Amid the excitement following the announcement of the forthcoming publication of a second novel by Harper Lee, the author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a work featuring the return of an adult Scout Finch to her hometown, the most prominent initial reaction was a sentimental outpouring of love for a book (and movie) that many readers say gave them their first introduction to the struggle for racial justice. Lost in the excited flurry of response is the unexpected relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird to current tensions throughout the country—in Ferguson, Oakland, New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, and many other communities—regarding "hate violence," structural racism, police violence, and a persistent culture of antiblackness in American society.
In this excerpt from our new book, Considering Hate: Violence, Justice, and Goodness in American Culture and Politics, we take a fresh, critical look at the way in which Mockingbird frames its discussion of racial violence and responsibility for both perpetrating and dismantling it.
THE DEATH OF TOM ROBINSON
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most heralded American stories of the twentieth century. Harper Lee’s novel won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize and has since sold more than thirty million copies. Many white people remember Mockingbird as the story that first opened their eyes to the terrible wrongs of racial injustice. Cultural and political scholars have examined the novel’s representations of the racial dynamics and community life of fictional Maycomb, Alabama, and its exploration of the relation of social norms to questions of justice.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most regularly assigned books in school classrooms; it is also frequently banned from school libraries. The indictments, from both white and black people, progressives and conservatives, include: offensive themes and objectionable language; inappropriate sexual references to rape and incest; degrading portrayals of African Americans and people with cognitive disabilities; and incitements to race hatred against white people.
Lee’s story was made into an acclaimed 1962 Academy Award–winning film. A near-the-top perennial on the American Film Institute’s lists of the one hundred greatest and most inspiring movies, To Kill a Mockingbird is the coming-of-age story of Scout Finch, a young white girl, in the segregated South during the Great Depression, and the role that two men play in expanding her moral awareness. One of them is her mysterious and seldom-seen neighbor Boo Radley. The other is her father, Atticus Finch, a widower, who takes on the unpopular task of defending Tom Robinson, an apparently kind and humble black man falsely charged with the rape of a white woman.
Political and cultural debates about the merits and meaning of the novel and film have occurred for years. Mockingbird is a living thing, a creative work that has no fixed meaning in the public imagination. Imagination itself is a living thing as well. It is capable of shrinking and going stale, seeking only the comforting certainty of what readers already believe. Conversely, it can awaken new connections and fresh ways to revisit old dilemmas. Mockingbird holds new and unexpected relevance for understanding and educating about the necessity of moving beyond the hate frame.
In 1990, writing about whiteness and the literary imagination, Toni Morrison referred to the “strategic use of black characters to define the goals and enhance the qualities of white characters” in stories created by white writers, and noted how these writers manipulate imaginative encounters with black characters “as a means of meditation—both safe and risky—on one’s own humanity.”
The reader of Mockingbird knows almost nothing about Tom Robinson apart from the limited interactions he has with white people in response to the accusation against him. Robinson is innocent of the charges. But Mockingbird is really a story about white people and Robinson exists to define the ethics and consciences of the white characters.
Novelist Thomas Mallon suggests that Lee’s story “requires Tom Robinson’s conviction as surely as the town itself does. Without it, the reader will not have the chance, like the Negroes in the balcony, to stand up and salute Atticus’s nobly futile defense.” Tom Robinson does not exist on his own terms; he serves to illuminate the exemplary moral goodness of Atticus Finch. Robinson also functions as a human Rorschach test by which other white people are judged as good or bigoted. It is a crude measurement.
Finch’s neighbor Miss Maudie, Sheriff Heck Tate, and Finch’s children are also good white people. They disapprove of Bob Ewell, recognize the injustice to Tom Robinson, believe that everyone deserves a fair trial, and oppose lynching.
In contrast to these good white people are poor, uneducated whites represented as the primary purveyors of racism. They make false accusations against honest black people and attempt to form a lynch mob. Bob Ewell, the father, and real rapist, of Mayella, the woman whom Robinson purportedly assaulted, is the archetypal embodiment of evil. His greatest sin, however, is to threaten white children. Walter Cunningham, a poor farmer, represents a less toxic white man who helps instigate the lynch mob. Basically a good and decent man, he is momentarily swept up in the mob’s force until he is shamed back into his right mind by Scout’s spontaneous, simple words.
The liberal imagination frequently holds that violent racism is the exclusive province of ignorant bigots. This theme resonates throughout Mockingbird. It creates moral distance for white audiences, allowing them to bond around recognition of individual acts of racism and to condemn them. But this viewpoint never confronts more complicated expressions of racism and related questions of culpability.
When the incipient lynch mob has broken up, Atticus tells the children that it wasn’t really a violent gang: “Those were our friends.” He is right: ordinary people in unremarkable communities have always made up lynch mobs. Yet Finch goes on to dismiss the Klan as a group whose heyday has come and gone and no longer threatens anyone in Maycomb. In the 1930s world of Mockingbird, the suggestion remains that as long as Bob Ewell is dead and Atticus Finch keeps watch over his children, the mob will never form again.
Tom Robinson is dead as well, killed by law enforcement officers as he tries to escape. He dies because he doesn’t believe Atticus Finch’s ludicrous belief that he would have a good chance on appeal. A man falsely accused, he must be shot dead to serve the story, even as law enforcement lies about who killed Bob Ewell so that Boo Radley, a white man, also essentially innocent, can go free.
Atticus Finch, Miss Maudie, Aunt Alexandria, Heck Tate, and the white children take note of Tom Robinson’s death, their lives intact. Robinson’s widow and children and Maycomb’s entire black community are left to fend for themselves in a Jim Crow society where legal and extralegal violence blend seamlessly.
To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classic because of these messages. Historically, of course, as the book ends and the final film credits roll, the mob continues to form.
From 1882 to 1968, an estimated 4,700 people were lynched in the United States, most of whom were black men. It was an extralegal form of execution openly or tacitly supported by local law enforcement. Lynching was a form of popularly supported, community-based violence designed to intimidate black people and keep them in their place. Often staged as public spectacles, the killings galvanized the civic imagination and carried enduring cultural force.
School officials sometimes canceled or delayed classes so students could attend the murder, or at least view its final result. The involvement of religious leaders, public officials, and community members was documented by Ida B. Wells, journalist and organizer who labored relentlessly in the late nineteenth century to mobilize opposition to lynching.
Intervention or opposition by authorities was rare. Photographers and editorial cartoonists memorialized lynching; many of the popular images that document the horror were featured on postcards. Theologian James H. Cone notes the profound symbolic resonance of both the Christian cross and the lynching tree for many African Americans:
One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists have explored the symbolic connections.
The United States has still not explored those symbolic connections, historically, culturally, educationally, or politically, nor begun to come to terms with the magnitude of violence inflicted. Most people do not know how often those who were lynched were first stripped, raped or sodomized, whipped, castrated, and mutilated as part of a ritual of community cleansing that possessed an almost religious significance.
The mob that remains alive after Mockingbird ends goes on to assassinate black leaders, bomb churches, and murder children. Most of the people who do these things are not stereotypical rednecks. In Carry Me Home, an account of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, Diane McWhorter, who is white, charts the collusion of city leaders in resisting, too often violently, racial justice activism.
Mob mentality always reappears in a different form. It may be labeled a hate crime or seen in the appalling number of incidents in which police kill unarmed men of color. Sometimes the mob is found in homes. In the predawn hours of a November morning in 2013, a young black woman, nineteen-year-old Renisha McBride, who has been in a car accident and is bleeding and disoriented, knocks on the door of a Dearborn Heights, Michigan residence. Standing fewer than two feet away, the homeowner who opens the door shoots her in the face.
In 1962 Lillian Smith wrote that a mob isn’t determined by the size of the crowd, because it is a state of mind that wants to hurt somebody. “Two or three people, even one can become a mob,” she writes. Describing the white people who targeted Charlayne Hunter, one of the first two black students admitted to the University of Georgia in Athens, Smith argues they were behaving symbolically:
Did those students who threw stones at [her] hate the girl as a real individual? Did they know her? Had they ever talked to her? No. But she had come into their lives and her presence had become a profound threat to them. Now how was she threatening them? I can understand it only in this way: Charlayne Hunter, whom they did not know, was threatening them because she had become a ghost.…This young freshman had without knowing it become Someone who stands for Something Else. Suddenly she was a symbol of images, impulses, feelings, memories they dreaded; she was the ghost who embodies these dreads.
What people seek to exclude or protect themselves against comes to define what they mean by justice. This in turn reinforces strategies of inclusion and exclusion—and the boundaries they establish. Often those boundaries constitute moral and ethical catastrophe.
Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski are coauthors of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics.
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com.
Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he most recently coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.