You may have seen that the Biloxi, MS school board recently pulled Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird from their 8th grade required reading list. Apparently it makes some people uncomfortable. Unsaid is that it is the use of the n-word; never mind that the message of the story is one of courage and justice in the face of bigotry set in the vernacular of the day. What’s next, Gone With the Wind, and to answer my own question, yes, probably.
As a novelist, and reader, I appreciate and deliver authenticity. Lee and Margaret Mitchell pulled no punches and in their times wrote about society the way it was. Two fearless women who knew they would experience backlash from people they may have considered friends. Their stories did so much for our society, (talk about making people uncomfortable) and as time capsules allow us to see how far we’ve come.
In the hyper-sensitive society of today, can a novelist like me write novels without fear? Can I, a white Scots-Irish male, use the n-word in my novels if I wanted to? The answer is no, and while I don’t want to anyway, it is okay for hip-hop artists to use it in their songs or for African-Americans to use in everyday conversation. I’m also Catholic; am I allowed to bash the Catholic Church? Well, societies’ answer to that is yes, much of society encourages that, and it seems these days anyone can without fear, Catholic or no, and if I object that a non-Catholic is ripping my religion society tells me I’m the one with the problem.
I once had a reader ask me how I can write about an African-American character and give voice to his dialogue. Well, this character is a carrier pilot – will you grant me that I have some background in this area – who happens to be black. I served with aviators who happened to be black, or female (or Hispanic, atheist, Asian, homosexual, Jewish), and a theme of my novels is that the airplane does not care what kind of human being is flying it. This is true throughout the military…can you do the job? Nothing else matters. We bonded.
A better question some readers ask is how I can write about women, their feelings, fears, their worldviews as distinct minorities in the male-dominated culture of military aviation. This is more of a challenge, but because I’ve served alongside women, dealt with the issues, experienced the dynamic inside a military unit…I can and do write about it. Women make up roughly 15% of the force, we cannot “man” the fleet without them, but only 4% of carrier pilots are female even after the door to front-line combat units has been open for almost 25 years. They serve ably and attain high rank, all earned after decades of service. Politicians often say we need more women in combat, at all levels. Why? Will that demographic alone make us more combat effective? We’ve been in combat for most of the past 25 years and our performance is superb; I think we can say approaching flawless. Our force is diverse, but men and women in close quarters lead to real tensions, even today, let’s not kid ourselves. Or if you do not know, let me tell you.
I do not advocate turning back the clock – we couldn’t operate without women – but I do not think we need to push women into infantry and special forces. Convince me, a retired officer, that unit combat effectiveness will be increased.
Know who would ban my novels given half a chance? Some politically correct precincts of the Navy, and retired senior officers have conveyed this to me. While my novels are of strong men (Flip and Cajun) and women (Olive and Annie) at sea and in the air, I too pull no punches and write also of the tensions, racial and sexual, of human beings working under pressure with the fears and uncertainties found in warfare. I write of teamwork and camaraderie, of love of country and honor and accomplishment but also about political miscalculations and bad behavior, sometimes personal and sometimes institutional. I write of personal redemption while holding a mirror to our society (especially in Declared Hostile). The Navy (military) is a force for good in our world and I was privileged to serve with many great people but we were still people, flawed and prone to mistakes if we didn’t pay attention. I made plenty, and that I convey the human side of today’s military to fascinated readers who do not have a background helps them better understand the 1% who serve today. Would the Navy support the making of the movie TOP GUN the way it was made, today? I’m not sure. (I hear talk of TOP GUN II. Raven One would be the perfect vehicle. You be the judge.)
One can tell that Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell loved the South, but were not so blinded they could not shed light on injustice where they saw it. Lee had more of an agenda, and Mitchell wrote of how things were amid the shocking and amusing schemes of selfish yet strong Scarlett. In their remarkable masterpieces, both gave voice to strong male and minority characters. Both knew we readers were smart enough to make our own conclusions, to be entertained, and to reflect. They faced backlash. Today’s novelists, in our overheated times, must not be afraid either. You readers are smart enough.
And if you have an 8th grader, buy him or her a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Getting them to put down the video game to read it?…can’t help you there!