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
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,'
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.'