My daughter and I sat at the kitchen table, reading aloud from To Kill a Mockingbird. We were nearing the book’s end, and I’d grown accustomed to speaking in the different townspeople’s voices, varying accent and pitch, sometimes saying deplorable things in character. I, a “Christian” lady over teacakes, was remarking how “darkies” were getting awfully full of themselves, when my daughter slammed her hands on the table, halting me mid sentence: “Mom, STOP it!!! This is making me feel terrible!”
I dogeared the page and looked up, assuming she was objecting to the racist language, to me using it. And she was — just not in the way I’d expected. Anxious and teary, she shook her head: “I don’t know what to do! This is awful. You’re reading those terrible words, words that I would feel so bad if any of my African American friends — and I’ve gotten USED to them! I’m not even HEARING them anymore! Do you see what I MEAN? That’s not who I am, and I feel so bad, because I’m not even really NOTICING anymore when you say them! Why is that HAPPENING to me?”
I was surprised, and a little impressed. My daughter was offended that the offending language no longer offended. We’d both winced at Harper Lee’s honest, plain-spoken dialogue in the beginning, the hateful words dribbling in apologetic trails from my mouth, but at some point I’d stopped offering long-winded, explanatory asides and begun to let the characters speak for themselves, accepting them within the context of time and story.
We had grown used to the language, acclimatized to the name-calling, listening until we could distinguish the venomous from the merely misguided. Some comments were borne of hate, but just as many from ignorance. I felt anew the power of derogatory words, their mundanity, the insidious power granted by their very everydayness. Lee is careful not to restrict thoughtless racist remarks to the “bad” characters in her novel, ascribing them even to our 8-year-old heroine, Scout, literally too innocent to know better. Because discrimination relies on societal inattention for survival, hate masquerading as habit. It thrives on routine, flourishes with repetition, unnoticed as kudzu strangling the garden. In Lee’s world, as in our own, there are those who exist beyond salvation, but there are always others for whom growth is conceivable, once vines are stripped away and light streams in.
Still, my daughter felt stuck, indicted by anything linking her to those trapped by tradition, molded by heritage, governed by prejudice. Her voice carried the panic of a swimmer recognizing the undertow too late. She thrashed against the words, terrified of drowning in them. So we turned to Atticus’s words, and tried to stand in others’ shoes, really walk around in them, before rushing to judgment. We talked about the deep roots of hatred and fear in the South, the motivations behind action and inaction, the layers of civility undermining change. We tried not to condemn, but to make sense of it. Because searching for humanity, even in people’s most repugnant moments, does not necessitate being sucked out to sea with them. Empathy isn’t weakness; it’s the only thing keeping us afloat.
I don’t want my children growing up ashamed of being Southern. I do want them to understand the South’s sometimes shameful past. And the reality of dehumanizing words like “nigger” and “darky” are critical to this understanding. The sting of casual usage, even on the tongues of “good” characters, highlighted racism’s pervasiveness for my daughter in a way mere vilification never could.
Words can do real harm, but by properly respecting them, it is possible to confine their power to the page, to history, to reduce them once again in our own lives to a collection of letters. My daughter, despite her initial panic, was deeply impacted by the lines I read, the story they told. She understood the tide’s dark pull, and she swam, parallel to the horizon, summoning all she knew of love and courage and decency, until she felt her body release back into the surf. Then she righted herself, exhilarated, and picked her way back through the sinking sand to shore.