Sunday, May 05, 2002

Getting on the same page

        I was dragged kicking and screaming into a very wonderful book.

        My taste in literature can most charitably be described as “eclectic.” Which means the Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love — bawdy tales of alcohol, sex and food, not in that order — is burning a hole in my bookshelf. Which means I have a mole at my neighborhood bookstore who lets me know when the latest Janet Evanovich mystery arrives.

        Eclectic. That's me. On my own time, I read for pleasure.

        A Lesson Before Dying sounded like a lot of work.

        The plan, as you might have heard, was to follow the example of Chicago and Seattle. Everybody is supposed to read the same book, then talk about it. Last year, the entire state of Kentucky was encouraged to read The Bean Trees, about American-Indian culture. Residents of Toledo read Tuesdays with Morrie. Seattle selected The Sweet Hereafter, about the aftermath of a bus accident.

Choosing sides

        But American-Indian culture and cancer and bus accidents are not among our city's most immediate problems. We need to talk about race. Every chance we get. With as much intelligent help as possible.

        Still, I dreaded opening the book by Ernest J. Gaines. I knew it was about an innocent black man awaiting execution. I knew it took place in the South in the 1940s. I knew my team wouldn't look so good — my team being the white one, of course.

        I wished the selection committee of teachers, librarians and writers had followed Chicago's lead and picked Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved white attorney Atticus Finch's brave defense of the wrongly accused black man.

        Very noble.

        Instead, Cincinnati's choice to get us “On the Same Page” opens with the white defense attorney arguing that his client is simply too stupid to plan a robbery and murder. “What justice would there be to take this life? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”

The anti-Atticus

        Ugly. Backward. Racist. The anti-Atticus is not a guy I want on my team. I want Miss Emma, the defendant's formidable godmother. Or Grant, the smart black teacher. And the genius of Mr. Gaines is that he allowed me to join them.

        “What I try to do in my books is just write about people. I never think about their liking or loving or disliking each other. We all have much more in common than we have differences,” Mr. Gaines told The Enquirer's Marilyn Bauer.

        And the lesson was not only about race. It's about anybody outside the dominant culture. A kid with a stutter. The only woman in the boardroom. A gay man. A person with cancer.

        “The main lesson I hope people get from reading my book is the lesson of responsibility,” the author says.

        Two men in this book learn what they will do with the remainder of their lives.

        They decide.

        So it was not Atticus Finch who made Jefferson “the bravest man in that room” when he died. It was Jefferson himself. His lesson — at least the one he taught me — is that dignity is not something somebody else can give us. And they cannot take it away.

        No matter who is on the opposing team.

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        Complete details about On the Same Page

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