Sunday, January 15, 2017

Invoking Mockingbird, Obama reminds us of importance, difficulty of empathy

In his Farewell Address on January 10, 2017, President Obama once again charmed and pleased many English teachers across the United States with his reference to Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird.

In case you missed the moment, Obama said, “if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need[s] to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch – who said, `You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

This passage, a favorite for many teachers, comes at the beginning of Chapter 4, when Atticus describes the practice of climbing into another’s skin, or what we might today call radical empathy, to Scout as a “simple trick” (39). The current political moment suggests there is nothing simple about it.

Indeed, Obama acknowledges in his Address the difficulty and rarity of this act of empathy. He presses Americans to “pay attention, and listen … acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t vanish in the ‘60s.” Obama insists that we also need to work to tie the “struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face … [including] the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.”

The allusion to Mockingbird seems a perfect exemplar for Obama’s point and for our current political moment. Tom Robinson and Calpurnia live in a desperately unequal world. In Maycomb, their lives are simply worth less; they are disempowered and dispossessed.

But so too is Mr. Ewell. Scout as narrator in Mockingbird explains that the “families like the Ewells” (227) inhabit every town like Maycomb. They are people left behind by both good times and bad: “No economic fluctuations changed their station – people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression” (227).

Just as Atticus never really steps into Tom Robinson’s skin and imagines the world from his point of view, the plight of the Ewells, who actually live in “what was once a Negro cabin” (227), is never tied together by anyone in Maycomb as part of a broader struggle for justice in the novel. One might say that the two disempowered characters live in their separate bubbles, until their worlds collide. Mr. Ewell is the antagonist, of course, but both characters suffer, disproportionately of course, from their place in the world of Maycomb in which they are not seen by the broader society or by each other.

Obama’s Address asks us to do what is definitively NOT a simple trick: to see each other and all those who are interconnected with us; to listen to each other and have real dialogue, rather than stay in our bubbles or snipe at each other over social media.

For those of us teaching Mockingbird, this is one more moment in which we can use informational text – in this case Obama’s Address – to show students the relevance of the literary texts we teach and to cultivate in our students the skills, disposition, and courage to become engaged, informed citizens. 

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