Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel that deals with the inequality, prejudice and ignorance that black people faced in the South in the 1930s. It’s widely been regarded as an exemplary anti-racist text; however, the contrary is true, as is shown by recent criticism. I will hereby analyze how, by taking on the perspective of a young, unknowing girl, Lee manages to cover up her blatant racism behind a thin veil of presumed naivety, which leads to the conclusion that this novel is outdated because of its racism and promotion of white supremacy, and should be considered as such.
For starters, the novel demonstrates a white saviour complex by depicting the black characters as ‘in need of saving’. The white saviour complex stems from Westerners’ belief that they are superior and that they know better. As a consequence, they believe that anyone who does not conform to their ways, is ignorant and should be ‘saved’ from themselves. The most apparent example of this complex in To Kill a Mockingbird is Atticus Finch saving, or his attempt to save, Tom Robinson. This event runs like an underlying thread throughout the entire novel, illustrating the “righteous white lawyers ‘saving’ the marginalized black characters” (Johnston 231). Atticus takes on the task of defending a black man against a white woman’s false rape accusation, and despite the fact that he fails at this task, the black characters are written to be grateful and respecting of Atticus. Lee narrates from Scout’s perspective as her father passes: “I looked around. They were all standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet” (230). This suggests that, regardless of the fact that a fellow black man was just convicted for a crime he did not commit, the black characters are supposed to be grateful that a white man tried to save him. According to Ako-Adjei, it was this scene that “felt like the clearest proof of the thesis advanced by many critics of the book that the novel’s popularity rested on readers’ desires to be white saviors” (123).
However, whilst this is the ‘clearest proof’ of a white saviour complex in the novel, there are several other cases in which this complex becomes evident. One example is Mr Link Deas’s need to save Helen Robinson, Tom’s widow, when Mr Ewell starts bothering her on her way to work. Helen asks Mr Link not to get involved, saying “Just let it be, Mr Link, please suh” (Lee 271), which Mr Link dismisses. No matter the ‘good’ intentions, this demonstrates a clear white saviour complex; Mr Link sees a poor black woman in distress and, despite her pleas for him not to act, he assumes superiority and takes it upon himself to solve the situation. Another evident example of this complex is the story of J. Grimes Everett as told to Scout by Mrs. Merriweather. This story is mentioned on two separate occasions when the ladies of Maycomb are gathered for tea. J. Grimes Everett is not introduced directly to the reader; however, the white saviour complex is prominent when Mrs. Merriweather says, “Living in that jungle with nobody but J. Grimes Everett. Not a white person’ll go near ‘em but that saintly J. Grimes Everett” (Lee 251). Mrs. Merriweather is referring to a group of indigenous people called the Mrunas, who are ‘in need of saving’. Scout later on recounts another time Mrs. Merriweather mentions J. Grimes Everett: “they had so little sense of family that the whole tribe was one big family. […] J. Grimes Everett was doing his utmost to change this state of affairs, and desperately needed our prayers” (Lee 273). This passage demonstrates how white men assume superiority over cultures unlike their own. This recurring theme of the white saviour complex helps promote the idea of white superiority, and in turn white supremacy.
Another way in which the novel illustrates its racist tendencies is through its description of black people. The description of black characters in the novel is far from positive and highlights Lee’s racist views. Throughout the novel, the black characters are portrayed in a one-dimensional, indistinctive way, especially compared to the well-rounded, strong white characters. Black characters are constantly referred to as “niggers” and their neighbourhood is at one point called a “nigger-nest” (Lee 190). In Johnston’s survey, one of the black students described her experience reading these terms in reference to her own skin colour as follows: “It was disgusting, embarrassing and depressing to read a book where blacks were constantly being called ‘niggers’ or treated the worst” (235). The discrimination against black people becomes evident early on when the narrator describes the arrest of Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley and mentions that, “The sheriff hadn’t the heart to put him in jail alongside Negroes” (Lee 11). This statement sets the tone for the rest of the novel in regard to Maycomb’s views of black people.
Other examples include Mayella Ewell referring to the black Tom Robinson as, “That’n yonder” (Lee 196), referring to the man as an object rather than a person. Or when the main character Scout says, “after all he’s just a Negro” (Lee 216), dismissing him as a person of lesser value. The black characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are not only treated unjustly throughout the novel—the most prominent piece of evidence for this statement being the conviction of Tom Robinson—but they are even considered to be a subspecies of people, as Jem confirms when he decides, “There are four kinds of folks in the world” (Lee 246) and he finds black people to be one separate category entirely. This view of black people as a different category of human becomes especially clear in the following passage:
To Maycomb, Tom’s death was typical. Typical of a nigger to cut and run. Typical of a nigger’s mentality to have no plan, no thought for the future, just run blind first chance he saw. […] You know how they are. Easy come, easy go. Just shows you, that Robinson was legally married, they say he kept himself clean, went to church and all that, but when it comes to the line the veneer’s mighty thin. Nigger always comes out in them. (Lee 261)
This paragraph demonstrated the ease in which the white characters in To Kill a Mockingbird condemn a black man’s choices and write them off. Lee’s racist writing is excused by the idea that it is written from the perspective of Scout, who is naïve and young and supposedly doesn’t know better. Yet this does not take away from the fact that the writing in To Kill a Mockingbird is, in fact, racist and that many characters, who do not have these excuses to hide behind, also frequently demonstrate this.
In addition to the negative portrayal of black characters, the novel also illustrates the low social position that black people have and accepts it as being normal and just. The low social position of black people is a historical fact that Lee did depict accurately, and on it I will not fault her. However, her way of handling it does make one raise an eyebrow, because for a supposedly antiracist text, the way in which she dismisses or neglects to acknowledge white privilege is less than satisfactory. Scout, despite her naivety and occasional racist views, is quite astute in her observations and takes note of the prejudiced behaviour around her on several occasions throughout the novel, yet she has difficulty seeing it in the most obvious places. For example, when she, Jem and Dill join Reverend Sykes up on the balcony in the courtroom and “four Negroes rose and gave us their front-row seats” (Lee 179), Scout does not think twice about this action, suggesting that she finds it normal and not noteworthy. Three white children join the black citizens of Maycomb on their designated balcony, and still the black characters are the ones that have to make way and adjust themselves to the white children. Another example of this can be found earlier in the novel when Calpurnia takes Scout and Jem with her to church, or rather to black church, and the black people are expected to accept and adjust to their presence. There is but one black character who objects to the presence of white children in black churches because of the social constrictions it inflicts on black people. This character, Lula, says: “You 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?” (Lee 129). Lula is depicted by Lee as an aggressor, who is ‘unjustly’ picking on the Finch children and scaring them, even though she has every right to be upset by their presence. It is this way of illustrating black people’s behaviour when they don’t conform to the submissive and respective norms placed on them by white supremacy that forms the basis of my criticism of Lee’s work as well as my claim that the novel is racist. This way of depicting black characters is deceptive because the truth of the matter is that any white person, even the Finch children, could ruin the lives of a black person by a simple lie, as is demonstrated by Mayella Ewell’ accusation that Tom Robinson raped her. Lee is inconsistent when it comes to making Scout notice the racism and white privilege around her, and hardly acknowledges that the lower social position of black characters is unjust. She depicts the black characters as happy and content, which a critical reader will regard with scepticism. It is because of their race, that black people are held at a lower social position and have to conform to a submissive role in society, and, for a supposedly anti-racist text, Lee fails to properly acknowledge this at various points throughout the novel. I have referred to Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as ‘supposedly anti-racist’ and couple of times now, but I hope we can all agree there’s no ‘anti-racist’ to it. The novel might have a few redeeming qualities in that regard, but not nearly enough not to consider the overall writing racist. This is not coming from someone who hates this novel, but from someone who considered it her favourite classic after reading it for the first time when she was sixteen. And even now, it still holds a place in my heart because it got me into literature and set me on this path of being a English Literature student. However, I’ve grown up since reading it that first time and I now realize how much more there is to the novel and how much more critical I should be of it. I don’t think I will ever be able to read it like a naïve sixteen-year-old could, but my enjoyment of it now stems from picking it apart. I guess that’s just the literature student in me. I’m quite proud of this new reading because it shows how much I’ve grown in the meantime and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if I did just ruin my favourite classic for myself and perhaps for you too, reader.