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To Resurrect a Mockingbird (in a Really Long-Winded Way)

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To Resurrect a Mockingbird (in a Really Long-Winded Way)

Last week, the folks over at Racialicious re-posted a piece by Macon D., the creator of the blog, Stuff White People Do.  The article, “Stuff White People Do: Warmly Embrace a Racist Novel,” addresses the 50th anniversary celebration of Harper Lee’s only novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, published in the summer of 1960.  Macon D. took issue with all the attention TKAM was receiving, and consequently wrote a polemic railing against the (praise of the) novel.

I refuse to go along with this week’s warm, feel-good celebrations of Harper Lee’s novel (published fifty years ago today), To Kill a Mockingbird. Simply put, I think that novel is racist, and so is its undying popularity. It’s also racist in a particularly insidious way, because the story and its characters instead seem to so many white people like the very model of good, heartwarming, white anti-racism.

Macon D. outlines several key issues he has with the novel: its reception, that the mockingbird symbolizes Negroes, Atticus Finch as the O.G. white savior, and the marginal presence of Negroes in the novel.  To put bluntly: I take issue with Macon D.’s issues.  Maybe this is also stuff black people do, because I embrace this novel, too.  Before I continue, however, I want to note that since the initial post takes up the novel, and not the Academy Award-winning film, which premiered in 1962, my response will exclusively center on the text and not the film.

Macon D. spends the first part of his post skewering the novel’s 2010 reception. He finds NPR’s story on the novel a prime, and perhaps common example of the kinds of anniversary stories media outlets produced.  He describes the NPR  piece as a “typically laudatory” one where racism is described as a historical ill and the novel is praised for its apparent universality.

Actually, that right there is the first reason I think this novel is, in effect, racist — it allows, indeed encourages, today’s well-meaning white people to think that “America is a very different place” than it was when Lee wrote her novel, and thus to think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago.

Here, Macon D. seems to be simultaneously conflating and confusing the book’s public reception–and its reception 50 years after its initial publication, mind you–with its intent.   I’m not sure what page and/or chapter TKAM encourages its readers to regard racism as a thing of the past, but I surely cannot recall that part.  In fact, how could Harper Lee, writing in the late 1950s, in the middle of the civil rights movement, when reality television starred black people and water hoses (no wonder 70% of black kids don’t know how to swim), be prescient enough to say to herself, “You know, this novel will be published many times over.  And a certain demographic, say half a century from now, will use this fiction to regard racism as a kind of fossil they only re-discover when they encounter items such as my novel.  I should write a different book.”?   How can one charge Harper Lee with not anticipating the reaction of today’s “well-meaning white people”?  How can one take issue with Lee for not being radical enough…for 2010?  In addition, what does it mean to privilege “well-meaning white people’s” positive response to the novel, and implicitly argue that their’s is the only kind of positive reaction?

Macon D. counters the NPR story by mentioning an effort in Nova Scotia to have the text removed from its school curriculum.  Macon D. appreciates  this story because it seems to represent the way the novel affects “different” (and by “different,” he means African-Canadian) readers.  According to the article Macon D. cites, these readers are negatively affected by TKAM because of, among other things, its use of the word “nigger.” According to that logic, then, the folks in Nova Scotia not only need to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but practically all of Faulkner, Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Invisible Man, to name a few.  (Ralph Ellison, incidentally, called chapter 31 of Huck Finn one of the most moral moments in American literature.  Who cares?  That was over fifty years ago.)  How at all is it useful to remove texts from school curricula because we don’t like the words?  How can we accurately describe blacks’ present conditions if we refuse to engage with texts that help delineate the history of racism in America because the words are impolite?  Doing so seems as useful as changing the names of schools.  For example, not calling it Jefferson Davis High School does not magically make the curriculum taught in the school less racist or even better.  It’s best to learn why it was called Jefferson Davis High School in the first place. Perhaps that conversation inevitably reveals why students in the school are being under-educated.

Yet there are more reasons for this adverse reaction to TKAM, which Macon D. lists, and, I’m left to assume, agrees with.  First, the mockingbird symbolizes black people?  Granted, I read this book on my own and not in a middle or high school class, but I had never before heard this mockingbird is metaphor for black people line until I read this article.  TKAM is incredibly under-discussed in the place where it should be: college.  Which leads me to a (hopefully) pertinent aside.  One thing Macon D. and his complaints about the novel show is the way that the TKAM is often misread.  The first way we, as a reading public, misread it is assuming that TKAM is a novel for children.  This book is not for kids.  There are scenes in TKAM that, in my opinion, require assessments that are more complicated than we equip young students for in middle and high school and the teachers who lead them to handle, which is perhaps why we encounter these kinds of mockingbird = Negroes readings.  I don’t have a major problem with interpreting the mockingbird as a symbol of the death of innocence.  What I take issue with, however, is the literal association of that innocence with an innocent black man.  Tom Robinson isn’t the only person who dies.  The trial also marks the death of moral certainty in the minds of Jem and Scout Finch.  Jem and Scout have to come to terms with the fact they live in a world, a town, so consumed with racism that they will choose it over right; they are forced to learn that their world, the people they have longed loved and admired are willing to forsake morality in order to reify white supremacy.  That, I imagine, is indeed a trauma-inducing experience, requiring a new vision of the world that sees contradiction and the various shades of gray.

The second issue with TKAM is that Atticus Finch is Maycomb, Alabama’s resident white savior.  I wonder: Whom does Atticus save?  As my white savior primer informed you many months ago, a white savior has to save somebody, namely a downtrodden black person.  Atticus fails, and his failure results in the death of a black man.  Again, I think the idea of Atticus as hero lies in the reception of the novel.  Lawyers love to talk about how Atticus Finch/Gregory Peck made them want to become lawyers.  Yet (my interpretation of) the text shows otherwise.  Recalling the scene, Atticus takes the case for many reasons, “The main one is, if [he] didn’t [he] couldn’t hold [his] head up in town [...] [and he] couldn’t even tell [Scout] or Jem not to do something again.”  Atticus’ motives aren’t articulated as anti-racist, or even an effort to make a claim about Maycomb and the South’s ways or the criminal (in)justice system.  In fact, Atticus links his no-win situation to the Confederacy’s chances at winning the Civil War:  just because you can’t win doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, which we all know is a troubling association, considering the effects of trying to win.  Atticus, who readily admits to Scout that he will lose this case, in effect intends to do his job because he has been charged to do it, not because he wants to make a proclamation about racism or shame his neighbors.  He quite likes his neighbors.   Atticus’ motives and his actions are complicated, not heroic.

Third, black people are marginal characters who exhibit no agency.  I think when making this claim it’s important to recall that the story is filtered through the eyes of a young white girl who associates with very few blacks outside of Calpurnia, the maid.  Furthermore, it’s 1930s Alabama I know we desire black people from the past to be noble and heroic and spit in Jim Crow’s face, but frankly, that’s not what happened all the time.  Not even most of the time.  I’m not sure how many of us can fully appreciate what it’s like to live a life where anywhere, at anytime you can be terrorized and your life can be threatened and/or taken.  Nor can many of us understand what it’s like to try to live as simply and quietly as possible under those conditions.    Where does one expect the black characters to voice protest in a novel about a little white girl and her big brother?  In the courtroom?  Furthermore, why is there no acknowledgment of Calpurnia, particularly the scene where Scout and Jem go to church with her?  To her credit, Lee created a scene where the Finch children actually witnessed Cal as something beyond a domestic.  To add, Jem, Scout, and Dill secretly watch the trial from the colored balcony, thereby (beginning to) understand the trial and justice from that perspective.  (My friend Rachel wrote a really good paper on this very scene.)  If one has issue with that narrative move, so be it.  Yet, I think it important to note that, however limited, the presence of blacks is pivotal nonetheless.

Should we denounce a novel because it does not convincingly utter all of the proper (2010) anti-racist politics?  Macon D. suggests that TKAM be replaced with texts such as the previously mentioned Invisible Man and Their Eyes Were Watching God; but what of the sexism in Ellison’s book and the uncriticized domestic violence in Hurston’s?  How many posts about warmly embracing a sexist book were there when 50 years of Invisible Man was celebrated?  What does it say about the politics of anti-racism when we cannot find the usefulness of a book like TKAM? How can we expand the anemic lexicon on race so that we can express fully the complicated subject matter of a book like TKAM?  As someone who not only holds this novel dear, but also thinks that we cannot properly address the history of race in literature and in the South without reading Faulkner, I hope to spend less time denouncing and more time exploring what these works tell us about ourselves–then and now.  In 2010, Tom Robinson is called Oscar Grant.  Perhaps the goal should not be to reduce the book to the level of racist, but rather populating a word bank that allows for us to hold the ambiguities of TKAM as we simultaneously embrace and discuss the successes and failures of it.


**As a bit of a coda, I’d like to say something about Mrs. DuBose, another marginal character whose very presence in the novel speaks more volumes than many of us recognize.  A subplot that, curiously, is not in the film, the episode between Jem and his curmudgeonly neighbor has always seemed to me (one of) the key(s) to the novel.  One afternoon not long after Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose said that Atticus should be in jail for defending Tom Robinson, or “niggers” as she puts it, an enraged Jem cuts off the heads of Mrs. Dubose’s camellias, the state flower of Alabama, in response.  Jem, of course, is caught, and as a punishment is required to read Ivanhoe to Mrs. Dubose on afternoons.  There he learns that Mrs. Dubose is addicted to morphine, and has been struggling to end her habit, wanting to die having conquered her dependence on the drug.

Several key points emerge in this scene.  First, Mrs. Dubose is an old, aristocratic southern belle, and is meant to symbolize the antebellum southern way of life.  With Ivanhoe and Sir Walter Scott, Lee seems to reference not simply Twain, who hated these kinds of novels and satirizes southerners love of them in Huck Finn, but also the hazy, romantic view of pre-Civil War southern culture and life, which by the 1930s had been idealized even more with Gone with the Wind.  More importantly though, I think Lee is also speaking to her generation of southerners who came of age during the Depression and were adults by 1960. Jem cuts off the heads of the camellias; he never bothers with the root.  The camellias, then, will grow back.  I suggest that Lee, here, speaks directly to the strategy of civil rights.  Desegregation, etc. may get to the head of racism, but it doesn’t access the core, the root.  Racism and white supremacy, as symbolized through the camellia, will simply grow back.  And I think the shortcomings of desegregation as a strategy are pretty evident to all of us by now.  Afterward, Mrs. Dubose gifts Jem a perfectly in tact camellia.  In other words, he has inherited her burden.  And that, partly, is how we have often viewed the civil rights movement: attempting to contend with the sins of the past, without really uprooting racism.   Since we teach this book to middle and high schoolers, I think this point is one often missed in our assessment of the novel.  (Seriously, how many of us have thought about integration in conjunction with the snowman scene?)  I think the sketch of an assessment I offer here perhaps proves 1. TKAM is not a book for young children and teenagers, and 2. that Lee is much more thought-provoking, complicated, and frankly, less warm than we all tend to think.  Enwrapped in this bildungsroman is a book that compels us to address societal ills and critically question our strategies for curing them.  Perhaps Lee has remained so elusive all these years because we all just didn’t get it.  Can we blame her for her quasi-silence?

And now, for some Noisettes: