Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is a foundational text in the American canon that attempts to deal with the complex issues of race and discrimination in the United States. Set in the Great Depression, this novel takes us to Maycomb, a fictional Alabama town where community members are wary of difference and where legal justice remains out of reach for men like Tom Robinson, a black man who is convicted of raping a white woman despite ample evidence of his innocence. While Lee’s novel succeeds in revealing many of the mechanisms by which discriminatory beliefs and attitudes are formed and perpetuated, the novel is also limited and limiting.
On Representations of Class
When we talk about Mockingbird, our discussions tend to skip over class and focus exclusively on race. This is something that some students — say, those living in low-income, rural areas — might pick up on. As one former student with whom I worked during a student teaching assignments wrote in an editorial:
...everybody talks about the Cunninghams because they are poor and can't afford for their kids to eat sometimes. People might not like that and might think that is rude that had to be in the book when it could have just been left out. Also maybe some people who read this book might not have a lot of money and the book makes it sound like it is the [poor people's] fault for being poor and they don't try to do anything about it.
The Cunninghams maintain much more dignity than the Ewells who live in a dump (literally); the father is an alcoholic and is too lazy to keep a job; the children are uneducated and routinely go to school only on the first day of the year. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the Ewells are caricatures; they are ridiculous characters and objects of scorn in the novel.
On the subject of race and discrimination
Black characters remain on the margins of the novel while white, middle-class individuals are offered up as the novel’s heroes. Calpurnia, for example, holds a subservient position in the Finch household and seems to enjoy her role. It is not too much of a stretch to say that she is a “safe,” non-threatening representation of blackness, and one that is hardly representative of the lived experiences of African American women in the 1930s south.
Tom Robinson is the man whose trial is at the center of the novel. However, our knowledge of him is largely mediated through white characters. We do hear Tom’s voice in Chapter 19 when he goes on the stand to testify. From that encounter we learn that Tom is exceedingly polite and that, like other members of the black community, is appreciative of Atticus’s labors. And that’s about it.
Students might be tempted to identify Calpurnia and Tom Robinson as positive figures because of their safeness; it’s quite possible that teachers will unintentionally perpetuate the white liberal fantasy that disenfranchised people of color are waiting for white (educated) Americans to rescue them from disempowerment.
Alternatives to Mockingbird
- Are there any engaging novels or short stories authored by African American men or women dealing with racial discrimination? Yes.
- Instead of conducting a standard novel study, students can analyze excerpts of the text with the goal of critically analyzing and evaluating representations of race and class.
- Closely analyze Tom Robinson’s trial, and then draw connections between Mockingbird and contemporary events. Provide the following guiding question: Is it possible for everyone to receive a fair trial?