Racism Among Characters in To Kill a Mockingbird

Racism Among Characters in To Kill a Mockingbird

Despite its long standing as one of the greatest American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird is often criticized for its two-dimensional portrayal of African Americans. Critics point out that the novel’s black characters are passive, eager-to-please, and ever grateful for the intervention of whites on their behalf, sitting on the sidelines of the story until forced unwittingly into the main plot.

Calpurnia, Scout and Jem Finch’s nanny, has been criticized as fitting the “mammy” stereotype of a matronly black caretaker who is safe in her non-sexuality. Tom Robinson, who happily lends his services to a young white woman despite having his own family to feed, has been compared with the “contented slave” archetype. The other black characters have only superficial roles – i.e. being a grief-stricken community and treating Atticus as their white savior. The only real exception to this rule is Lula, who angrily turns the Finch children out of her black church (only to be hushed by the other church-goers).

There are several reasons why the novel might suffer this apparent oversight, the most obvious of which being that To Kill a Mockingbird was written by a white woman in the late 1950’s. (With all due respect to Harper Lee, it’s nearly impossible for even well-intentioned people to transcend the attitudes of their place and time in society.)

Then again, it’s possible that the novel intentionally gives us a limited perspective on African Americans in order to illustrate a point: since blacks lived on the absolute periphery of society in 1930’s Alabama, a story told from the perspective of an average white person should reflect this in both its narrative structure and content. In this story’s case, all the black To Kill a Mockingbird characters (except the nanny) appear when tragedy strikes their community and disappear just as quickly when that plotline ends.

Before we get too technical in our analysis, we should also keep in mind that the story unfolds around the experiences of a six-year-old white girl; expecting real insight into the black community may be asking a little too much here. Just think about when Scout discovers that Calpurnia has – gasp! – a life, family, and community outside the Finch household. Or when, in one of those not-so-beloved To Kill a Mockingbird quotes, Scout insists that Tom Robinson is “just a nigger.”

These are clearly not the attitudes of the author, which serves as an important reminder that our beloved Scout Finch is a) only human, b) susceptible to local prejudices, and c) not even ten yet. If anything, Scout’s lopsided view into African-American society actually makes the story more accurate – not to mention, more poignant.

Then again, those of us who really want to play devil’s advocate might point out the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t actually narrated by the young Scout Finch; it’s narrated retrospectively by an older Jean-Louise Finch who is very capable of fleshing out her childhood recollections with the wisdom of experience. Ultimately, whether the novel’s portrayal of African Americans is a skillful narrative device or an oversight on the part of Harper Lee us up to the reader to decide.

Shmoop is an online study guide to learn about To Kill a Mockingbird, To Kill a Mockingbird characters and To Kill a Mockingbird quotes. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels. Teachers and students should feel confident to cite Shmoop.

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