I guess I have some re-reading to do:
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.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in high school. It was during a glut of classic literature in which I devoured as many ‘must-read’ books as I could. No part of the book resonated with me whatsoever, and I put it down feeling a little mystified as to what the big deal was. Perhaps if I had read it and considered the context of what was happening at the time of its publication, it would have meant more to me.
Macon D. is clearly not a fan:
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.
I must admit, my initial reaction to reading this article was to disagree. “It speaks to its time – the anti-racism movement in its contemporary form wasn’t even on the horizon.” While this may be true, we’re still teaching it in schools today as an exemplar of anti-racist fiction. It is most certainly not anti-racist fiction for reasons that Macon outlines:
1. A common reading of its central symbol (mockingbird = black people) degrades black people.
2. The novel’s noble, white-knight hero has no basis in reality, and the common white focus on the heroism of Atticus Finch distracts attention from the pervasiveness of 1930s white-supremacist solidarity among ordinary white people.
3. The novel reduces black people to passive, humble victims, thereby ignoring the realities of black agency and resistance.
Highlighting To Kill a Mockingbird as anti-racist is like calling Tess of the D’Urbervilles* a triumph of feminism (yeah, I made a Thomas Hardy reference – deal with it!). By the time I got to the end of the article, I was firmly in agreement with the conclusion, albeit with one caveat, which I will present here.
Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird or Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn, each of them a stunning example of “aw shucks” racism, should be taught. They should be taught as what they are – signposts on the road to establishing equality. Each of them is a missive from the past that tells us where we once were. They should be taught in their modern context. The racism that Macon (rightly) attributes to the book is not necessarily a fault of the book it’s self. Rather, it is the product of the day in which it was written, and its failings need to be discussed. To Kill a Mockingbird is not the example of racial empowerment I want exemplified – all the power is still held by Atticus Finch and the white judge. Highlight the failings of the book, and where we have to go still now that lynchings aren’t commonplace.
Anyway, I thought this was interesting and deserved re-posting. Read it!
*For those of you who aren’t up on the latest classics of the romantic period, I’ll give you a brief summary. Tess is a peasant. She meets a rich guy. He buys her. She resists his ‘charms’, so he rapes her(?). She gets pregnant, and delivers. The baby dies. She becomes a milkmaid, meets a seemingly nice guy who says he’s in love with her. She tells him what happened. He disowns her. She goes back to the rapist, eventually stabs him, then slinks off and dies. Nobody learns anything. I’m not a big fan of this book either, clearly :P