Posts Tagged ‘Harper Lee’

Do we really need to discuss race in 2009? Isn’t it time, with a man of African heritage in the White House, that we can lay this issue to rest?

I wish. Without question, the strides this nation has made on race have been huge. And last year’s election did topple a major barrier. The conversation has changed, but it’s not over yet.

If you’d like to continue that conversation, join The Gazette’s panel discussion on race this Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. I will moderate a discussion with at least four community leaders about how race remains an issue in our community and our country.

The discussion is part of Linn Area Reads, a program of the Metro Library Network. The program has encouraged people in the community to read two books that explore themes of bigotry: Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, set in a Colorado town outside a World War II relocation camp for American citizens of Japanese descent; and Harper Lee‘s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, set in Alabama in the 1930s.

The institutionalized barriers described in those books have disappeared today, but we still have plenty of bigotry. Though debates over immigration and same-sex marriage involve valid policy issues, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find some ugly examples of hatred toward people who are different. And while we didn’t herd Americans of Arab heritage into relocation camps after 9/11, we saw disturbing examples of individual violence and discrimination.

Certainly Barack Obama’s election as president represented a huge symbolic milestone in our nation’s struggle with racism. And the facts that his first victory came in Iowa and that he easily carried this state that’s 93 percent white showed that voters are increasingly looking past race. While I received many letters and emails with subtle or blatant racial overtones during and since that campaign, the simple fact is that those voices of hatred and ignorance got drowned out in the election.

But triumph at the top levels of society doesn’t translate into equality everywhere. In Iowa, the median household income for white families is nearly twice as high as it is for black families. The percentage of people in poverty is more than three times as high for blacks. Whether you examine health, family, education, crime, housing or economics, statistics continue to show a discouraging difference between life for black and white Americans.

The disparity starts at birth. Black babies in Iowa are more than twice as likely as white babies to be born to an unwed mother or a teen mother or to die in infancy.

Native Americans and Hispanics also lag far behind in most measures. Among racial minorities, only Asian Americans, the group featured in Tallgrass, now live a life that’s statistically comparable to the lives of whites.

Yes, while we celebrate progress, we still have plenty to discuss about race in our country and our community.

In Thursday’s panel discussion, Derek Buckaloo, chairman of the Department of History at Coe College, will start with an overview of race in America and why we have such a tough time with the issue.

Hazel Pegues, executive director of Diversity Focus, will discuss Iowa’s increasing diversity and the  challenges and opportunities it presents.

Karen Brown, director of diversity at Rockwell Collins, will discuss diversity issues in the workplace.

Christian Fong, chairman of the Next Generation Commission and head of AEGON’s real estate capital markets division, will offer a young professional’s views on race and diversity.

Dale Todd, former City Council member, will offer observations about race and diversity in Cedar Rapids and, in particular, his experiences in leading the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association and his service in city leadership.

After opening presentations, I will ask the panelists questions. I’d like your help in choosing questions to ask. Through emails, letters, phone calls or comments on my blog, I invite you to send questions about racial issues. Please include your name, daytime phone number and your own racial or ethnic heritage with your questions. I will use some of them in Thursday’s program.


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I spend a lot of my time involved with digital communication – blogs, tweets and multimedia. But occasionally I have to lose myself in an old-fashioned book.

I recently finished Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas and will start soon on Harper Lee‘s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I could read them digitally if I could pry the Kindle away from my wife, Mimi. But sometimes it’s good to just stretch out with a good book and turn some actual pages.

I’m participating in the annual Linn Area Reads program of the Metro Library Network. People are encouraged to read these two books and participate in a series of programs reflecting on them. We started with a March visit from Sandra Dallas, author of Tallgrass, March 1 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. I hadn’t read the book when she visited (wish I had), but I finished it last week.

Related programs continued Saturday at Collins Road Theater with a screening of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. I hadn’t seen the movie or read the book in years. I look forward to reading the book again. Usually the movie version of a great book disappoints me. But with this one, you marvel at the storytelling skill of either version.

I’m trying to recall whether specific scenes from the movie were even in the book and how the book treated them. I’m trying to recall whether anyone ever nailed a role better than Gregory Peck did the role of Atticus Finch.

Organizers of Linn Area Reads picked the two novels because of their similarities. Each book examines racial prejudice in a small town: Tallgrass is set in southeastern Colorado during World War II outside an internment camp for American citizens of Japanese heritage, relocated from California in one of our nation’s most shameful episodes; Mockingbird examines racial injustice in Alabama in the 1930s.

The books had other parallels: Each is told through the eyes of a young girl (Rennie in Tallgrass, Scout in Mockingbird); each girl’s father is the moral rock of the story, standing strong against bigotry; each book examines other prejudices (against unwed mothers and people with mental disabilities).

Jim Kern of Brucemore will lead a discussion of those similarities Thursday, April 9, at Barnes & Noble. I need to finish Mockingbird by then. Wouldn’t want to comment on parallels between the scenes where the fathers stand up to potential lynch mobs if the Mockingbird scene was in the movie but not the book.

A “Buseum” traveling exhibit of “Held in the Heartland,” about German prisoner-of-war camps in the Midwest, will come to the Westdale Mall parking lot Tuesday, March 31. Linn Area Reads will conclude with a “Stage to Page” discussion with cast members of the Classics at Brucemore production of To Kill a Mockingbird. The discussion will be Friday, May 8, at 6 p.m. at Marion Public Library. The play opens July 9. 

I will moderate and The Gazette will sponsor a “Race in America” panel discussion Thursday, April 23, at 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

I’d be interested in hearing how you view racial issues in our country and in our community. In the 1930s era when Mockingbird was set or in 1960, when it was published, it would have been impossible to imagine an African-American president. We have come a long way. But I receive too many emails and letters loaded with overt or subtle racism to think that one election wiped away centuries of bigotry.

Tell me the questions and issues you would like us to address in this panel discussion: If you are a racial or ethnic minority in our community, how do you feel included and excluded? What barriers remain? What opportunities have you had that were denied to your parents? If you are in the majority, how has your understanding of other races grown in recent years? In what matters, if any, do you think that race becomes a false issue?

If we are so fortunate as to have a Harper Lee in our midst today, what issues would she address in a novel that would still touch hearts a half-century later?

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