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In Her Own Words, Please: A Friend of
Harper Lee’s Pleads the Case Against Censors

| November 15, 2010

richard schreiner mockingbird

An arrangement of Richard Schreiner's 'Mockingbird,' painted in response to the controversy over the play at FPC. On display at Palm Coast's Hollingsworth Gallery through January. (© FlaglerLive)

At 9:15 this morning at Matanzas High School, a nine-member school district appeals committee meets to discuss the fate of To Kill a Mockingbird, the student stage production of Harper Lee’s novel that was to be staged by the Flagler Palm Coast High School Drama Club at the Flagler Auditorium last weekend. The school principal and the superintendent canceled the play over fears of the effects of the use of nigger on stage. Colleen Conklin, a school board member, appealed the decision. We asked Jack Cowardin, a friend of Harper Lee’s for many years, to address the matter from his, and possibly her, perspective. (This morning’s meeting at Matanzas is open to the public.)

By Jack Cowardin

How can our current drama of censorship possibly be happening in the year 2010? That’s right, we’ve created a drama about a dramatic piece of iconic literature and its subsequent play, in our small, microscopic community, successfully uniting ‘our town’ in a way no other subject could since we are nationally celebrating the 50th anniversary of the stellar work of literature, To Kill a Mockingbird. Especially surprising since the book is a universal standard and acclaimed modifier of a time once known so sadly for its hate and denial of human rights by illustrating racial injustice and hatred told by the author Harper Lee by the use of the “N-word.”

I am speaking of racial prejudice, a subject that should be shelved as an anachronism in practice, but never forgotten as history and the blight it once had over the land, that so commonly identified the vernacular of a region we’d like to say was confined to the South, but in reality spread over our great country whenever it conveniently suited a “name caller” or bigot, even if one was a “sophisticated” bigot and not just “poor white trash” as the leading man in the subject story so honestly, so smoothly relates to his daughter of the type of ignorant people who use the “n-word.” Of course, “n-word” is not what the author uses verbatim, rather the full six lettered word is there for us to realize, to absorb, to understand that the author is posting the word so that we can know the full reality of the scene, and the brutal hatred that exists with the real villain, the prosecutor, and sadly the jury.

Now the assumption here is that one has read the book, or at least knows it’s not just a great novel that won the Pulitzer Prize but is the book that planted the seed of knowledge for the world to see reality, not only in time frame of the book’s setting of 1930’s Depression, but also that little had changed up to 1960 when the book was published. Well, maybe you haven’t read the book but you may have seen the black and white movie, narrated by a young girl, Scout is her name, and this is her “coming of age” drama. It stars Gregory Peck, who wins the Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the pro bono lawyer defending a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. It ends tragically for the accused despite Atticus’ passionate plea to the jury that “there’s just no evidence.” The movie was a blockbuster, literally. It blew the doors off of Pandora’s box of those individuals, communities, states and a nation that kept racial injustice in its ugly identity and practice. For this, Ms Lee is partially credited for awakening a nation’s conscience. For this, we celebrate her wonderful work of art.

Now back to “our” drama. If you’ve keep abreast of community affairs here in Palm Coast recently, then you know that Flagler Palm Coast High School had scheduled the play to be performed in mid November. From what I know, the cast and its director and support crew were so excited, and so well rehearsed, that the 50th Anniversary of the book’s publication, celebrated and acted throughout the country, was to be a special treat of dramatic art that I feel Palm Coast would have been proudly represented and elated by their effort. Here’s how the drama unfolds. Without names or blames, the powers that be at the school first approached the drama director that they had trouble with the play because of derogatory language. That being the “n-word” and “goddamn” and other negative slurs that the administration felt were inappropriate in this now ‘politically correct” age of pure vanilla–make that mocha–homogeneity.

I was asked at this very time of the first objection for an answer to the quagmire facing the producer-director. He actually thought, just possibly, that there might be substitute words for the offensive word, or pleaded for a suggestion to placate his inquisitors. My benign answer was, just to save the play, to announce to the audience that Ms Lee’s book contained words that were no longer publicly acceptable and that a slight pause could replace the “n-word.” Let the audience know the school was sensitive to the offensive power this word now generates. Telling them we understand the administration’s concern for those who hear words we have since voided from public speech. To be honest, a ten year old who hears the full “n-word” in a play might be shocked. To be more honest, anyone who has neither read the book nor seen the movie might be likewise shocked. After several discussions, however, neither substitute words or pauses would be true to Mockingbird’s song, nor would they be legal due to copyright laws. So the stage is set to face the truth and look to the book, and to those who know the power of the written word that Mockingbird so possesses, and decide the merits of the case. Case? Yes, our drama.

The Mockingbird is on trial here. What say ye, Palm Coast?

Let’s start by picking a jury. Who should decide the fate of the play? Well, that’s easy, the School Board. They must be learned men and women and know the significance, the importance of Mockingbird‘s multiple themes. If the ninth and tenth grade reader, who is required to read the book as an assignment, can grasp and behold that good over evil, hate and prejudice, innocence and tragedy are all the lessons of Harper’s masterpiece, surely the intellects that sit on polished mahogany and cushioned chairs can discern the book’s, and thus the play’s, importance. That the book is a great facilitator of the fact of racial prejudice and communicator of injustice toward blacks before the Civil Rights Act should be enough evidence to free the mockingbird.

But let’s test democracy, our standard of Americanism. I just witnessed a teacher present the facts, just the objective facts of this saga to six periods of seniors—all of whom had read the book in the tenth grade. Without influence, opinion, or precedent that the courtroom scene from the book had been performed by FPC students in 2002, the instructor asked for a show of hands on how many people thought the play should have been pulled. Amazingly, through all six periods, classes of 27 to 30 students, not one hand was raised! Discussions followed and similar reasons and opinions, by students only, simply stated that because of the use of strong offensive language by the author we fully understand the way people thought and why the defendant was found guilty despite the facts and the truth.

To deny a play’s performance because of the strength of its content, necessary to fully demonstrate the bigoted characters that determine the fate of a man’s life, is to deny the telling of history, our history, good or bad. The words used to accurately tell the story are personified by the author and should be heard, should be felt, even if they tingle the spine, or make you cringe in your seat, because those words were very real and used as defamatory and generalized forms of hatred on a whole race that paid terrible sacrifices in life and liberty because those words infested the minds of far too many just a few decades ago. Let’s not deprive ourselves of a visual performance of To Kill a Mockingbird because it dares to tell the truth. rather let’s let our drama players tell Harper Lee’s story in her own words … please.

Jack Cowardin of St. Augustine is the author of Ora and the Gem Star, a novel, and a long-time correspondent of Harper Lee’s. Cowardin’s letters from Lee are on display at the Flagler County Public Library in commemoration of To Kill a Mockingbird’s 50th anniversary.

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2 Responses for “In Her Own Words, Please: A Friend of
Harper Lee’s Pleads the Case Against Censors”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    Jack Cowandin, if you are still looking in on Flagerlive, and see this, I would like to involve you in a follow-up component of the production of the play here in Flagler. It seems that the director would like for me to work with him and the players to get some audience involvement. I would like you to become part of a “Gray Team: (Black and White) to help with this task. If you are willing to do this, I have some very specific ideas about how this can be done…I will be in touch with you to see what you think.

  2. Jack Cowardin says:

    Mr. Guines,
    I would gladly help in any way that would be beneficial. You can contact me

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