Every time I read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), I’m reminded of the book’s problematic nature. Why do we continue to put so much stock in Lee’s novel, teaching it in high schools across the nation? Alice Randall points out the problems within Lee’s novel and states, “Let’s be clear: “To Kill a Mockingbird” is not a children’s book. It is an adult fairy tale, that is often read by children in wildly different — and sometimes profoundly damaging — ways.” She continues by noting Tom Robinson’s lack of agency, the use of derogatory terms, and the main crux of the novel, Mayella Ewell’s lies about her rape.
My daughter will read To Kill A Mockingbird this year, and I have told her, again and again, that it is not the be all end all book on race. However, after reading it again over the past few days, I’m starting to see some aspects that we need to discuss, especially in relation to someone like Lillian Smith. In many ways, Lee is groping to work through the myths that have seeped deep into the souls of white Southerners and whites around the globe. The novel is, to quote Michał Choiński who uses this term when talking about Smith, engaging with our own “internal lobotomy,” working to separate ourselves from the poisonous umbilical cord that tethers us to constructed myths of the past.
Smith opens Killers of the Dream (1949) with the image of the ghosts that haunt the landscape and the children. She writes, “Even its children knew that the South was in trouble. No one had to tell them; no words said aloud. To them, it was a vague thing weaving in and out of their play, like a ghost haunting an old graveyard or whispers after the household sleeps–fleeting mystery, vague menace to which each responded in his own way.” The continued specter of racism and suppression stalks through the pages of To Kill A Mockingbird, and numerous characters express its presence.
After the trial, Scout, Jem, and Dill go to Miss Maudie’s house for cake. Miss Maudie tells them, “[T]here are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.” Jem dismisses her observation, and Miss Maudie continues by stating, “We’re the safest folks in the world. . . . We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.”
Miss Maudie, along with others, defers her own action onto Atticus. Her complicity with the system shows that she is intricately entangled within it. She is who Scout could be when she grows up, a woman who knows what is right but refuses to act in the right manner. She is what Smith would call a “good” person. She doesn’t accost anyone. She doesn’t lynch anyone. She doesn’t cause blatant terrorism. Yet, she condones such actions through her inaction.
Smith, in “Putting Away Childish Things” (1943), called out such inaction, stating that “good” people
We, who call ourselves ‘good’ people, the intelligent, even the wise, accept without protest the spiritual lynching of Negroes which goes on around us daily, in every town, every city, every part of our nation. We accept the quiet killing of self-esteem, the persistent smothering of hope and pride, the deep bruises given the egos of young Negro children; the never-ceasing humiliations which Jim Crow imposes upon human beings who are not white. We willingly say—almost all southerners and many northerners say— that segregation can not be abolished; whatever is done ‘for’ the Negro must be done under the very system which lynches his spirit and mind every day he is under it.
For most of us are still thinking and feeling as white people. Most of us still want the priorities which we have under the White Supremacy system and we fear when segregation goes our priorities will go with it. Most of us are incapable–having calloused our imaginations with the daily rubbing of one stereotype against another–of realizing what we are saying when we say calmly that these things must be changed very slowly . . .
Miss Maudie, and those like her, do not want to lose their privilege. They know that the trial was a sham and that Tom Robinson didn’t do anything wrong. They are more than willing to have Atticus fight for Tom’s freedom because they do not have to be on the front lines arguing for equality and placing their priorities on the back burner.
Boo Radley embodies the paradox of knowing right from wrong, the warring ideals of a Christian faith that preaches equality and a church that preaches segregation, the warring ideals of wanting to uphold the ideals of democracy and a fear of losing ones priorities. Radley exists as an image of this internal psychological struggle. He exists apart from Scout, Jem, and Dill, but he remains like them. He is that paradox. He cannot function in a world that maintains white supremacy.
If the Gothic exposes the conservative impulses of our subconscious fears, then Boo Radley exposes the stunted growth that occurs when one is indoctrinated within a racist society. He is childlike, and Scout notes his whiteness, a whiteness that makes him appear ghost like. Scout describes him by saying, “His face was as white as his hands, but for a shadow on his jutting chin. His cheeks were thin to hollowness; his mouth was wide; there were shallow, almost delicate indentations at his temples, and his gray eyes were so colorless I though he was blind. His hair was dead and thin, almost feathery on top of his head.”
Radley’s appearance links him to whiteness. His reclusive nature links him to Scout, Jem, and Dill. He cannot exist in a society with individuals like Miss Maudie. He exists as the culmination of Scout’s and Jem’s questioning. If they push back against the internal “visceral feelings,” borrowing a term from Frank Yerby, then they will not find a place within Maycomb society. They will become relegated to ghost like figures, existing on the margins, in the heads of some like Miss Maudie, but never emerging fully into the open.
This is still something I am thinking through, so I know that these thoughts are a little scattered. Even so, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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