Harper Lee’s – To Kill a Mockingbird Essay Example
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) was published in 1960, addressing the key tension in this story, the issue of "race" against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Race relations in America were wrought with injustice in the 1930s, especially between "white" and "black" Americans. It highlights the realities of rampant racism as incongruent with the values on which America was founded. Through the trials and criticisms faced by key characters, she shows how white supremacy is unfounded and builds the case that African-Americans were unjustly treated with disdain and unfairness.
Before we can question what issues "race" presents, one must ask what race is. The anthropological concept of race is used to distinguish people whose forefathers came from different geographical locations. For example, African-Americans draw their ancestry from African communities and Chinese worldwide...
share common ancestry from China. The differences between race is seen as arbitrary by Harper Lee and is further strengthened by the recent Human Genome Project that shows human beings all share similar ancestry originating from Africa.
To qualify race differences as a difference in skin colour is inadequate as a definition since there are fair-skinned Africans and dark-skinned Caucasians as well. Only when various racial groups are perceived to be treated unequally does "racial inequality" exist. This leads to a plethora of injustices, perpetuated by an inherently biased judicial system and unequal opportunities for the marginalized African-Americans. White supremacy is criticized by Harper Lee as an unfounded and bigoted concept that ran contrary to American values of justice and equality for all.
Her portrayal of Tom Robinson's trial in court reflects the actual case of The Scottsboro Trials that
began on March 25, 1931. There are obvious parallels of time (1930s), place (Alabama), and charges (rape of white women by African-American men). The novel's Atticus Finch and the real-life judge James E. Horton, both acted on behalf of black men on trial in defiance of the racial prejudice shamelessly promoted in society. In the first chapter, a challenge is presented to the readers to distinguish founded fears from unfounded fears by citing Roosevelt's words, "we have nothing to fear except fear itself".This encourages readers to cast aside inherent racial biases and to attribute differences to other factors such as upbringing and strength to character.
This can also be seen from "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience. " This statement is reflective of Harper Lee's belief that what is right is not decided by popularity.In light of race relations in 1930s America, this statement is poignant as a catalyst for readers to debunk "white supremacist" attitudes.
Throughout TKAM, we witness the various effects of racism. This is seen through denied opportunities to the blacks. They are denied jobs and are forced to work as low-wage field workers or as cooks. Their children receive no financial state support in education, forcing them to work as child labourers or attend different schools from the white children, a practice known as "segregation".
They lived in the outskirts of Maycomb, treated as outsiders, not welcomed into the main town. This vicious cycle
perpetuated poverty among the African-Americans, breeding socio-economic inequality as well. The tension of racism is developed and shown to severely impair judgment even in supposedly "fair" court proceedings that merited arguments on the basis of evidence. Thomas "Tom" Robinson works hard despite his physical handicap, depicting him as a responsible and industrious worker in addition to his roles as father and husband to Helen Robinson.
His character is depicted as having only kind intentions when he helped Mayella Ewell "bust the chiffarobe", a laborious task, without expecting any payment. However, he effectively becomes a scapegoat and is implicated by Mayella and Bob Ewell in a criminal charge against him for alleged rape. The trials are marked with a tone of sadness from both the African-American community and Atticus' family when even the supposedly fair judicial system gives in to the disease of racial prejudice. "Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case.
Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed" (page 266). This highlights the inherent flaws of the judicial system that blatantly disregarded the veracity of a man's statement on the groundless basis of racial prejudice. From the juxtaposition of Atticus Finch's family against the small town Maycomb town, Harper Lee proposes that racism is a learned concept which can be debunked. His children are raised to respect Calpurnia as a motherly figure unlike other homes that mistreated their "black" maids.
Atticus' act of chauffeuring her home after work each day depicts a radical reversal of roles between maid and employer, where he respects
her as much as a "white" woman. Notably, having a white man, Atticus Finch, defend Tom Robinson is a revolutionary role never before depicted in American Literature. His job as a lawyer positions him in the eyes of the reader as a person who fights for justice while his experiences outside of the small Alabama town during his university days contribute to him having a larger worldview and hence, a better position for discerning and forming his own opinions on race and racism.It is his "conscience" that drives him to cultivate a strong opposition to racist behavior in his town. This is used to tell readers that a broader worldview is necessary in combating narrow viewpoints that exist in small towns and places where people rarely meet new migrants from other places.
From "Grandma says it's bad enough he lets you run wild, but now he turned out to be a nigger-lover. " (Page 143) and "I'll kill you! " (Page 224) said by Bob Ewell, it relates how Atticus lives up to his conscience but does so at the peril of risking his own life and family's reputation.Having his own sister and nephew vehemently against his decision to defend Tom Robinson shows he pays a price of being scorned for his actions. However, this shows that Atticus' sense of justice was not marred by the rampant racism that existed all around him. This portrayal of Atticus is known as "heroism", where the main protagonist of a story fights against tremendous odds for a deeply held conviction against the tyranny of majority.
Atticus Finch represents a strongly principled, liberal perspective that runs contrary to the
ignorance and prejudice of the white, Southern, small-town community in which he lives.Atticus is convinced that he must instill values of equality in his children, counteracting the racist influence. Lee makes use of several images and allegories throughout the novel to symbolize racial conflict. The children's attitudes about Boo, for example, represent in small scale the foundation of racial prejudice in fear and superstition. The rabid dog that threatens the town can be interpreted as symbolizing the menace of racism. Atticus's shooting of the rabid dog is representative of his skills as an attorney in targeting the racial prejudices of the town.
The central symbol of the novel, the mockingbird, further develops the theme of racial prejudice. For Christmas, Scout and Jem are given air rifles by their father, who warns that, although he considers it fair to shoot other birds, he views it a "sin to kill a mockingbird" because they "don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. " The mockingbird represents victims of oppression in general, and specifically, African-Americans. The unjust trial of Tom Robinson, in which the jury's racial prejudice condemns an innocent man, is symbolically characterized as the shooting of an innocent mockingbird.The concept of justice is presented in TKAM as an antidote to racial prejudice.
As a strongly principled, liberal lawyer who defends a wrongly accused black man, Atticus represents a role model for moral and legal justice. Atticus decides to act based on his own principles of justice in his daily life as seen when Scout declares that he is the same man "at home and on the streets". Harper Lee places Atticus in high esteem
in the eyes of readers, reinforcing that the fight for racial equality takes great courage and conviction.Harper Lee, through TKAM, has managed to lift the veil over people's eyes concerning race relations and the injustices that face different racial groups. TKAM can be seen as a catalyst for readers, young and old in their understanding of injustices that breed in our society.
Her statements about race are timeless and are applicable in the progress of racial equality. "You know the truth, and the truth is this: Some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women - black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. "
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