Racism in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee
Racism is one theme which is hugely illustrated in “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Harper Lee has been very successful in being able to elicit racism. The most unique and significant approach she uses to reveal racism is that she tells the story through the point of view of a child. This helps her very much to bring out this important theme as she shows Scout being in a learning process and just being able to learn the differences between right and wrong. Scout is a very strong character as she is only a child when she has to show her maturity about a very significant social issue. She has to face prejudice herself for making the right choice of going against society and not being racist. Lee has also used Atticus who has been portrayed as a guiding and supporting character. She has portrayed him to morals and courage to do the right thing. Atticus always treats Scout as a mature lady rather than a child, and has very well put the differences in her mind between right and wrong and given her power to deal with society.
Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” is set in Maycomb, in the southern state of Alabama during 1933-35. This was the time of the Great Economic Depression. Racial prejudice was particularly strong in the Southern States though there had been an abolishment of slavery. Blacks were still considered as slaves to whites. The white people couldn’t go against the racist ideas, superstitions and the general state of injustice that they had been practicing for their whole lives. Racism was at its peak during the years of “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Rather than the abolishment of slavery causing harmony between whites and blacks it had worsened the divisions between them. Maycomb could be considered as the paramount example of a town containing much prejudice, discrimination and injustice.
The beginning itself, consists of a quote that portrays racism as being “against ones dictum” and “not for the glory of god”. This is done very subtly to leave the idea of negativity toward racism.
“Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River.”
This quote shows that the book starts off with negativity towards acts of racism. Racism is considered to be unholy and against the morals of people. This is the case even in the time of Simon Finch (Scouts grandfather). Even this is narrated by eight year old Scout she has a wholesome view of the society. By the end of the book we can perceive that Scout has had a change in perspective about society and whether she chooses to be racist or not.
The racism element is notoriously brought across by Lee. Lee merely indicates that race was an issue people faced in America at that time. It is introduced very slowly and subtlety. The book is written so that every once in a while the issue of race and the characters views on it are brought out. For example, on page 94 of the novel the main character, Atticus refers to racism as “Maycomb’s usual disease”. This comment reveals to the reader that Atticus is against racism. The scene and characters are just being introduced. From that one comment you are introduced to Atticus’s views on race and racism. He refers to it as a disease because it is very hard to get cured from being racist; he also wants to compare how racism spreads like a disease.
Another quote that indicates that Atticus is a very strong multidimensional character is located on page 35 of the book. “First of all, if you can learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” This quote is not only important because it shows the reader how Atticus understands everyone’s perspective and what they are going through, but also it shows how he is a guiding force for his daughter Scout and teaching her to be able to perceive the society in a better manner. He gives her a level of maturity in thought that not all the children of her age have.
Lee has shown this novel to be about human dignity and the right to be left alone to live as you please. It’s also the story of growing up and learning some very harsh truths about life. One of the “much needed lessons” in this book is about the acceptance and equality of everyone in a society, the acceptance of race and how to deal with racism. Harper Lee has been very successful in portraying this.
Harper Lee concentrates on bringing across these points and characteristics, and introduces and illustrates the townspeople’s personalities, history and attributes. The main plot of the novel is not brought out till the later parts of the novel, when the reader feels they know the characters. Harper Lee might have attempted to make the reader feel like they are part of Maycomb’s society. As mentioned, everyone in Maycomb knew each other, and the reader knows almost all the citizens (characters) of Maycomb, and begins to feel like he is part of the society. This would result in the reader becoming more involved and ‘wrapped up in the story’.
In the novel, the black community is portrayed very positively, as they are shown as reacting in an absolutely non-violent way to the racist abuse that they suffer, behaving passively and even still helping white people. In this way, they are portrayed as ‘heroes’. Despite some dispute over just how realistic this view was, this was undoubtedly Harper Lee’s intention as to what we are meant to think of the black community. The novel is about a white man defending a black man in court, something considered “wrong” at the time and something that would have made the lawyer a public enemy. It is narrated by a little girl and this gives the novel an interesting take on racism, as she does not understand why the black people are being ostracized.
Maycomb society has been presented as two split communities, attempting to join together, but failing. Every aspect of the book somehow comes down to the society of Maycomb. Also, class and family history is an important part of tradition to many of the people in Maycomb. When Aunt Alexandra comes to visit, she feels it her duty to put upon Scout the importance of her roots. Aunt Alexandra forces Atticus to explain to Scout that she is “not from run-of-the-mill people, but the product of several generations’ gentle breeding”. Aunt Alexandra feels that people are born into a certain class, and should, therefore, behave accordingly. If you are born into a high class, you will always be considered high class, and if you are born into a low class, there is no use to strive for anything higher. The result is that families are repeated in each generation with similar attitudes and character shadings. The objective is obviously to refine the classes and keep them pure. Aunt Alexandra and many other men and women in Maycomb praise the distinction of class. To them, having high blood is seen as sacred and there is no way to obtain it but by birth.
Harper Lee also presents Maycomb society as a place of gossip. As there was not much to do, in terms of amusements, people would talk and spread rumors about other Maycomb residents. Characters similar to Miss Rachel, the town gossip queen, appear to have nothing better to do than to live through the people that they talk about. The ladies in the Missionary Society would like others to consider that they care about them, but in reality, their meetings soon turn towards the most recent story going around town. This is one aspect that spreads prejudice throughout the society. Gossips and rumors change the point of view of people and this is not always in the good way as sometimes it turns people against one another and people become more prejudiced.
In the beginning parts of the book you read about how Calpurnia looks after Jem and Scout whilst their father Atticus is at work. You read about how Atticus is very busy during that summer. You do not realize why until later. As I have said the early parts of the book are spent introducing you to Maycomb and its inhabitants. You later discover that Atticus is defending a Negro in court, you soon realise he is willing to risk his reputation and friendship of many to get justice. Many in Maycomb think that Atticus is putting shame on the white community by defending a black man. They are totally against black people, and are willing to see an innocent black man suffer and die in his struggle for equality and justice. Despite the majority in Maycomb discriminating against the blacks there are a few people who can see that the colour of their skin doesn’t change anything. However, apart from Atticus, no one is willing to put their reputation and friendship with many white people on the line. The majority over power and pressure the minority of un-racist people into not speaking out for the black community. The anti-black movement seems to overpower and intimidate the people who want equality in their society; everyone apart from Atticus is prepared to make a stand. Atticus felt it is duty to protect and serve Tom Robinson; this is brought out in a conversation with Scout, on page 111.
“This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that foes to the essence of a man’s conscious- Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man”
This shows the reader that Atticus would feel tremendous guilt if he does not defend Tom Robinson. He would be going against his conscience if he were to not go with what he thought was the right thing to do, and it didn’t matter how much prejudice he would have faced for doing the right thing. He may be able to live with the comments and unfriendliness of the white people in Macomb but he would not be able to live with himself if he did not defend that man.
Scout goes on to say, “Well most folks seem to think that they’re right and you’re wrong”
Harper Lee uses this line to show that the majority of Maycomb’s population doesn’t think a white man should protect a black man. That line brings across and portrays as a racist society. When I say the majority I mean nearly all of Maycomb, even the school children are racist. This is because most, if not all are brought up in a racist household. Thus resulting in the children saying such things as “my ma says that your dads a nigger lover”
Although Harper Lee has also mentioned this comment because she wants to illustrate the relationship that Scout and Atticus have, where Scout being confused in her thought as she is a only a child when she has to show maturity and make a decision of not being prejudiced and Atticus having to channel her into doing and thinking what’s right.
Even the children in Maycomb are racist towards the black people. This is because they are brought up in a racist society and since the beginning itself racism is engraved within them so deep that it becomes extremely hard to follow ones conscience. Few are not, and even fewer are willing to speak out and do something about it (Dolphus Raymond for example). Many are not willing to risk everything to make the black people’s life a better one. It is an example of the majority over powering the minority, forcing many to deny their beliefs and support with the blacks, in order to be accepted a part of Maycomb’s society, Maycomb’s racist society, only Atticus in the beginning part who is willing to follow and carry out their beliefs and support for the black people. He will go against the racist society of Maycomb in search of justice and equality.
Although in his own family he has racist members. Aunt Alexandra is prejudiced towards Calpurnia, the housemaid of the Finch family, because she is a Negro. She believes that Calpurnia is a bad influence to young Scout and Jem, taking into no account that Calpurnia has been a mother figure to the children since their early childhood. When Aunt Alexandra holds her missionary tea party, the ladies talk about the black community:
“the only reason I keep her is because this depression’s on and she needs her and a quarter every week she can get it.” comments one of the ladies. She pities her piteous Negro maid: “I tell you there’s nothing more distracting than a sulky darky.”
Thus criticized Mrs. Merriweather, one of the ladies at Aunt Alexandra’s missionary tea party. The term “sulky darky” is used in a racist tone as they feel that the Negroes degrade them.
Here we can also see the social status brought into the picture. As illustrated if the ladies are racist or are presented in a manner where they show dominance over certain people they are considered to be well accepted in society and are given respect for doing so.
Mrs. Merriweather is racist, following stereotypes and tradition. The reason for her racism is that it is inbred. She has been brought up believing in a narrow-minded view and cannot, or will not, see the innocence of the Blacks. Mrs Merriweather will believe what she wants to believe, and refuses to take in others’ views. This is a substantial schism between the two races.
Certain incidents depict how racism affects the characters and brings conflicts in their perception of society. Such as when Mr. Cunningham and a few other resident of Maycomb come to kill Tom Robinson but Atticus doesn’t let them and they would harm Atticus as well.
“I was playing with a spoon. That was enough.”(1)
The theme racism is very prominent throughout the plot from the beginning to the end. Since this plot is depicted through the perspective of a child racism is presented in its starkest and most honest face. By doing this the author has been able to give a unique perspective to racism.
This incident is a very good example of racism because it shows that Scout has difficulty in understanding the changed nature of Mr. Cunningham. She always perceived that he was a man who had always been nice to the Finch family and he was in Atticus’s debt, not because he owed Atticus money, but because Atticus had been merciful to him and saved his dignity. She failed to comprehend the change in his character.
Mr. Cunningham was facing conflict in his persona. He couldn’t decide whether or not to flow with the tide or go against it and face discrimination himself. He chose the easier path for that night, not the right one but a simple human act of friendship and acceptance brought him back to his principles and he left with the mob. It only took an act of acceptance from a little girl. Thus Atticus brought to Scout’s notice that Mr. Cunningham was only a part of a mob that night not an individual logical thinker. Scout was the one who transformed him into thinking logically as an individual. A mob is not a human and thus cannot have the logic or understanding that an individual can. The mob of the white community abandoned its individuality to look down on the black community.
In the same way the black community is guilty for being discriminatory toward the white community.
This is well depicted in the incident where Calpurnia takes Scout and Jem to the black church.
Blacks had always been regarded as lower class due to tradition and the fact that they were unimportant according to the whites; they were sold and bought as objects. The Whites’ attitude to the Blacks has put up a barrier between the two races. However the prejudice works both ways. The Black community also feels prejudice towards the Whites. This is experienced when Calpurnia takes the children, Scout and Jem, to her local church:
“You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here – they got their church, we got our’n.” rattles Lula, a Black lady part of the church community. Not only the Whites, but also the Blacks can reinforce the strong racial barrier, clearly shown by Lula. They both even have their own, separate, place of worship. Because the Whites have and are treating the Blacks in this unsatisfactory manner, the Blacks have built up hatred for the Whites. I feel that these two impressions lead to a self-reinforcing circle where either side believes the other race is completely different in attitude and behavior.
Another event that shows that the racial prejudice is so extreme is in the courthouse. The Negroes had to allow the Whites to enter the courthouse before them as if the Whites were royalty. And, in the courthouse, they have a different seating area, away from the Whites. This is a physical barrier that also reinforces the non-physical barriers, and causes the Whites and Blacks to be separate.
The case with Atticus defending Tom Robinson also shows the prejudice that is so prevalent in Maycomb at the time. Atticus’s argument had proven Mayella wrong and had the jury out for a long time. But despite the evidence shown and the logic, Tom Robinson was still sentenced guilty.
“I ain’t ever seen any jury decide in favour of a coloured man over a white man”
It went against the nation’s zeitgeist to have a Negro sentenced innocent over a White. During the 1930’s, the time in which ‘To Kill a Mocking-Bird’ is set, it was always the Whites that came first; Black Americans were automatically seen as the lowest of human beings. However, Dolphus Raymond is also considered as of a lower rank. He is a character in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ that is married to a coloured woman. Dolphus Raymond is a white man and has mixed race children with his wife. The whole of Maycomb does not accept his family:
“once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black.”
This is the reason why Whites, including Scout and Jem, do not accept his children, let alone his wife.
“They don’t belong anywhere. Coloured folks won’t have ’em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ’em ’cause they’re coloured, so they’re just in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere.”
This shows how distinct the divisions are. You either have to be one or the other. Because the two races, Whites and Blacks, will not accept each other, they will not accept anyone if they have the smallest interest in the opposite race. This is one reason why nobody even fathoms about having interracial relations. It is such an unapproachable condition that even when someone wants to be unprejudiced they are forced not to fallow that path. And this is what gives strength to the racial barriers.
Racism was an open and obvious issue in Maycomb society; overall the white community hated Negroes, because they were not able to accept the cultural and traditional background the Negroes hailed from. The white community judged the black community by the skin color, not by the content of their character. ‘They did manage to go to schools; the standard of education was very limited, and above all they were treated with contempt by most of their white neighbors, frequently being referred as ‘niggers’ and ‘trash’. It was this lack of education, knowledge and qualification was what that suppressed the blacks from the whites, making the whites dominant and the blacks vulnerable. The blacks found it hard to get jobs because of their lack of education so they had to have menial jobs under the whites. The whites took advantage of their innocence.
Throughout the novel, the black community earns our respect in many ways. Their unfailing passive stance to the racism they faced in their everyday lives provides a great admiration for them, as not many people could take abuse such as “Come here, nigger, and bust up this chiffarobe for me, I gotta nickel for you.” Or “I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!” These cusses were the kind of language a black person there and in those times could expect when talking to a white person. They simply accepted this and did not complain. They were of course also driven to this civility by the knowledge that, should one of them put so much as a toe out of line, they would be taken to court and sentenced to death, or lynched on the spot.
This is where Lee shows the significance of language in the depiction of racism. The black people being referred to as ‘negro’ or ‘nigger’ in day to day dialect, was a part of the southern vernacular. This demonstrates how subtly racism was engraved within everyone’s subconscious, while the black people having to meekly tolerate this without refute.
As well as that, they even willingly helped white members of the community, for example, Tom Robinson helped Mayella Ewell daily without once refusing or even complaining. He didn’t mind being helpful in this way, even when he did not have to be. This was highly commendable because the character of Tom demonstrated that he reacted to the racism of the whites in a positive manner, by lending a friendly hand. He was just being nice; though the Ewell’s had done nothing to earn this good treatment, they had always been nasty and racist towards Tom and the rest of the black community.
Atticus, one of the main characters in the novel, can also be known as an outsider, or a loner of some sort. This is because he is going against the recognized way of life in Maycomb and everyone else. It was unjust to defend a Negro against a White; to say that a Negro is innocent and that a White is guilty. Not many people supported Atticus and his beliefs that everyone is equal. Many people referred to him as a ‘nigger lover’. We can say that he is an individual who is tolerant, kind, fair-minded, and courageous for defending a Negro: he isn’t biased. Even though he is a man of goodness it is not recognized by his sister, Aunt Alexandra, and her fellow friends:
“Mr. Finch, there ain’t nothin’ you can do now, so there ain’t no use tryin’.” comments one of the ladies, implying that there would be no point in even trying to prove the Negro wrong as the White race will be put in first position.
We have seen that these prejudices and divisions are very much due to tradition and stereotypes. The black community isn’t treated with respect because they were known as slaves and this novel portrays the unfairness between the two races. Reading ‘To Kill A Mocking-Bird’ may make one feel that there is a lot of prejudice and separation during the 1930’s. Even though the Blacks were thought to be unfriendly and inhuman, Harper Lee makes them out to be very warm and loving indeed. We see Calpurnia to be knowledgeable by the way she has brought up Atticus’s children, showing that she is loving; she has brought up the children in such a way that Scout recognises as a mother figure. She is definitely not a bad influence on them and does not show signs of racial discrimination, to the children or Atticus.
Harper Lee has also made us see that Tom Robinson is not guilty of the rape charge and that he too is innocent and also caring. It was highly unlikely at the time for the Blacks to pity the Whites as the Whites treated the Blacks so badly that they despised the Whites. However Tom Robinson did feel sorry for Mayella Ewell. Even though he was being accused of a crime that he didn’t commit and was deemed guilty, Tom Robinson felt sympathy for Mayella. Harper Lee has used this novel and the fact that there was prejudice to give out a positive effect. It has made us see that the Negroes aren’t what the Whites had thought they are. In fact we see a more caring and gentle side to the Black community.
In the trial, Tom Robinson had so much evidence pointing out that he was innocent but he was still charge guilty. Why? Because he was black, it was as simple as that. There was nothing that Atticus could have done. Even if there had been a mountain of evidence against Bob Ewell, Tom would still have been found guilty. In the world back then, in Maycomb county, people were racist and they didn’t think it was wrong because they didn’t know any better. You even see Scout slowly become one. She says things like, ‘He’s just a nigger.’. Racism isn’t even rebelled against in Maycomb by the blacks because they too, don’t know any better. They live their lives in appalling conditions but they don’t realise that as they have never lived any other way. Unfortunately, people took advantage of them not caring what happened to them because they were just ‘niggers’. Unfortunately, in some parts of the world today, things haven’t changed.
In ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, there are a lot of racial inequalities, however the author has cleverly used this fact to give out a positive effect. The White race was thought to be at the top of the hierarchy and that they were superior in all cases. Theoretically this is true, however the Ewell family was portrayed to be no different to the Negroes. And as we read through this novel, we sense that each character holds the potential in a playing a part to break down these barriers. As stated, baby steps are the paths of having hope.
Throughout the story, people that are unlike the majority, get hurt. They are given obstacles that they have to overcome in order to survive. Some people in the world can survive these obstacles, and there are some that just give up. By fighting for your rights, people start to realize that character is the important attribute to a person. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee showed me that the people with differences are not always doing things the wrong way. It is the majority that may be going at it all wrong. She also encourages the theme “Appearances may not lead to reality” and gives some good examples for it.