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Harper Lee’s Treatment of Black People in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

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States, where many people were abducted from Africa, and transported to the southern plantations to work as slaves for the white people.

Around this time in the United States there was a great deal of segregation between different races. Black people were unable to go to public places, which were inhabited by white people, e.g., going to public schools, churches or even using the same water fountain. Black people had to sit at the back of buses and if there were no seats left for white people the black people would either have to give up their seat or get of at the next stop.

There are many examples of segregation, prejudice and discrimination throughout the novel as the black people are portrayed as servants or workers. The black people have their own area to live in, and their own church to worship in.

A point where this is evident is when Calpurnia (the Finch’s maid) invites Jem and Scout to her church one Sunday, and a parishioner named Lulu, demands that the children should not worship at their church. Lulu’s argument was that, white churches are segregated, so why should they welcome ‘whites’ in a black church? When Aunt Alexander (Atticus’ sister) found out that Jem and Scout worshiped in a ‘black’ church, she was very unhappy with this. Later on in the novel scout asks aunt Alexander if she can visit Calpurnia, and her aunt disagrees with the idea straight away, and says ‘you may not,’ this implies Aunt Alexander’s prejudice towards Calpurnia. Harper Lee included sections like this in the novel, to give the reader a glimpse of what black and white people think of each other, it also shows black peoples views of the segregation system.

Another point where this is evident is when Jem, Scout and Dill were at the courthouse during Tom Robinson’s trial, and there were no seats left in the ‘white’ section, so three black men stood up and offered their seats up, so that the white children could be seated.

Another example which shows how Calpurnia was treated unfairly, is when Aunt Alexandra tried to get Atticus to fire Calpurnia, because she didn’t see her as a good influence or a good female role to Jem and Scout. This is very prejudice, because Calpurnia has always been a good motherly role to the children, and treated them as if they were her own children, Calpurnia showed them right from wrong, and disciplined them when necessary. Calpurnia in some way educated them, as when it rained, Calpurnia made Scout copy passages from the Bible. Aunt Alexandra doesn’t see Calpurnia’s true character, she only wishes to see Calpurnia’s colour of skin.

In the novel a black man is put on trial for a crime he clearly did not commit. That man was Tom Robinson; he was also discriminated by Maycomb’s biased community. Tom was found guilty for the very serious crime of rape against Mayella Ewell and her family the Ewells (also known as poor white trash). The guilty verdict was due to a racist, ‘all white’ jury, who never intended to give Tom the benefit of the doubt. Tom was given an unfair trial, and was found guilty, even though the evidence confirmed that he was innocent. The case was purely Black against White, and the novel depicted white winning against black. Tom is a very 2-D character because when you first read the novel you know that he is innocent, there is no indication to hint that Tom might have actually committed the crime. The novel would seem more interesting if there was a twist in it because Tom seems too perfect.

When Tom was in jail and Atticus went to guard him, as he received a tip-off that an angry mob was going to the jail that evening to kill Tom, because he was the black man who allegedly raped a white girl named Mayella Ewell. The mob was a group of men who were willing to take the law into their own hands, just to kill Tom Robinson before the trial; they resemble the Ku Klux Klan, in some manor. This showed an ‘underground’ violence, which emerged before the rape case took place. The incident showed a hatred and a fear of black people, which was about to arise, but was pacified by a child.

The women of Maycomb are very hypocritical. Evidence to prove this, is in chapter 24; where some of the women of Maycomb i.e. Aunt Alexander, Ms Maudie, Mrs. Merriweather etc. were having a missionary meeting. They were saying how saintly it was for a Mr J. Grimes Everett (a missionary) to help ‘Mrunas’ living in the jungle.

‘Oh child those poor Mrunas, living in that jungle with nobody but J. Grimes Everett. Not a white person’ll go near ’em but that saintly J. Grimes Everett.’

‘Out there J. Grimes Everett’s land there’s nothing but sin and squalor.’

In the novel they were praising Mr Everett, for helping those black people who were desperately in need, but as soon as Scout mentions Tom Robinson, their views dramatically change.

‘Excuse me, Mrs Merriweather are you talking about Mayella Ewell’

‘No, child, That Darkys wife. Toms wife’

‘Gertrude, I tell you there’s nothing more distracting than a sulky darky’

One minute, the women are feeling sorry for the black people living in the jungle, by saying that it was ‘saintly’ for Mr Everett to help them. Next minute they are complaining about the own black people in their town.

In the Oxford dictionary the definition of ‘nigger’ is:

“Black English. A. Considered racially offensive as used of people, now freq. avoided in other contexts. Adj. NEGRO. Also (US slang), contemptible, despicable, inferior. B. A member of any dark-skinned people A contemptible or inferior person; a socially or economically disadvantaged person.”

Throughout the novel, black people were labeled as a, ‘nigger’, ‘darkie’ or ‘boy’. The term nigger was used to insult the black people and in some conversations it was used hatefully. Examples where the expression was used in the novel:

“I said come here, nigger, and bust up this chiffarobe for me, I got a nickel for you.”

“Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” “Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.” In this line Atticus stops Scout, from calling black people Niggers because he knew that the word nigger was offensive to the black people at that time. Atticus showed a respect towards black people, unlike most white men, living in Maycomb.

In Maycomb County every black person lives in the bad part of town, also known as the ‘slum.’ Even if they had the money, they wouldn’t have been able to live in an upper class area like the Finches. This is because they were considered as dirty and unsanitary, consequently white people did not want them living next to their houses.

My conclusion is that the black characters in the novel are too idealized. Lee needs to present them in more detail, so we understand their character to the fullest. E.g. Calpurnia is almost like a mother to Jem and Scout, yet we know very little about her past, her private life or her opinions about white characters in the novel. Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white girl he is obviously guiltless, but we don’t know his full history, could he have been accused of rape before? What is going through his mind during the trial?

Despite Lee not knowing every single detail about a black person, She could have researched black people more, to make the black characters seem more realistic, at the moment they seem too flawless and innocent. She has to remember that not all black people are the same, everyone has their faults.

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