Stuff White People Do: Warmly Embrace A Racist Novel

By Guest Contributor Macon D., originally posted at Stuff White People Do

I refuse to go along with this week’s warm, feel-good celebrations of Harper Lee’s novel (published fifty years ago today), To Kill a Mockingbird. Simply put, I think that novel is racist, and so is its undying popularity. It’s also racist in a particularly insidious way, because the story and its characters instead seem to so many white people like the very model of good, heartwarming, white anti-racism.

A few days ago, NPR (National Propaganda Public Radio) aired a typically laudatory piece on the novel, voiced by reporter Lynn Neary. As usual on the soothing, soporific NPR, this piece was filtered through, and aimed toward, a well-educated white perspective. These implied people are all too happy to be reminded that racism is a thing of the past, and that things are oh so much better now. The writers of this NPR segment were careful enough to interview some black teachers and students about Lee’s book, but if any offered significant criticism, their perspectives were left out.

The segment begins,

Harper Lee had the kind of success most writers only dream about. Shortly after her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, came out in the summer of 1960, it hit the bestseller lists, then it won a Pulitzer Prize, and then was made into an Oscar-winning movie. Her novel has never gone out of print.

But, in a move that’s unheard of in this age of celebrity writers, Lee stepped out of the limelight and stopped doing interviews years ago — she never wrote another book. Still, her influence has endured, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.

NPR’s print version (entitled “50 Years On, ‘Mockingbird’ Still Sings America’s Song”) goes on to say,

For the high-schoolers reading To Kill a Mockingbird today, America is a very different place than it was when Lee wrote her novel 50 years ago. Lee’s story of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus — a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape — came out just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation.

That’s right, dear, lily-white NPR fans. Things were sooooo different back then, weren’t they? Thank God racism is dead!

Actually, that right there is the first reason I think this novel is, in effect, racist — it allows, indeed encourages, today’s well-meaning white people to think that “America is a very different place” than it was when Lee wrote her novel, and thus to think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago.

The novel came out, you see, “just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation.” Back in the bad old days, when “the nation” was “fighting”; why not say that mainstream white supremacists, with the support of most white Americans, were keeping black kids out of school while bashing in the heads of their adult parents and relatives? And come to think of it, the heads of those black kids too? But nowadays, you see, “the nation” embraces its black kids.

By way of driving home that particular, comforting implication — “Fortunately, we all pretty much get along now!” — Neary sets her story in a racially mixed, seemingly postracial classroom:

Today, in a 10th grade English class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., students of many different races and ethnicities are studying the book together. Their teacher, Laurel Taylor, says that the story still resonates — and with students of all backgrounds.

“Trying to find your identity and realizing that your society doesn’t always tell you the right thing” is a particularly profound message for teens, Taylor says. “Sometimes you have to go against what everyone else says to do the right thing. All that kind of resonates no matter where you come from.”

This part of Neary’s segment clarifies the second problem I have with how the novel comes across to so many American readers — its messages get read as “universal” — “To Kill a Mockingbird can teach anyone how to be a better person!” I suppose that’s a nice message, but when people claim that the novel’s messages can be embraced by anyone, the realities of white supremacist violence, past and present, fade from view.

Neary carries on about the book’s widespread appeal — which somehow circles right back to white people:

“The story of Scout’s initiation and maturing is the story of finding out who you are in the world,” says author Mary McDonagh Murphy. “And at the same time, the novel is about finding out who we are as a country.”

Murphy’s new book, Scout, Atticus & Boo, is based on interviews about To Kill a Mockingbird with well-known writers, journalists, historians and artists. Murphy says the novel, narrated from a child’s point of view, gave white people, especially in the South, a nonthreatening way to think about race differently.

Yes, “we” wouldn’t want white people, the principle enactors of racism, to feel at all “threatened” when we try to talk to them about racism. I guess if we did, they’d just up and run away!

Anyway, I could go on dissecting the saccharine nostalgia of this NPR piece (and I should add that, to Neary’s credit, she does get around to injecting some realism, especially by mentioning the horrific and iconic death of Emmett Till). But I’d rather turn to a more critical and insightful view, of both the novel and its effects on different readers.

In a 2003 academic article (published in Race and Class), Isaac Saney wrote about successful black efforts against Lee’s novel in Nova Scotia, efforts undertaken because it’s a racist novel. In 1996, “intense community pressure” by the African Nova Scotian population managed to remove the novel from the Department of Education’s list of recommended, authorized books; in 2002, a committee consisting of parents and educators, seconded by members of the Black Educators’ Association (BEA), recommended that the book “be removed from school use altogether.”

A report (by the African Canadian Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Education) “laid out the community’s concerns”:

In this novel, African-Canadian students are presented with language that portrays all the stereotypical generalizations that demean them as a people. While the White student and the White teacher many misconstrue it as language of an ealier era or the way it was, this language is still widely used today and the book serves as tool to reinforce its usage even further. . . .

The terminology in this novel subjects students to humiliating experiences that rob them of their self-respect and the respect of their peers. The word ‘Nigger’ is used 48 times. . . .

There are many available books which reflect the past history of African-Canadians or Americans without subjecting African-Canadian learners to this type of degradation. . . We believe that the English Language Arts curriculum in Nova Scotia must enable all students to feel comfortable with ideas, feelings and experiences presented without fear of humiliation … To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly a book that no longer meets these goals and therefore must no longer be used for classroom instruction.

So aside from the multiple usages of the n-word, what exactly is it about the book that provoked such a strong black revulsion? (And I do not mean to imply with this question, of course, that I think all black readers respond to the book in just one way.)

After reviewing common white distortions in the media of this collective African-Canadian complaint,* Saney goes on to offer three primary and compelling reasons of his own for knocking To Kill a Mockingbird from its lofty perch:

1. A common reading of its central symbol (mockingbird = black people) degrades black people.

Is not the mockingbird a metaphor for the entire African American population? [The metaphor says] that Black people are useful and harmless creatures — akin to decorous pets — that should not be treated brutally. This is reminiscent of the thinking that pervaded certain sectors of the abolition movement against slavery, which did not extol the equality of Africans, but paralleled the propaganda of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals, arguing that just as one should not treat one’s horse, ox or dog cruelly, one should not treat one’s Blacks cruelly.

By foisting this mockingbird image on African Americans, it does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior ‘races’, the notion of those meant to rule versus those meant to be ruled. What it attacks are the worst — particularly violent — excesses of the racist social order, leaving the racist social order itself intact.

2. The novel’s noble, white-knight hero has no basis in reality, and the common white focus on the heroism of Atticus Finch distracts attention from the pervasiveness of 1930s white-supremacist solidarity among ordinary white people.

Central to the view that To Kill a Mockingbird is a solid and inherently anti-racist work is the role of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, the Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus goes so far as to save Tom from a lynching. However, this act has no historical foundation.

The acclaimed exhibition Without Sanctuary: lynching photography in America … documented more than 600 incidents of lynching. This landmark exhibition and study established that ‘lynchers tended to be ordinary people and respectable people, few of whom had any difficulties justifying their atrocities in the name of maintaining the social and racial order and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race’. In two years of investigation, the exhibit researchers found no evidence of intervention by a white person to stop even a single lynching.

(In sum, the noble, persistent, obstinate activism of Atticus Finch — which garners the collective respect of the town’s black people — is a soothing white fantasy.**)

3. The novel reduces black people to passive, humble victims, thereby ignoring the realities of black agency and resistance.

Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denail of the historical agency of Black people. They are robbed of their role as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation.

There’s the rub! The novel and its supporters deny that Black people have been the central actors in their movements for liberation and justice, from widespread African resistance to, and revolts against, slavery and colonialism to the twentieth century’s mass movements challenging segregation, discrimination and imperialism … The novel portrays Blacks as somnolent, awaiting someone from outside to take up and fight for the cause of justice.

It was African North Americans who took up the task of confronting and organizing against racism, who through weal and woe, trial and tribulation, carried on — and still carry on — the battle for equal rights and dignity. Those whites who did, and do, make significant contributions gave, and give, their solidarity in response.

Yes, in response. I put those words in bold print because when I first read them, I realized just how white-centered the novel and movie are. I think that had it not been for the movie, especially Gregory Peck’s depiction of Atticus Finch, the novel would not have the status it has today. Peck’s Finch, in his upright disdain for racism, fully embodied a particularly white and male aspiration of liberal nobility. But he does it all on his own; it’s white individualism all over again. And, ironically, non-white people are part of that portrait, but only as props, as accouterments that flesh out the portrait. Any black unrest and activism that would no doubt have inspired and aided any such white crusader is entirely erased.

Despite these faults, and others, To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be among the top three most-taught novels in American middle and high schools (another, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tends to be taught in similarly fantasized terms). Saney makes the sensible suggestion of supplanting such white-centric readings on racism with some more honest and black-affirming books, such as Ellison’s Invisible Man, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved, and many others. I would add that many worthy novels were written throughout the twentieth century by other non-white writers as well.

So, what do you think? Do you have warm memories of this (white) “masterpiece,” or not-so-warm memories? If you have read it, do you think your race had anything to do with your reaction to it?

Also, should teachers should stop teaching it? Or teach it differently? And do you know of other worthy replacements/successors?

* Saney writes that in the white-dominated Canadian press,

The arguments advanced by the Black community were consistently presented in a non-serious, even risible, light so as to give the impression that the Black educators and parents are ignorant of the merits of literature, mere emotional whiners and complainers, belonging to a hot-headed fringe. For example, after the decision was made to keep the books in the curriculum, the Halifax Daily News in an editorial was ‘relieved cooler heads have prevailed’, reproducing the racist notions of inherent Black emotionality versus the rationality of white society.

** In a New Yorker piece published last year, Malcolm Gladwell claims that Finch did resemble an actual white antiracist of sorts, Alabama Governor Jim Folsom. Even so, since Folsom was a sort of wishy-washy populist of all the people, rather than a genuinely dedicated reformer, the parallel still leaves Atticus Finch looking less than worthy of emulation. As Gladwell writes, “If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict [against Tom Robinson]. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.”