How did Harper Lee in her novel “To Kill a Mocking Bird” deal with issues of “race”

Looking at the multitudes of races present today, all systematically categorised based on place of origin, nationality or even physical features, it is hard to imagine that about sixty thousand years ago everyone was African. Through the identification of certain genetic markers of people worldwide, The Genographic Project of The National Geographic Channel suggest that humans present today are all genetically related to a group of Man who journeyed out of Africa about sixty thousand years ago1.

This essentially means that humans as we know it regardless of race, ethnicity, culture or nationality are all related on the genetic level. Sadly, even though advances in science may have shown that humans are all genetically related and thus essentially equal, the idea of race and with it racism will probably never go away as individuals and communities constantly seek to identify themselves through the concept of ‘Othering’ and what easier way to create the ‘Other’ than through racial lines.

In “To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee deals with this concept of racism by showing that though in general the ‘Black’ Americans may not be on par socially and economically with the ‘White’, they are no less human and are thus capable of being humane as much as the ‘Whites’ are capable of being inhumane.

She showed that like the ‘Whites’, individuals in the ‘Black; community are capable of being a teacher and moral guide to the young, a helpful neighbour, a devout Christian and on the negative point even a racist, qualities which a white supremacist of the 1930s would think are beyond the capabilities or rights of a ‘Nigger’ but are in fact “a truth that applies to the human race and no particular race of men. ” Lee used the character of Calpurnia to illustrate that a ‘Black’ person could be a good educator, a caring mother figure as well as a moral and ethical figure on par with Atticus.

There were many instances in the novel when Calpurnia teaches Scout or Jem invaluable lessons in life. Calpurnia’s role as an educator and ethical figure is best shown when Jem invited Cunningham Jr. over for a meal and Scout rudely criticized the way he ate. By allowing Calpurnia instead of Atticus to discipline Scout’s lack of table manners, Lee showed how race is unimportant when it comes to ethics and basic courtesy. A ‘Black’ person could discipline a child in the proper way as well as a ‘White’ person.

The importance of this incident is further magnified because of Atticus’ presence at the meal table. The fact that Atticus, who is drawn out to be the moral pillar of Maycomb County, allows Calpurnia to discipline his children shows his trust in her moral judgement despite her race and on the bigger scale of things, Lee showed the reader how a ‘Black’ person may be as morally upright as a ‘White’ person. Moving on, Lee included the scene at the First Purchase African M. E.

Church to show the universality of religion and worship and that the ‘Blacks’ are just as capable of faith regardless of their skin colour or their economic status. Lee showed through this scene how even without hymn books, the ‘Blacks’ could carry out a service and be faithful followers of Christ as well as the ‘Whites’. In addition to that, the incident where Reverend Sykes prevented the members of the church from leaving until a combined donation of ten dollars is collected shows the congregation’s empathy to the plight of Tom Robinson.

To a white supremacist, the concept of empathy is something which should not be possible in an inferior being and the idea of a Black church is probably blasphemous to followers of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Protestant White Supremacy group who have hijacked the cross and Christianity for their own bigoted misdemeanours. Perhaps the most prominent example that Lee used to show that a ‘Black’ person could be as humane as a ‘White’ person was through Tom Robinson and his thoughtless care for his neighbour.

Tom got indicted of the rape of Mayella Ewell because he had gone to her house to help her with her chores. When questioned why he helped her, Tom answered that he did so because he ‘felt right sorry for her’ for she seem to be the only one in the Ewell household who was trying to make ends meet. Not only was Tom’s answer immediately mocked by Mr Gilmer, in her narration, Scout also mentioned that ‘below us (the Whites), nobody liked Tom’s answer’. Here Lee showed how the “Whites’ found it hard to believe that an inferior ‘Black’ man is capable of feeling pity for a ‘White’ girl.

Although Tom had no clear witness to prove his innocence, evidence of his handicap and the nature of Mayella’s injuries clearly pointed towards it and yet the jury still chose to prosecute him. Lee included this incident to firstly show the charity in Tom for helping Mayella even though he knows that he would get into trouble if he were to be caught and secondly the cowardly manner in which he was accused by Bob Ewell and Mayella Ewell and the subsequent irrational and inhumane way he was prosecuted by the jury of eleven.

This incident presents itself as the crux of the novel as through it, Lee clearly shows that a ‘Black’ person is capable of being humane as much as a ‘White’ person is capable of being inhumane. In addition to that, Lee probably made this incident the crux as a reflection of the Scottsboro trials of 1931 where nine ‘Black’ men were prosecuted in the same fashion as Tom.

The ‘White’ community of that era believes that ‘Black’ men are out to rape ‘White’ woman in an effort to impregnate them and produce interracial children so as to tip the racial superiority. To make all the ‘Blacks’ purely humane and not give them any faults would make the novel biased and unrealistic. Hence, Lee showed the reader that as much as not all ‘Whites’ are as evil as Bob Ewell, not all ‘Blacks’ are as respectful, thoughtful and morally upright as Calpurnia either.

This is shown in the example of Lula who showed signs of reverse racism in chapter 12 when she told Calpurnia that she “ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillum here – they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church ain’t it, Miss Cal? ” Lula’s attitude of segregation is synonymous with those of racist ‘Whites’ who believe that facilities should not be shared between the coloured and the whites which contradict the values upheld by Calpurnia and Atticus.

The idea that the ‘Blacks’ have human faults too is shown later on in the chapter through Carlow Richardson who tried to get away from donating his share to the Tom Robinson fund. His miserly attitude although not commendable given Helen Robinson’s predicament is understandable given the fact that the people in the congregation are equally poor and it is only human nature to look out for yourself first before thinking of someone else’s welfare.

Hence, from the examples given above, it is shown that Lee tried to deal with racism through her novel by essentially trying to dispel the idea that the “Whites’ are superior than the ‘Blacks’ in terms of being humane and a useful member of the human race. She used the trial of Tom Robinson to show the mindless nature of racism and how the ‘superior’ race could become inhumane prosecutors who would send a man to the gallows because of his skin colour while the inferior ‘Blacks’ could be more humane than some of the ‘Whites’.

On a closing note, I would say that Lee’s views on racism could be summed up through her closing speech for Atticus in court when he says, “You know the truth, and the truth is this: Some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women – black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. “