By: Regina McMenamin Lloyd
With the passing of Harper Lee, I was stuck by a sense of profound loss. Sure, when I opened To Kill a Mockingbird, I already thought she was dead. Teachers were always making us read "classics," which in 14 year old that translated to dead old people stories. In my mind Harper Lee was a dead, old, white guy, you know, a writer.
My daughter asked me, "Who died?"
I started to explain the story, fumbled a discussion of sex, rape, good touch, bad touch, good touch in places that are now bad but get really good when you love someone. And then I simplified.
Harper Lee wrote a story that changed me. She lived in a time when people thought the color of skin determined the intelligence, and quality of a person. She lived in a time where being different in any way was bad. She made people think it was just that different.
I spent a great deal of my early teen years re-reading various S.E. Hinton books. If The Outsiders had a train intersecting their town with wealth on one end and poverty on another, and my town's tracks bisected bad from slightly worse. I never noticed. I think the finding of myself as a Ponyboy Curtis, created a belief that the things that mattered couldn't be bought anyway. In a way, it protected me, before going into the bigger socioeconomic diversity pool of high-school. I could wear my Croydon girl stance, like a Greaser. "I'm from Croydon, don't mess with me!" And it also opened up this balance of tough and kind.
I read the Color Purple and every other Alice Walker book. I imagined what it was like to be young, poor ad black. I read the book before viewing the movie. Oddly, enough I felt the book, numbed, bruised, raped and humiliated alongside Celie. It also, was the first time I had read sexuality questioning topics in literature. I mean except the bible. I remember, when I watched the movie being upset because, although I knew the characters were black, I wanted them to be fairer black, because in my head they were a whiter version of black. While I realize, that makes me sound like a jerk... It is also doing important work, it is acknowledging the part of me that wasn't ready and working for the bigger picture. In literature, we can start to build the understanding of cultural distances, I tried on being Celie, a whiter version of Celie, but it lead me to being able to re-read her as a closer, more accurate version of her.
While Fannie Flagg did write about race, racism, the problems of becoming middle aged, etc. Fried Green Tomatoes, also was a love story between two women. It wasn't something to be ashamed or regretful for, it was women who loved and protected each other. I grew up in a place that whispered "lesi" or "Les-bean" like cancer on the cursed tongues of 80's housewives. So for me seeing love that didn't apologize was a big step in acceptance.
Also, there is an elephant in the room when we talk about diversity. Body image. I wish I was the model of fitness, because it would give me a freedom to bring up this topic without facing the internal ick that is being the chubby broken girl. The only thing people seem to agree on anymore, fat is funny. And I think I have always known it was out there. The body stares, the hope you aren't stuck next to me and Precious in an airplane. The judgement of the food consumed, either too little, too much. The belief that chubby=ignorant, because I just must not know what is healthy vs. unhealthy. Believe me, I am not trying to take away anything from any other group, but I feel I must acknowledge that not-conforming to the norms of societal acceptable body type has prejudices, discrimination and it's own variety of an ism.