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Crawling Into The Other’s Skin – Investigating Racism Through ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Mockingbird

#BlackLivesMatter has been resurrecting lived experiences of the United States’ hushed instances of racial disparity and blatant discrimination. Racially charged violence runs deep in the American sentiments, a blemish on the pristine whitewashed American origins. Even post the Civil War period racial segregation, continued to be informally and systematically enforced. White supremacist organisations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts and the White League have historically enjoyed massive popular support. In the purview of significantly relevant political spectrum of George Floyd’s terrorizing end, Harper Lee’s ascent to acclaimed literary circuits is arrestingly haunting yet naive – To Kill a Mockingbird explores the sensibilities of a fictional town set in the deep south in a 1930s America still lumbering under the shadow of slavery.

“Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. …There’s no hurry, for there’s nowhere to go and nothing to buy…and no money to buy it with.” This is the quintessential Southern town template Maycomb is moulded in. The Southern Novel exudes a nostalgia as inherent as the Mississippi that runs through it. A sense of loss pervades Southern small towns- fictitious or otherwise, perverted in its gloom over loss of pride over loss in the Civil War. The states primarily operating on the blood and sweat of black slave labourers lugging and cotton plantations were rendered unprofitable in the absence of such manual labour. The anti black sentiments remain taut through many Southern narratives and memories – often rife with white supremacist claims and barbaric return to meting punishment for violating purpoted social codes. However, Maycomb as a place is also seen very critically- its notions of old world hypocrisy paraded as charm spontaneously debunked through unsuspecting children’s probing enquiries. Does the novel however stand the test of time to be hailed a cornerstone of nuanced racial depiction?

This narrative is not steeped in jingoistic despondency but is luminescent with hope. A quintessential bildungsroman( coming of age story),the narrative sees a five year old Jean Loius Finch or her better known moniker Scout reminiscing of a uniquely controversial lawsuit her father Atticus Finch was involved in as the defense lawyer. A quintessential bildungsroman, the voice of the mature adult pierces the mostly childish lens and infuses sombre adulthood in guileless free spirit as she navigates the troubled waters of the investigation with her older brother Jim, their friend Dill and their mish mash of community dwellers- small town assumptions and beyond colouring the narrative. The premise of the contested case? A black man accused of raping a white woman. Implications and verdicts are a forgone conclusion as Maycomb county comes alive in ugly, wonderful, nefarious and empathetic hues.

As Atticus Finch serves as the moral compass of the town and leaves no stones unturned in securing justice the town seems to lose all sense of humane empathy and band in revile against the perceived “common enemy”. All sense of rationale is thrown out the window when a man with a dysfunction of his left hand is accused of the heinous act. Contrary to expectations, the defeat of the Southern states in the Civil war served only to reinforce their loyalties and affirmations to traditional southern values and constricting notions. Racial tension is clearly evident as the ‘Fine Folk’ markedly delineate themselves from the African American population.

Aunt Alexandra, the children’s racially charged aunt, attempts to partition the motherless children’s bond with their black housekeeper Calpurnia. She is fondly attached to the romantic perfidious orientation the rest of Maycomb county quietly revels in and is appalled at the fact that Atticus made no efforts to instill familial pride stemming from their superior status as landowners in the county. She categorically dissects families and their heritages into ‘Streaks’- positioning them with context to worthiness and supposed respectability. There is an angry, agitated mob out to assert vigilante justice on Tom Robinson (the defendant in the central lawsuit) , a group of otherwise educated individuals blinded by unmitigated hate and xenophobia, united in their othering of the black man and preserving racial purity. Atticus has to step in as a human shield and the voice of reasonable human conscience in the face of generational hate. The juries often mirror Southern populist sentiments and in a heart wrenching tragedy ( against the light of all logical counter structures), Tom Robinson is found guilty. Tom is gunned down that night itself as he sought the final dash to futile freedom – knowing in his heart of hearts “ the white man’s justice” was never his to seek. The blacks lead lives of extreme penury and deprivation from social ascension- Calpurnia educated her son Zeebo with Blackstone’s commentaries and the Bible. They have depressed wages and according to white privileged sensibilities should be “cheerful” that they are remunerated in the first place.

While Tom Robinson is not a fully realised character and is a representative of rampant victimisation that was the social reality of the Blacks, he responded in sensitive, humane ways to his false accuser, Maya Lowell’s abject loneliness. He was ultimately incarcerated for the very humane qualities that the Whites refused to acknowledge in fellow human beings. The Ewells were considered alien to civic authorities and general pleasantries of social life and basic hygiene evaded them. Perennially chained to poverty, Mayella Ewell seeks reprieve from the daily humiliation, abuse and trauma she was subjected to in the worst possible manner imaginable- implicating an innocent helpless man in a terrible allegation. It’s not just the Blacks but the women too that the ire of prejudice is held against. Secure in her whiteness, Mayella is allowed to lie and get away with it, as is evident in the thorough deconstruction of her narrative in the trial. Tom very ostensibly serves the motif of titular mockingbird as well as a larger leitmotif in the ambit of the novel – the Blacks here “sing their hearts out for us “. Tom is a product of his circumstances and his social conditioning, being shot in the back 17 times in a desperate bid for freedom was in a sense, a foregone conclusion.

The tea party Aunt Alexandra hosts smacks of racial superiority. Writing off the Blacks as immoral or ineducable, Atticus’ deep respect for Calpurnia comes through perfectly. The Missionary Society is sympathetic to the point of being moved to tears at the plight of the Mrunas yet deliberately ignores the fabric of deprivation and isolation they have woven the blacks into. Their sympathies ring patronizing as they view suffering from an elevated pedestal and are incapable of the resilient empathy the Blacks portray throughout the novel.

Jem and Scout soon realise their familial stance against the sickness of racism pits them against their own community. Atticus is dubbed a “nigger lover” by the townspeople with an alarming deficit of traditional swashbuckling Southern traits and even the other kids voice their opinions in a similar vein- alluding that these facts are problematic and in need of rectification. Prejudice latches itself stemming from anti community sentiments. The tea party Aunt Alexandra hosts smacks of racial superiority when the ladies write off the blacks as immoral or ineducable. Atticus’ deep respect for Calpurnia comes through perfectly when he enlists her support in breaking the news of the gun down to Helen Robinson- insight and affinity that the Whites seem to be lacking in spades.

The novel is not however exempt from valid criticism. Harper Lee, while familiar with the Southern strain of thought, hails from the same white and privileged perspective that is explicitly critiqued through the characters’ shallow mindedness . The Blacks have been shown as passive recipients of bigotry and hypocrisy – with Helen Robinson choosing to walk through the woods and not cross the Ewell property and the African American population never choosing to retaliate in hate for the generational isolation they were subject to. When Lula protested the presence of White children in their church for coloured folks the rest of the congregation allied in indignation over her viewpoint. However is it really a baseless assumption to segregate the races when they themselves have been subjected to barbaric crudity for centuries that even legislation cannot seem to eradicate?

To Kill a Mockingbird is a sensitive study investigating moral consciousness in children and loss of innocence giving way to awareness and race implications. It is not however the most balanced narrative in terms of characterisation and realistic portrayal of the trauma of racism and the social isolation racism brings has been explored far vividly in other works of fiction and nonfiction. Yet the final thrust of the novel- that most people are inherently good when viewed without ingrained premonitions and how empathy and moral education leads to banishing differences, while naive in its execution, is a message the embittered sections can take heart in. Beyond the binaries of Black and White.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

Picture Credits: hollywoodreporter.com



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