I think I understand why Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” faces accusations of being racist. It does portray American Negroes from a racist viewpoint. When I first considered this accusation, I was infuriated. I’m White, and I have always loved the novel and believed that it was a strong condemnation of the racism that plagues North America. How could this novel possibly be racist? Doesn’t Atticus take a stand and defend a Black man at great personal risk? Isn’t this anti-racism? Atticus is a white lawyer defending a Black man, and isn’t he just so noble to do so? (More about this later).
The answer, of course is that the novel misrepresents Black Americans. The Negro community that applauds Atticus in the novel is really a laughable misrepresentation of the real Negro community. At the very minimum, it is an oversimplification, and worse, a stereotype. The only understanding of Blacks offered by the novel is offered through the lens of a White narrator. Blacks are still “them”, and the main characters, the “us”, are all white. Calpurnia, the Black servant, is relatively well treated by Atticus, but she is still in the same rule of servitude that oppressed American Black women since the slave days. The very situation is a racist situation.
But I don’t care. Despite the limited world view of its author, the novel is still a wonderful work. In my mind, Lee’s ability to show affection for her racist characters makes the novel all-the-more eloquent. Her characters are, by and large, imperfect, but redeemable, as am I – as are most people. Our world is full of superstitions about other people, and those superstitions lead us to accept wrong notions. We are born into a cultural situation that we can no more recognize by ourselves than a fish can recognize that it swims in water. It is unfair to use the racist flaw of To Kill a Mockingbird to condemn the whole book. And anyway, the book really isn’t intended to tackle the problem of racism. It is about Atticus’ sober and heroic decision to do what is right in the face of extreme social sanction, and as such, it is a morality play.
Yes. To Kill a Mockingbird is imperfect. Yes it is racist. And yes, as such, it should be scrutinized. If it is to be used as a novel study, it should be approached with caution. The White teacher should be aware that his history is one of privilege. His ancestry is responsible for the subjugation of Blacks and other people, and he continues to fail to change this reality. This recognition should factor into his presentation of the novel. Students should be encouraged to recognize the flaws in the characters and the condescending nature of the story itself, which positions Atticus as White saviour. But the novel is still a wonderful work. It is beautifully written and it is real. As long as the purpose of literature is to reflect to us who we are as human beings, it still belongs in schools.