Wednesday, July 11, 2018
July 11, 2018: Representing Race: To Kill a Mockingbird
[On July 11th, 1960 Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. One of the most taught books in American classrooms, Mockingbird offers (among other things) a flawed but vital representation of race in American society and history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such complex racial representations, leading up to a weekend post on mystery fiction and race!]
On what Harper Lee’s classic novel fails to do, and where it succeeds.
In this We’re History piece on the controversies or criticisms surrounding two of the most prominent books published in 2015, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I argued that many of the unhappy responses to Lee’s sequel/prequel were driven by the ways in which the new novel changed the character of Atticus Finch. After all, Atticus has been one of the most beloved characters in American literature since To Kill a Mockingbird’s original July 11th, 1960 publication (and even more so since Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning portrayal in the 1962 film version), to the point where many parents have even named their sons Atticus in honor of the character. And Lee’s second novel didn’t just portray Atticus as having grown more conservative or racist with age, an all-too-common shift that would perhaps be easier for readers to accept—it also revealed that he had been affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations throughout his life, radically revising the original novel’s depiction of his racial and social positions.
Or at least, that’s how the new Atticus and novel felt to many readers. I’ve long been troubled by the widely accepted narrative that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of America’s best novels about race and racism—not only because there there are so many better ones that should be much more widely remembered and read, but also and more importantly because (as I also argue in that We’re History piece) Mockingbird isn’t really about African American histories or identities at all. To be clear, Lee’s novel doesn’t necessarily pretend to be about those subjects—the book is first and foremost about narrator and protagonist Scout Finch’s maturation, and secondly about her relationship with her (in her young eyes) idealized and inspiring father; because her father is a white lawyer in a Jim Crow world where (as Lee erroneously depicts it) African Americans have no advocates from within their community, he ends up defending an African American man falsely accused of rape, but that’s a minor plotline within the frame of this secondary character. If readers have amplified that plotline into a defining American story of race and justice, something Lee’s novel quite simply is not, that’s ultimately more telling of the absence of fuller stories and histories of those issues from our collective memories.
If we were able to stop viewing Lee’s novel as one of our central literary portrayals of race, it would open up other and to my mind more productive ways of reading Mockingbird. For example, the novel is particularly interesting as a depiction of a young girl struggling with narratives of gender and social expectations, linking Scout to characters like Frankie from Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1952) or Cassandra from Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons (1862). And, for that matter, to an African/Caribbean American young female protagonist like Selina in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959). Issues of race, along with region and class and religion and sexuality and other factors, certainly impact each of those protagonists’ experiences and identities, which would allow for a more nuanced analysis of such themes than the celebratory anti-racist narrative that has developed around Lee’s novel. So as usual—as always, I hope—I’m not arguing for abandoning this non-favorite text, but rather for reconsidering it in ways that would be more accurate and more productive than the idealizing vision we’ve held for so long.
Next representation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of race you’d highlight?