Wednesday, April 05, 2017
"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
"To Kill A Mockingbird" opens in a week and a half. And I'm loving every minute of rehearsal, even though there are moments that are emotionally draining just to watch. I've been doing something I've called "daily doses o' dramaturgy," where I research some aspect of 1935 or Alabama or the world of the play, and post about it on our private Facebook page. (Yes, yes, my nerdiness is well-established.) I'd do this research anyway, just for myself, so I might as well share what I find.
And something I sort of knew, but didn't quite fully comprehend, was how much this fear of a black man raping a white woman was a part of the American psyche. It was (and sometimes still is) everywhere. I started researching a few examples for my "daily dose o' dramaturgy," and it's been overwhelming.
For those unfamiliar with the story of "To Kill A Mockingbird," it takes place in a small Alabama town called Maycomb in 1935. A poor white woman, Mayella Ewell, has accused Tom Robinson, a Black man, of rape. The lawyer Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, even though most of the town assumes he's guilty. During the trial, Tom tells his experience, and it becomes clear that Mayella Ewell tried to seduce him, and when he rejected her advances, she accused him of rape.
I was going to share some of my research with just the "To Kill A Mockingbird" cast and crew, but it just...felt too important to keep there. I waited and waited and waited to post it, because it’s just so relentless. It’s heavy and wrong and offensive and hard to read and I hated researching the details of these cases and stories.
I originally just intended to talk about the film "Birth of a Nation" and the founding of the KKK. But my research led me into this awful rabbit hole of fact after fact after fact. White people have feared that Black men will rape "their" women for centuries in America. That unfounded--COMPLETELY UNFOUNDED--fear has been the shaky foundation of so many riots, so many crimes, so many tragedies. (The real danger has statistically always been white men sexually assaulting Black women.) There are whole books written about this idea. But here are just some of the things I found. Here are some of the plot points on the timeline that led to Mayella Ewell accusing Tom Robinson of raping her, confident that everyone would assume his guilt:
The 1765 Index to the Laws of Maryland has one entry for laws surrounding rape. It reads “RAPE: See Negroes.”
From 1812 – 1965, rape was a capital offense in Alabama. During this time, the state put 72 men to death for the crime of rape. Dozens of others were hanged or sent to the electric chair for unspecified crimes. All but 3 of them were Black.
The word “rapist” wasn’t used in America until the late 1800s. The first recorded use was in a newspaper article, which referred to a “n****r rapist.”
In 1900, Congressman Benjamin Tillman stated on the Senate floor that “We have never believed [the Black man] to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”
In 1914, “experts” at Congressional hearings on drug use claimed that “most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.”
In 1915, the film "Birth of a Nation" portrayed Black folks as incapable of being civilized, and as animals who lived by instinct. One famous scene shows a former slave sexually (and literally) pursuing a white woman, eventually leading to her death. The film inspired a re-birth of the Ku Klux Klan (which was basically obsolete at the time). The current Klan imagery was adopted directly from the film.
The 1917 pamphlet “ABC of the Invisible Empire” listed one of the main goals of the KKK as “to shield the sanctity of the home and the chastity of womanhood.”
In 1921, a white mob incited a riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after 19-year-old Black man Dick Rowland was accused of raping a white female elevator operator. The riot destroyed more than 35 city blocks, and left 300 people dead. The claim of rape was unsubstantiated.
In 1923, a white mob destroyed almost the entire community of Rosewood, Florida, which was mostly Black, in response to a rumor that a white woman in a nearby town had been raped by an unknown Black man. At least 8 people were killed, 6 of them Black. During the massacre, two Black women were raped and then strangled to death by white men.
In 1931, 9 Black teenagers were accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama. All but 12-year-old Roy Wright were convicted of rape and sentenced to death, despite a lack of evidence. Their story includes rushed trials, all-white juries, and poor legal representation. The case was appealed several times, and charges were finally dropped for 4 of the 9 defendants. All but two served prison sentences. They were threatened by a lynch mob while waiting in jail for trial.
In 1934, "To Kill A Mockingbird" author Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama put a Black man on trial for raping a white woman. There was no hard evidence and witness testimony was unreliable, but Walter Lett was convicted and sentenced to death. Eventually, he was pardoned, but by that time, he had spent so long on death row that he suffered insanity. He died in an Alabama hospital in 1937.
And it didn’t stop in 1935, the year that "To Kill A Mockingbird" takes place.
In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. The woman’s husband and brother brutally beat and mutilated the teenage boy before shooting him and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. The white men who murdered Emmett were acquitted by a jury of their peers. A year later (protected by double jeopardy), they openly admitted that they had murdered Till.
In 1989, five Black and Latino teenagers were accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. Each of them was convicted, despite a lack of evidence, and served time in prison. They were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002. At the time of the crimes, $85,000 worth of full-page advertisements in four major New York City newspapers called for the death penalty to be used on all five of the accused teenagers, regardless of the facts of the case. The ads were written and paid for by then-real estate mogul, Donald Trump.
And on June 17, 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and told its Black congregation, “You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. You have to go.” He shot and killed 9 people soon afterwards.
THIS is why we have to keep reading "To Kill A Mockingbird." This is why we have to keep doing this play, and telling these stories. I'm a white girl who has no actual idea what it's like to be a Black man in America. My own privilege means that I'm sometimes clumsy and ignorant when it comes to issues of race. In some ways, this isn't my story to write. But I don't want to ignore it either. I can't ignore it. I'm so grateful to be a part of this production of "To Kill A Mockingbird." When Tom Robinson sits onstage and speaks, he is sitting there on behalf of all of the men and women who can speak no longer. He's sitting there for the men and women killed by Dylann Roof. For the Black folks in Rosewood, Florida. For the Scottsboro boys. For Walter Lett and Dick Rowland and Emmett Till and Darryl Hunt and Thomas McGowen.
Mockingbirds are still flying among us, and we're still shooting them.