African American Stereotyping in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The struggle against stereotyping of the African American citizens is one of the central motifs in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The genre of the novel is often defined as an anti-racist liberal fantasy, and this definition reveals the authors’ intentions to challenge the accustomed views of the inferiority of African Americans which were held by the vast majority of Americans in the south. The perspective chosen by the author represents racism as an infectious disease contaminating the minds and souls of the vast majority of the white citizens of Maycomb who treat the blacks as less than human, whereas Atticus Finch is one of a few characters who try to challenge the common stereotypes and show that all individuals should be treated equally despite their race or other signs of ‘differentness’.
The novel constructs racism as a contagious disease that infects nearly everyone in Maycomb society. Even those characters who might be not racists themselves cannot be absolutely free of racial stereotyping, because their entire lives are constrained by it. To represent racism as a disease, Lee connects the upcoming trial with the episode with a mad dog, which symbolizes the society poisoned with hatred. The trial itself clearly demonstrates the devastating effects which racism had on all layers of Maycomb society. The attempt to lynch the innocent Tom Robinson is the culmination of the scene and the evidence of the terrible situation in the community. The marginalization of the black population and their dehumanization has become a part of the societal code. Atticus Finch is the attorney who defends Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus emphasizes the racial discrimination of the blacks as the main reason for the wrong accusation. The societal rules prohibited relations between black and white citizens, especially between black males and white females. According to a generally accepted stereotype, the blacks desire white women and thus they are not to be trusted around white women. Atticus Finch points out at the injustice of this unreasonable claim, saying in his final speech: ‘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.’ Despite the arguments offered by Atticus Finch, a word of the two white men wins over a word of a black man. The juries are infected with racism and blinded by their bias.
The black community is portrayed as a separate group within Maycomb, idealized and contrasted to the white community. All the black characters of the novel are depicted as admirable and innocent. Whereas this idealization of all African Americans is obvious exaggeration, this contrast is necessary for emphasizing the negative side of discrimination and making the crimes against the blacks look even worse. By contrast to the white community, the blacks are closely related with each other. When Tom Robinson is arrested, the minister Zeebo asks other African Americans to make donations to help Tom’s family survive. Another important characteristic showing the best side of the black community is their attitude to religion and God. The author mentions that all African Americans dress smartly and attend church, which makes them even closer connected. At the same time, the whites use the church of the African Americans as a place for gambling. This peculiar detail clearly shows the discrimination of the black community and disrespect of the African Americans. It’s possible to assume that the choice of the place for gambling is intentional and meant to hurt the feelings of the blacks who are dehumanized and referred to as less than humans. On the other hand, the religious feelings of the white citizens of Maycomb are not that strong, thus consequently, it’s hard for them to understand the feelings of others. The contrast created by the author between the religiosity of the blacks and lack of spirituality of the whites, as well as support of each other in blacks and discrimination of anyone on the basis of ‘differentness’ in the whites idealizes the African Americans and makes their discrimination look even worse.
The representatives of the black community are like mockingbirds – innocent and law abiding, but the whites ‘shoot’ them, discriminating and treating them badly. Atticus Finch tries to explain his kids that all individuals are equal, despite their skin color or any other peculiarities. Unlike the juries at court, with his kids Atticus’ attempts are successful and his kids are growing kind and understanding. At the same time, the moments in which Atticus explains Scout that even certain racist language can be offensive and Scout hardly understands what he means clearly demonstrate that Maycomb society is infected with racism. In other words, since their childhood, kids see the discrimination and get used to it, perceiving the existing state of affairs as a norm, which doesn’t require any changes. The dialogues of the novel use the word ‘nigger’ many times which is a way in which the author indicates the racist attitudes of many characters. In that regard, Atticus and later on his kids as well, are rebels challenging the discriminative nature of the white community and the humiliated position of the blacks. Even though their fight with the societal norms makes Finches look as ‘different’ and isolates them from the rest of the community, their struggle is based on principles of justice and humaneness and thus it has positive impact on personal development of these characters.
The novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a manifest of anti-racist struggle of an individual in a white-dominated community. The author depicts the black characters as innocent as mockingbirds – law abiding and God-loving, which makes their discrimination look even worse. The attempts of Atticus Finch and his kids to persuade others that people should not be judged by their skin color isolate them in their community, which is the additional proof of intolerance of the white community to any signs of differentness, which is broader than discrimination based on race or ethnicity only.