The Debate on To Kill A Mockingbird's Position on Racism

EssayLiterature
Dec 14, 2007

An essay is a type of written coursework that discusses an idea, message, or argument expressed as a thesis statement. Its basic structure includes an introduction, a body, and a conclusion . This sample essay asserts that contrary to recent accusations, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird is not racist nor is it intended to be a racist work.

When Harper Lee’s coming-of-age novel To Kill A Mockingbird  was first published in 1960, it instantly became a sensation. Not only was the novel seen as a vocal and progressive indictment of widespread racism, but it was also considered a masterpiece and has since been regarded as classic literature . In just a few years, countless schools included it in their curriculum, believing that the work can enlighten generations of students regarding the injustice of racism . But the recent years have seen an in-depth reexamination of the novel, with some critics, writers, and scholars arguing that Lee’s novel is just as racist as the institution that it supposedly condemns. While it is true that Lee’s novel has significant flaws, flatly branding it as racist would not only be incorrect but also a disservice to its essential message. Indeed, To Kill A Mockingbird offers a limited view and contains offensive language, but putting these in context shows that it is imperfect but noble in its intentions.

Accusations of Racism

The accusation that To Kill A Mockingbird  is racist involves a number of aspects. For one, the novel has been criticized for its use of the n-word. Many have regarded the repeated use of this pejorative term in the book as offensive and degrading towards people of color (Saney 101). For another, the novel has also been criticized for its predominantly white perspective. The story is told from the perspective of Scout Finch, the young narrator whose father, Atticus Finch, is tasked with defending a black man named Tom Robinson accused of raping a white woman. Critics, however, point out that the black characters are not treated with the same nuance and depth. As Haines states in his essay for the Washington Post, “Their [the black characters] humanity is obscured from us, suggesting that it is of little consequence to the author, reader or the whites in Maycomb.” And still, the novel has been criticized for its supposedly white savior narrative owing to the fact that it takes a white man to recognize and address the racial injustice in the story. As Landman notes, “the rest of the black community is depicted as a group of simple, respectful folk—passive and helpless and all touchingly grateful to Atticus Finch—the white saviour. We never see any of them angry or upset.” All these observations have engendered not just discomfort over Lee’s much-praised work but also a heated debate about whether such claims have merit in the first place.

Contextualizing To Kill A Mockingbird

While these are all valid observations, it is important to note that to brand the work as racist would be incorrect. Determining where the book actually stands regarding racism requires contextualization. Firstly, the use of the n-word in the novel is a reflection of the reality that the novel mirrors rather than a deliberately malicious attempt of the writer to offend people of color. Lee wrote the novel to expose the ugliness of racism and this endeavor could have not been accomplished by sanitizing the reality it sought to depict. With that being said, it is vital to remember that contextualization is the key here. Reading To Kill A Mockingbird  does carry the risk of offending. But this can be averted through proper contextualization. Secondly, it would also be wrong to consider the novel racist because it affords a limited perspective to the non-white characters. True, the novel is overwhelmingly told from a white character’s perspective. But it must also be noted that Lee’s intention was not to make the novel speak on behalf of blacks. The beauty of the novel partly lies in its earnestness, and this would have not been achieved had Lee forced herself to write from a point of view that she had no knowledge of or experience with. As Spaeth writes eloquently writes:

There is an ascendant view of literature that is proscriptive in nature, rather than inclusive, which could have ramifications for all the works of art tinged by racism’s poison (i.e., much of the Western canon). The controversy over Mockingbird calls into question whether any artwork can lay a claim to universality in the America of 2015.

The novel has its shortcomings, but it cannot be absolutely condemned for these, especially given its intentions. It must be noted that To Kill A Mockingbird  is a product of the South and came before the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. In a way, it is an early attempt to talk about racism that had been going on for centuries in the United States. Therefore, it was bound to have its limitations. As University of Pittsburgh professor Geoffrey Glover stated, “The book does promote an early form of anti-racism that we are building off of and adding to now. You can see it as a process novel. It’s an early step in formulating an anti-racist mentality for the majority of the United States” (qtd. in University of Pittsburgh). When one gets down to the bottom of the novel, it is at its core an indictment of racism and a call to end it.

Conclusion

In the end, it can be said that To Kill A Mockingbird will continue to be reexamined and reevaluated for a long time to come. Changing standards and perspectives will continue to shape how generations of readers perceive the novel. But this process should be approached with caution. No great work of literature was ever free of controversy. Indeed, racism has been found even in monumental works like Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . For over a century, these works have endured claims of having racist contents and perspectives, yet they have endured because contextualization reveals their positive intentions. Harper Lee’s work will certainly follow the same path.

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Works Cited

Haines, Errin. “The truths ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ tells about white people.” Washington Post , https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/07/22/truths-kill-mockingbird-tells-about-white-people/. Accessed 28 June 2022.

Landman, Tanya. “Is To Kill a Mockingbird  a racist book?” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/oct/20/is-to-kill-a-mockingbird-a-racist-book-tanya-landman. Accessed 28 June 2022.

Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. New York, Grand Central Publishing, 1960.

Saney, Isaac. “The Case Against To Kill a Mockingbird.” Race & Class, vol. 45, no. 1, pp. 99-110.

Spaeth, Ryu. “Is To Kill a Mockinbird racist?” The Week, https://theweek.com/articles/566893/kill-mockingbird-racist. Accessed 28 June 2022.

University of Pittsburgh. “Q&A: Should teachers still assign ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?” University of Pittsburgh , https://www.pitt.edu/pittwire/features-articles/qa-should-teachers-still-assign-kill-mockingbird. Accessed 28 June 2022.

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