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An investigation of racist tendencies in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in the light of her other work Go Set a Watchman

By Sampurna Biswas, Kolkata, India

The study aims to identify and locate instances of racism in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. With the release of its sequel Go Set a Watchman with its starkly different portrayal of the treatment of the African-American people, that is by supporting their subjugation in society readers are prompted to find such instances in Mockingbird as well to consider it as its sequel. This further leads us to the supposition that racism is difficult to get rid of and its internalization leads to complications and can further pose a challenge to the established concept of the equal treatment of all races. The following article serve to validate the research statement.

In the book, Race and Racism, The Development of Modern Racism in America, Richard J Perry traces the origin of the “race” and the development of racism in North America by discussing the violent consequences of such a belief to finally attempting to arrive at a solution for the problem. It helps to validate our topic as it traces the origins of the concept of “race” which according to Perry is irrelevant yet necessary. In chapter 1 of his book, Perry states that “race” does not exist but “racism” does(Page 1,1) and discusses in detail how genetic biologists refutes the existence of such differences though people have ingrained it in their brains. The violent consequences of such a belief in the Deep South of America attracted the attention of many writers, the foremost being Harper Lee whose book To Kill a Mockingbird and newly released Go Set a Watchman poignantly depicts the impact of racial discrimination in the lives of both the black and the white population. Go Set a Watchman, her other novel however ignores all such ambivalence and depicts Atticus Finch as somewhat racist and bringing to the fore the negative reaction of the white against the emancipation of the black. It therefore prompts us to identify points of racial inclination in the novel.

In a book titled Reading into racism, Bias in children’s literature and learning materials by Gillian Klein, the issue of racial prejudice present in children’s literature is dealt with. The book identifies various forms taken by racism in literature and discusses the ways in which the minds of children are controlled leading to an internalization of the ideology of racism. In chapter 1 titled ‘What is biased book? Recognition and responses’, Klein writes that no book in literature is completely biased but are subjective and many authors tend to deliberately expose their own personal experiences so that their readers could relate with them and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is no exception as it is written by a white and like all other white writers portrays black characters in a manner acceptable to standard and value of the white. In chapter 4 titled’ Issues in Fiction’, Klein suggests the power of literature in creating an impression in the child which leaves an everlasting impact in their minds which lasts till adulthood. With the derogatory treatment of the Black characters in fiction, the children would consider it to be normal and grow up only to pass such sentiments into their children. The book supports our view of the presence of racist sentiments and prejudices in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by agreeing with the view that the depiction of a black character by a black author is wholly and entirely different from a white depicting a black character. Even if the white writer tends to adopt subjectivity and breathes life into his characters who are black or perform prior research for them to appear more authentic, their inner bias comes out unwittingly. Harper Lee as mentioned previously suffered this similar problem with her drawing of black characters in Mockingbird in a racially stereotyped manner. Klein also discusses many forms of subjugation authors unconsciously undertake in their works with one form by making them disappear completely from their narrative or to portray them as being “happy with their lot”(Page 45 line 20-21) since lack individuality and are helpless to live on their own in the world. Klein further comments that though such instances of racism in fiction have been present from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn they are generally overlooked and  are integrated into famous literary canons and too applies to Mockingbird.

Next, the topic of race prejudice in Mockingbird is addressed poignantly in Isaac Saney’s essay titled ‘On Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird’. Here, while commenting on the decision of the African ad-hoc advisory committee seconded by the Black Educators’ Association and Parents, of removing certain books from syllabi of secondary schools in Canada, the foremost being the classic text Mockingbird, Saney raises important arguments for the justification of such mass protests. Saney comments that there are certain elements like the Mockingbird symbol, the over-idealization of Atticus Finch, the lack of depiction of the backgrounds of certain important black characters that prevent us from considering the book to be wholly anti-racist. Saney strengthens the topic with the fact that Maudie Atkinson’s famous speech on Mockingbirds which is generally believed to be about the innocence of the black people is actually a symbol for submission and subjugation. He states that the lines quite clearly suggest not equality among the black and white but representation of the black people as harmless creatures quite similar to pets.  He strengthens his claim with the fact that after the abolition movement against slavery in America certain sectors of the people did not consider the Africans to be their equals but rather parallels them with pet animals that one should care for and not treat cruelly. He firmly states that Lee does not challenge the “superior versus inferior” but firmly asserts the racial order. He then states how Atticus Finch, the main protagonist, a lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman and who also saves him from lynching is idealized and there are almost no instances or records of such an incident in reality. Saney like Klein also writes that the black people in Mockingbird have no “historical agency” and that they are severely objectified and are helpless victims or innocent “bystanders”. According to Saney they existed in a state of complete paralysis (page 62 line 17). Thus, Saney like Klein further points out and validates the notion of racist tendencies in Mockingbird.

Similarly in another recent article taken from ‘Southern Cultures, Volume 21, Number 4, Winter 2015’ titled ‘Front Porch’, Harry L.Watson writes about a violent incident of racial violence in the South i.e. the killing of nine black men in Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel church by a passionate young racist. This incident according to Watson brought to light the enduring prevalence of racial violence in the south in the present era by the challenging of the once established view of equal rights for the African-Americans and the white people. Watson even validates his point with the help of literature by referring to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman which is considered to be a companion piece of Mockingbird. He confirms our view of Mockingbird containing racial elements by claiming that Watchman was written first and Mockingbird originated after Lee’s editors, who saw potential in her work, asked her to rewrite the work in a positive light. Though according to Watson it is an authentic depiction of what the white segregationists and dissenters felt after the massive resistance in the South. It is actually a less surprising fact for the people living in the Deep South of America today for Atticus Finch to transform into a racist bigot. Like Saney, Watson too believes that Mockingbird provides an idealistic picture of the problem of race in the south rather than a real one which results in anomalies in the characterization and plot of the narrative thus further strengthening our view of Mockingbird containing racial elements.
Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird is further dealt with by Jennifer Murray in her essay “More than one way to (Mis) Read a Mockingbird”, where she attempts to deliberately misread the novel in order to clarify some of its characteristics. Murray achieves her goal by investigating those aspects of the novel that are open to debate, the glitches in the work that hint at an “unresolved tension symptomatic of artistic or ideological compromise” (Page 76, line 4). These faults according to her can be observed in the structure of the novel, the depiction of the protagonist and its placement of the theme of racism, sexism and class in the novel in an ideological manner. Murray finds it intriguing that such faults did not give rise to widespread criticism. The results of this study support our claim of Mockingbird actually possessing racial connotations in its narrative structure, character portrayal and in several other aspects. 

The article continued here..