To kill a classic novel

I guess I have some re-reading to 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.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in high school. It was during a glut of classic literature in which I devoured as many ‘must-read’ books as I could. No part of the book resonated with me whatsoever, and I put it down feeling a little mystified as to what the big deal was. Perhaps if I had read it and considered the context of what was happening at the time of its publication, it would have meant more to me.

Macon D. is clearly not a fan:

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.

I must admit, my initial reaction to reading this article was to disagree. “It speaks to its time – the anti-racism movement in its contemporary form wasn’t even on the horizon.” While this may be true, we’re still teaching it in schools today as an exemplar of anti-racist fiction. It is most certainly not anti-racist fiction for reasons that Macon outlines:

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

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.

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

Highlighting To Kill a Mockingbird as anti-racist is like calling Tess of the D’Urbervilles* a triumph of feminism (yeah, I made a Thomas Hardy reference – deal with it!). By the time I got to the end of the article, I was firmly in agreement with the conclusion, albeit with one caveat, which I will present here.

Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird or Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn, each of them a stunning example of “aw shucks” racism, should be taught. They should be taught as what they are – signposts on the road to establishing equality. Each of them is a missive from the past that tells us where we once were. They should be taught in their modern context. The racism that Macon (rightly) attributes to the book is not necessarily a fault of the book it’s self. Rather, it is the product of the day in which it was written, and its failings need to be discussed. To Kill a Mockingbird is not the example of racial empowerment I want exemplified – all the power is still held by Atticus Finch and the white judge. Highlight the failings of the book, and where we have to go still now that lynchings aren’t commonplace.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting and deserved re-posting. Read it!

*For those of you who aren’t up on the latest classics of the romantic period, I’ll give you a brief summary. Tess is a peasant. She meets a rich guy. He buys her. She resists his ‘charms’, so he rapes her(?). She gets pregnant, and delivers. The baby dies. She becomes a milkmaid, meets a seemingly nice guy who says he’s in love with her. She tells him what happened. He disowns her. She goes back to the rapist, eventually stabs him, then slinks off and dies. Nobody learns anything. I’m not a big fan of this book either, clearly 😛


  1. says

    What about Bob Dylan’s brave, gutsy and principled stands against injustice towards black people in his very influential music of the early 1960’s?

    He was no “white knight” but well-intentioned people (of all colours) should be recognised for the parts they played. Harper Lee is no exception, despite the legitimate points that Macon makes about the power being with the white folks only in her book.

  2. says

    There was a lot of white support for the black civil rights movement, and abolition, and any number of other causes that have promoted equality. Personally, I think those people don’t get their fair share of attention these days.

    I think the point that Macon was paraphrasing was that the focus of empowerment in this novel was embodied by the white establishment “giving” rights to the poor downtrodden black folks out of the goodness of their hearts. This similarly distorts the reality of the struggle, just in the opposite way – perpetuating the underlying problem.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Pat Dixon says

    The thing is, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harper Lee were writing somewhat heroic ‘socially conscious’ literature, trying to move society to sympathy for its victims. They were not distorting “the reality of the struggle” — they were part of it, for ‘the struggle’ had barely begun. For some of that historic period, probably most black people still believed it was “uppity” to want things to change. (Just as a lot of women in the sixties thought we feminists were ‘masculine’ or ‘queer’! –after all, we wanted to wear pants to the office!)
    And I’ll bet the only white folks today who “think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago” are those who don’t pay attention – and they probably never read To Kill a Mockingbird anyway(or found it too slow and boring). It was also pretty good literature that still has to be defended in the south.
    If we are to judge literature of the past by today’s standards, shall we dump it, or use it to enrich the teaching of history by making it more available to the imagination?

  4. says


    I think we should be teaching it, but teaching it according to its contemporary context. Highlight what the author was trying to do, highlight where the author’s work fails to address certain issues. It’s not Lee’s fault that she wasn’t psychic about how the struggle would develop, but we need to acknowledge that when we teach the book.

    You couldn’t be more wrong about the type of white people that think that racism isn’t a problem any more. Either that, or the number who aren’t paying attention is pretty massive.

  5. Daniel says

    I don’t understand the three points that make the novel “racist”.

    1. I think the author Macon references reads far too much into the mockingbird symbol.

    2. I totally disagree. First – who’s to say there is no basis in reality for Finch? Surely there existed some men and women like him. Even if not, isn’t it a staple of literature to create such heroes? Finch may be presented as “perfect”, but this is not to say that Lee or any readers believe themselves or others to be like him. He provides a moral goal or example.

    Rather than distracting from the racism inherent in most white folks at the time, I think he simply provides a contrast to it. I think he makes the evil even more apparent in the behavior of the town’s white population.

    3. This book focuses on one event in one community. There is little back story, but we can expect that the black community here has experienced similar or worse oppression before Tom’s case. Their passiveness is not necessarily a reflection on black America, but even so, how do we know it was not typical?

    Finally, I find it a bit offensive that she claims that simply the fact that the novel is “white centered” is racist. The point of the novel is to tell of the intersection of a white man, with the ability and willingness to do so, to aid a black man in peril.

  6. says

    I share your assessment of point #1, but I forget why the book is titled this way. If the mockingbird is described in the way Macon outlines somewhere in the book, it’s a fair comparison.

    As regards point #2, the way I read this point is that Atticus Finch was not mirrored in reality by the general experience of people at the time. There were no (or virtually no) Atticus Finches in the small towns of the south, and the book does a poor job of reflecting reality. It is fiction, so your point is taken.

    Your comment “how do we know it was not typical” is exactly why the focus of the book is racist. That was emphatically not the reality at the time. There was strong black resistance, strong political and social movement, and active engagement with the white community. That is reflected exactly nowhere in the book. Failing to reflect that paints a picture of black people passively waiting for white people to magnanimously hand us human rights out of the goodness of their hearts. Completely inaccurate, and undeniably racist.

    It’s like fairy tales where the princess is helpless alone in whatever predicament she happens to be in, and waits passively for her big, strong rescuer to overcome the odds and take her away. The reality was that the princess was getting her ass kicked, kicking a little ass herself, and lighting a fire under the hero to get him to move his ass. Failure to reflect that in the book is not necessarily Lee’s fault (as I said), but failure to reflect that in the modern teaching of the book is definitely unacceptable.

    Thanks for your comment!

  7. Daniel says

    I agree that the passiveness expressed in the novel probably was not typical, though I doubt the activism you describe existed in all communities. I have a hard time swallowing the idea that it is “racist”, however. Lee’s novel was about personal experiences, and if the manner in which she described Tom’s family and the black community reflected her experience, I find no fault with it.
    At the same time, I’m entirely sympathetic with the offense taken at her portrayal, especially for those who know the active role taken by many blacks to fight oppression.

  8. says

    And I think that’s the crux of it for me – it’s not necessarily a failure of the novel unless it is taught to people as an example of good anti-racist literature. It’s not; it’s fiction. Like all fiction there are positive things to take away, but it has to be considered in a modern context. We didn’t study it in school, so it’s hard for me to critique the teaching of it. I just found it to be an interesting angle that I hadn’t considered before.

  9. Ken A says

    Unbelievable! this is what comes of PC run amok. Stop searching for something to whine about. Look at it in the context of the 1930s from the memory of a young child which is what the story was. Good grief, take a chill pill or you’re gonna ruin alot of good things for yourself.

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