texas USA, where my Dad, a white man, was a Baptist pastor before the Jim Crow laws were repealed. I was glad when I saw him yesterday that he could remember her last name.
A third reason I’m interested again in the 50-year-old book is its language. Wayne Leman at BBB recently pointed to an article on the very new Common English Bible, and there I found this fascinating quotation of Paul Franklyn, associate publisher for the CEB and the United Methodist Church’s Abingdon House, about newer English language:
Language in the postmodern era is much more evocative, imagistic, and emotional than it was 30 or 50 years go, when biblical idioms were translated with more systematic, ‘dignified,’ and sometimes propositional equivalents. Some translations tend to flatten metaphors into doctrinal propostions [sic] and thus reduce the ambiguity that is present.
Well, the language we read of 50 years ago, as in the observations of a white girl visiting a black church, as in the epigraph above, was hardly any less evocative then than language is now, I think. The quotation I gave you was from part 2 of To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s the early chapter in that part in which Calpurnia, the nanny for Scout and her brother Jem, take the two children to her church. After the experience, and towards the end of the chapter, Scout and her brother both judge the language of Calpurnia. Maybe I should say, They judge her languageS. Listen:
“Cal,” I asked, “why do you talk nigger talk to the — to your folks when you know it’s not right?”
“Well, in the first place I’m black — “
“That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,” said Jem….
“But Cal, you know better,” I said. [Scout repeating her brother here]
“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike — in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change anybody by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”
Now, there’s much more to tell. So its better that you read it than let me read it to you. The language of Harper Lee’s novel resists “talkin’ right.” Its language is person, its ambiguous metaphors are embodied, as in real bodies, bodies sexed female, bodies colored black. For a “ladylike” person who is “in the first place … black,” there’s no need for being preoccupied with talking to change others who don’t want to learn. Such preoccupations belong, it seems, to those who would silence others, who would keep them talking one way but not the other, who would imagine 50 year old language, literary language, to be outdated. I imagine if you’re marginalized in multiple ways, you know better.