A Dog Called Atticus

July 28, 2010 — Leave a comment

Dog and I have just wandered home from our local Houston coffee shop and mid-way resting point on our morning ambles; whilst there we chatted to Atticus, a rather handsome Standard Poodle, and his owners.

Now Atticus is not a common name for man or dog, and naturally conversation turned to that American classic, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill A Mocking Bird. I say naturally but many non-Americans may not have read the book. I only did the first time because I had an American English literature professor at school in Australia. But many saw the movie of the book, starring Gregory Peck in a role that won him an Oscar in 1962.

The book is relevant because Atticus Finch was one of the main characters, an honest-to-God good man; a white lawyer defending a black man, Tom Robinson, for allegedly raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. A repulsive crime at any time in any society but deemed even more heinous in 1930s Alabama. The story is narrated by Atticus’s daughter Scout, a motherless tomboy, who with her brother Jem are being brought up by their father and Calpurnia, the black housekeeper, with the sometime help of their aunt who does not approve of her brother’s parenting style.

I remember reading the book, but not having been exposed to segregation didn’t really understand the racial significance, though I think I was shocked, and probably a little titillated, by the story. Words like ‘rape’ were not normally discussed at the age of fourteen in the classroom of an all girl’s boarding school in rural Australia, and most of my fellow students only exposure to multi-culturalism was to see an occasional Australian Aboriginal.

But as an adult, discussing the book over lattés on a sunny Saturday morning, I realized why in my youth, whilst I found the book shocking because of the supposed rape, I did not appreciate the horror felt by many readers at the time of its publication, the 1960s. A black man daring, allegedly, to touch a white woman.

A hundred years earlier though, the reverse relationship apparently did not shock quite so much. Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, purportedly fathered several children with a black mistress, Sally Hemming, who was with him at his deathbed in July 1826 and for the previous thirty-seven years.

Why did I not fully appreciate the underlying tensions in the book? Probably because I spent my childhood years hip-hopping around Africa and Asia. My playmates both in the classroom and out of it were of all colours and creeds. The colour of skin meant nothing to me though I do remember thinking it clever, as a little girl, that we all had red blood.

Why am I writing this? Too many coincidences in one day. I haven’t thought in any great depth about the book for probably thirty-five years so why now? To Kill a Mocking Bird turned fifty on July 11th which, combined with Dog’s friend, brought the story back to me.

Atticus the dog, ironically black; the 50th anniversary of book’s publication; the mocking bird nipping red berries off the asparagus fern on my terrace; and finally the appreciation that my upbringing was free of the entanglements of colour prejudice. Such were, and are, the benefits of growing up a TCK (Third Culture Kid).

Change of attitude can be a slow process. It would be nice to think children now are growing up in a world a little less sullied by color and creed bias, but we are still inherently judgmental, with racial profiling being the new term for colour or faith prejudice.

TCKs will become the proto-type citizen of the world, said Ted Ward in 1989, then a professor of sociology at Michigan State University. In 2010, his words are starting to ring true with CCKs (Cross Culture Kids) as defined by Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, as children who have lived in several cultural environments while growing up; for example, children of bi/multi racial parents, children of refugees as well as traditional TCKs, and so on, becoming a defined demographic.

For those children being brought up as TCKs or CCKs, a nonjudgmental and accepting attitude to different customs, colours and cultures is the norm. Let’s hope, at the hundredth anniversary of To Kill a Mocking Bird, for an even greater understanding of cultural differences for all our children, because ultimately we could all still learn from Atticus Finch’s response to his daughter’s comment that ‘people are normally nice’, with the words “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

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