Themes: Racism


In To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee touches on many social questions. Foremost among these is the problem of racism in the southern states of America in the mid 1930s. The focus for this is the charge brought by Bob Ewell against Tom Robinson and the way in which the anti African-American feeling in Maycomb is the cause of animosity towards Atticus and his family because of his defence of Tom. It is manifested in the Cunninghams' attempt to lynch Tom and Mr Gilmer's contemptuous cross examination in the courtroom. It is also evident in Aunt Alexandra's disapproval of Calpurnia and in the hypocritical attitudes of Miss Gates and the ladies of the Missionary Circle.

The "rigid and time honoured code" of society was that, while, white people could employ and even exploit African-Americans, there could be no personal relationship between African-Americans and whites and no recognition that African-Americans had the same reactions and feelings as white people. Further, there was an evil assumption "that all Blacks lie, that all Blacks are basically immoral beings". They certainly did not have the benefit of the supposed impartiality of the law. The Reverend Sykes says, "I ain't ever seen any jury decide in favour of a coloured man over a white man". Atticus does not understand "why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up" and he calls this emotional attitude "Maycomb's usual disease". Mr Dolphus Raymond talks about "the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they're people too." Atticus fears that "one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it".

Activities Tasks
Which characters in the novel are the symbols of white racial prejudice? How do these characters cope with being victims of the racial prejudice of the whites?
The town of Maycomb as a whole is the symbol of group racial prejudice. How is this illustrated in the novel?

Not everyone in Maycomb is prejudiced towards African-Americans. Who isn't? Do they have different reasons for their tolerance? What are they? What evidence do we have of this? Which characters in the story are not racist

Tom Robinson makes a huge mistake when, during the prosecutor's cross-examination, he says that he "felt right sorry" for Mayella. Why would the whites in the courtroom find this statement so disturbing?

Could you defend the town of Maycomb for its attitude towards African-Americans? Give your reasons.

Who is responsible for Tom Robinson's death? What answers do various characters in the novel give to this question? What answer do you think best represents the author's point of view? What do you think?
When Atticus is preparing to defend Tom Robinson, he tells Uncle Jack: "Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don't pretend to understand…I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for answers instead of listening to the town".

Write a paper that explains why people in Maycomb do "go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up." What forces are responsible for their reactions? How does their racism manifest itself in the novel? You might want to approach this task by assuming the voice of a student in Maycomb composing a letter to Atticus Finch, or writing an editorial for the town's newspaper about Tom's trial.

Design an advertising poster that encourages people to treat everyone equally. Think carefully about how you could overcome racial prejudice.

Depicting racism through dialogue

The novel is set in the 1930s but was written in the late 1950s. The dialogue is marked by frequent use of the word "nigger". This is a convenient way to indicate to the reader the racist attitudes of various characters. When she wishes to refer to African-Americans, Harper Lee uses the term "coloured". It is not only racist whites who say use the term "nigger", however - at First Purchase church, Calpurnia addresses Lula as "nigger".

Since the novel was published, attitudes have changed about what is acceptable to speak and write. In the trial of O.J. Simpson, the word "nigger" was considered too offensive to repeat in court, and was described as the "N-word".

Q. How is the term "nigger" is used by various characters in the novel?

Since Harper Lee was writing in Alabama in the 1950s, she was herself almost inevitably caught up in ways of thought which many today would regard as racist. If we examine the book carefully, we detect ways in which African Americans are presented unfavourably and patronisingly.

When Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to church, the three have the following conversation:

'Cal,' I asked, 'why do you talk nigger talk to the - to your folks when you know it's not right?'
'Well, in the first place I'm black.'
'That doesn't mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,' said Jem.
Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. 'It's right hard to say,' she said ... 'Now what if I talked white folks' talk at church, and with my neighbours? They'd think I was puttin' on airs to beat Moses.'
'But Cal, you know better,' I said.
'It's not necessary to tell all you know ... You're not gonna change any of them by talkin' right, they've got to want to learn themselves, and when they don't want to learn there's nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.'

Atticus says this to Scout:

'As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life ... There's nothing more sickening to me than a low grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro's ignorance.'

Scout and Jem refer to African-Americans as "niggers". Does Harper Lee encourage us to:
(a) disapprove of the erm
(b) accept the term as normal
(c) approve the term?
Scout refers to the way the African-Americans speak as being wrong.
(a) Why would she believe it to be wrong?
(b) What is Calpurnia's response to this observation?
(c) Does the author invite us to:
  • disapprove of Scout's assessment?
• approve of Scout's assessment?
• accept it as correct?


How does the author use Atticus's statement to draw our attention to racism in the South?


There is also implicit racism in the way African-Americans are presented in these extracts.
(a) Which characters behave actively?
(b) Which characters behave passively? (are acted upon)
(c) Which group's point of view is missing?
(d) What is the response of the African-Americans in Calpurnia's church to their lack of educational opportunity?
(e) Are African-Americans shown in the novel as resisting the prejudice they experience? Explain.

The novel presents African Americans as passive victims who accept the prejudice they experience. Atticus implies that it is up to white Americans to change the situation.

Challenging the text

One way to challenge racism in a text is to rewrite it. Groups that have been silenced in the original can have a say in the rewriting. Attitudes now regarded as racist can be challenged or presented differently. Imagine that Atticus says:

'As you grow older, you'll see white people cheat black people every day of your life. At the moment it's hard for African Americans to resist because the law is against them. But there are many groups whore working hard against this. Have been doing so ever since the Underground Railway* was set up by African-Americans to help those who were in slavery escape.'

(*An organisation which smuggled escaped slaves from the southern states to freedom in the northern states where slavery had been abolished.)

Activities Tasks
Which groups previously left out (silenced), are now included in this text?
How does the presentation of African-Americans in this text differ from the original?

Write your own version of the conversation between Calpurnia and the children in which you include silenced groups and present African-Americans as more active. You might wish to include some facts about African-American resistance groups in the 1940s and 1950s.

Some readers have objected that the African-American characters in the novel are two-dimensional and thus the story presents a superficial view of the problem of racial prejudice. Do you feel that this is a valid criticism? In thinking about this question you might want to read a novel by Richard Wright, or some other African-American author presenting a view of life under segregation. How do the two viewpoints compare?
Writers make choices and these choices reflect their value systems and beliefs. Harper Lee chose to make Atticus Finch, a middle-aged White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, the central heroic figure in To Kill a Mockingbird. Some people say she looks at the issue of racism and says it is wrong, but that she doesn't really question the underlying assumptions about race, class and gender. She reinforces the idea of the strong White male coming to 'rescue' the vulnerable African-American cripple and the poor White woman by featuring Atticus so prominently in the novel.
Q. What do you think?