To Kill a Mockingbird – a racist novel.

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.

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3 thoughts on “To Kill a Mockingbird – a racist novel.

  1. Mr.Watson,
    I think you make some very valid points towards the stereotypical view of blacks in this book. My personal opinion is that Harper Lee wanted to include these details into her book to show how blacks were treated in Alabama back in the 1940’s. You are quite right, Atticus did have the option to hire a white house keeper but on the other hand having a black parental figure in Scout and Gems life like Calpurnia, helps them to grow up understanding that blacks are equal to whites. I have to agree with Mr. hanlon that there is a significant difference between a racist novel and a novel with racist characters in a racist culture. This applies to the story line Harper Lee has created.

  2. I’m going to disagree with you on this one, good sir, having read your post. I feel there is a significant distinction between a racist novel and a novel with racist characters (even main characters) in a racist culture, which I believe applies in this case. Authorial voice alters everything, and I believe Harper Lee has clearly marked out her distaste for any form of (racial) prejudice in both the very noble character of Atticus and the over-arching theme of the book.
    I disagree with your interpretation of the Negro community of Maycomb; while there are likely some stereotypical depictions (insufficient evidence for classification as racist, I think), Calpurnia (one of the ‘us’ characters) shatters almost all of them. Her profession seems to be the only stereotypical characteristic she displays, and that’s just truth more than stereotype. Lee’s portrayal of Calpurnia (and Zeebo), especially in contrast to the Ewells, is the best defense, I think, against even the accusation of over-simplification. But even if it is simplified (though not overly), that would be consistent with the juvenile lens through which the narrative is told. Consider also the scene with Mr. Dolphus Raymond and Scout and Dill outside the court-house. With all of this evidence, I can never consider the book to be racist—just the people and events.

    1. I agree with you on all points. I am especially interested in your assertion that “Lee has clearly marked out her distaste for any form of (racial) prejudice.” I still believe that the novel would fail as an antiracist novel if written in a modern context because it doesn’t fully recognize the political power disparity between Blacks and Whites – a disparity that is happening in the very house of the story’s hero, Atticus. Although this arrangement doesn’t make Atticus a racist, the situation, unexplored in the novel, affirms a racist structure in society, or at the very least, doesn’t discredit it. On the other hand, an interesting fact is that when, as a young, naive tenth grader, I read this novel for the first time, I didn’t realize right away that Calpurnia was Black. In the context of a White Calpurnia, the novel still made perfect sense to me. Thanks for the clear insight, Mike. Intelligent debate is what makes a life worth living.

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