Sunday, January 18, 2009

MLK and Atticus Finch: Defenders of Nonviolent Change

Yeah, I've been a bad, bad blogger. But I have a good excuse: I was in a play, a three-person play called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." It was an absolute blast-- I'll write about it some day, when I have some distance from it-- but it was also very time-consuming. Long story short: I had to back-burn the blogging.

And now, this post, my first one in weeks, is going to be devoted to someone else's words. Luckily, that "someone else" to a pretty amazing substitute.

During my first year teaching high school, I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. (How is it possible, you ask, that I never read it before? Blame my high school. I honestly feel cheated that I had to wait until I was thirty before I read one of the greatest books ever. But let's stick that in the "rant for another time" file.)

Anyway, while reading the book, I realized that Atticus Finch, in his quest for racial equality and his commitment to nonviolence, shared a lot in common with Martin Luther King. After I did some research, I discovered I wasn't the only one who saw this connection; so did King himself.
In fact, King actually makes an allusion to Atticus in his 1963 book Why We Can't Wait.

The Atticus reference occurs in a chapter called "The Sword That Heals," which is itself part of a metaphor King uses to describe "the just and powerful weapon" of nonviolence. Reverend King alludes to a moment in Mockingbird when Atticus goes to the local jail to protect his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, from a mob that wanted to lynch him. The scene gets tense very fast, with the men telling Atticus to get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Suddenly, Atticus' daughter Scout-- blissfully innocent as always-- comes out of the shadows and recognizes the leader of the gang; he's the father of one of the boys in her class. When she calls the man, Mr. Cunningham, by name, the mood changes; it's as if just the simple act of hearing his name awakens Mr. Cunningham to his potential actions, even shames him. The gang disperses, and the crisis is averted. Later, Atticus-- ever the wise sage-- says the incident reinforces the fact that "a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they are still human."

That's the incident in Mockingbird. Here's what King had to say about it in Why We Can't Wait:

"We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.

"Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force. I am reminded of the popular and widely respected novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, a white southern lawyer, confronts a group of his neighbors who have become a lynch-crazy mob, seeking the life of his Negro client. Finch, armed with nothing more lethal than a lawbook, disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage, aided by his small daughter, who, innocently calling the would-be lynchers by name, reminds then that they are individual men, not a pack of beasts.

"To the Negro of 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice."

I haven't taught Mockingbird in years, but I'd encourage anyone who does teach the book to use this connection. Not only does it allow for a discussion about the similarities of Atticus Finch and Martin Luther King, but it also drives home a larger point: that the literature we read in class does not exist in a vaccum. Indeed, the ideas in these texts have real-life implications. They don't always believe it, but it's true.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Truth about First-Footers, Sauerkraut, and Other New Years Superstitions

I was just talking to my wife's grandmother (whom we call Mommom) about some wacky New Years Day superstitions-- things to do to bring yourself good luck in the new year, or, at the very least, ward off bad luck. She learned these superstitions, apparently, many, many years ago, when she was living in Pennsylvania. And let me tell you: she had some doozies. For example:

When the new year begins, the first person to cross the threshold of your house-- known in some circles as the "first-footer"-- needs to be a man. And it can't be a man who lives in the hosue either: it has to be a male visitor. (And if a woman enters first? Bad luck for a year!)

On New Years Day, you have to eat a meal of pork, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes; this will bring good fortune. (And, yes, it is indeed rare to see "sauerkraut" linked with "good fortune.") But whatever you do, do NOT have chicken on New Years Day, as this means you will be "scratching" for money all year.

Mommom also mentioned a superstition involving washing your face while holding coins in your hands... but she never really bought into that one.

While she was telling these stories, my mother-in-law chimed in with a superstition her Italian hairdresser once told her: on New Years Day, you should fill a bucket with water and throw the water out the fornt door, which symbolizes throwing out all of the bad luck from the previous year. But this superstition comes with a caveat: don't throw water on the front porch, because if the water freeze, someone might slip and fall. (This, apparently, happened to the hairdresser's brother.)

When I asked Mommom if she believed these superstitions, she said no... but she still wanted me to be the first visitor to cross the threshold today. "Why take chances?" she said wisely.

(Incidentally, you can read about other New Years Day superstitions at one of my favorite websites,

Before I wrap up this post, I wanted to take one last look back. I started this blog at the end of last May; I ended up writing 50 posts in 2008. Maybe not "magnum opus" numbers, but not bad. I was pretty proud of some of them, and I wanted to give a few of the forgotten posts one last plug:

"Reviewing a Review" (June 3, 2008): someone reviewed a short story I wrote, and I gave my assessment of his assessment. All very meta.

"Sox Education" (June 19, 2008): This one basically uses the 2004 Red Sox as a metaphor for teaching. I know it's January, and no one cares about baseball right now; still, I wanted to give it a shout-out because I always considered it an "unsung hero" kind of post.

"Mostly, for Worse" (August 30, 2008): In this one, I basically bemoan how newspapers keep running the same comic strips they ran thirty years ago, despite the fact that many of the creators of said comics have died. A fascinating sociological study that no one actually read.

"Last Person on Earth" (October 6, 2008): Here, I talk about how teaching can be an extremely insulating and isolating job; sometimes, it takes an encouraging word from a co-worker to bring you back form the brink of insanity. (I actually got two comments for this one...)

"So Help Me Me" (October 9, 2008): This was an election-themed post, using NBC's West Wing to prove my theory: in order to want to be president, you have to have a God-complex. Again, time has made it less topical, but I was a big West Wing fan, and I had that idea cooking for years, so I wanted to give it one last plug.

"Society is the Spice of Life" (November 30, 2008): All about this phenomenon of "society-blaming." Hey, I liked it, but what do I know?

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the pork and sauerkraut.