When Stephen Dixon asked me to do a public reading from my favorite banned book, I knew right away which one to pick.
I selected Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a beloved novel that’s also attracted censors because of its story about a black man wrongly accused of rape.
As part of his work with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, Dixon recently organized an evening of readings and music performances featuring material that had been banned or threatened by censorship. The event, dubbed a “Freedom of Expression Festival,” wasn’t quite so grand as the festivals Louisiana is known for, and that was part of its charm. It was an intimate gathering of a few well-wishers in the backyard of Penni Guidry and David Mooney.
As part of the evening, a handful of writers took a few moments at the microphone to share brief excerpts from cherished authors whose books had, at one time or another, faced attempts to remove them from public circulation.
Listeners heard passages from Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” A short story by Franz Kafka made an appearance, too.
I chose “Mockingbird,” which the Plaquemines Parish School Board had voted to take off school shelves in 2001, rescinding that decision in 2013. The novel’s observations on injustice and race were controversial when Lee’s book was first published in 1961, but the story is about much more than racism in a courtroom. It’s also a charming narrative about a child’s coming of age in a Depression-era Alabama hamlet. The alleged crime in the novel is so discreetly mentioned that it won’t do violence to a young adult reader’s sensibilities. Our copy of “Mockingbird” is worn and duct-taped from the middle school years when our son read it and reread it, each time with profit.
In reading some of Lee’s novel aloud the other night, I was reminded how much pleasure she takes — and gives — in the English language. Like most Southerners, she grounds her sentences in the rhythm of conversation — long, winding, descriptive talk.
I love how Lee unveils the setting of her story: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square.”
That’s what I read aloud on an evening when a few folks got together to read what they wanted, sing what they wanted, say what they wanted. It was a precious gift, and easy to take for granted.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.