Inspired by Tanya Landman’s talk: Other Men’s Shoes – is To Kill A Mockingbird racist?
Tanya Landman is the festival’s writer in residence. Her talk: Other Men’s Shoes – is To Kill A Mockingbird racist? is free for 15+ and parents and teachers on Wednesday 19th October 5pm-6pm at the University of Exeter’s St Luke’s Campas G18
By Rosie Tanner
The Importance of Being Vital: Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so Influential?
On July 11, 1960, one of the most phenomenal works of literature ever written was released into the world.
The book was called To Kill a Mockingbird, and its author, Harper Lee, was not prepared for the response it would gain. At the time of publishing, it was a very bold sort of novel to be buying and selling, reading and enjoying. After all, when we look back on the 1960s, we’re not exactly thinking about how fantastically equal everyone was, especially when it came to something as trivial as the colour of someone’s skin.
Racism still ruled the world, walking proud and tall amongst the segregated citizens of what humanity always likes to view as a civilised planet. A black person was not seen as a person at all, but rather, a sub-human being, something less than human. The ’50s and ’60s was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, when this vile and disgusting view of human beings, this judgement of their skin colour, was challenged by people who had had enough of being treated like animals. Life was tense, and the future was unknown.
With all this in mind, you can understand how controversial a book like To Kill a Mockingbird would have been, in a time of such prejudice. So how on earth did such a contentious novel get to the point it is today – critically acclaimed, analysed by GCSE and A Level students, applauded for its amazing ability to deal with such sensitive themes in such a brilliant way? How did it become so loved?
Well, the answer lies in the book itself. Readers are immediately drawn into Harper Lee’s poetic world, where the subject of racism is dealt with face-on, without any reserve or censorship. Lee chooses to use the narrative of a child, in this case, Scout, to show how racism is taught, and how an innocent child who does not understand how the world works and why attempts to discover why people view people as they do. Scout’s innocence and naivete is not only heart-warming and heart-breaking all at the same time, but it is a beautiful, poetic way of showing the perspective of someone who is still trying to find their place, and therefore the places of others, in this big, bad world. Scout is trying to work out how everything works; she’s trying to find out what life is, and what happens within a lifetime to make it so worth fighting for. Through Scout’s eyes, we see the world of the 1960s in a completely different light, as a child asks a million questions, and the adults have no way of answering. Harper Lee breaks the structure of the society she lived in at the time down to the ground, showing a charming, witty little girl demanding answers to questions no one has ever dared ask.
In a fashion similar to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, Harper Lee uses something as simple as a child who does not understand to show the true, disgusting nature of prejudice such as racism. She takes something never questioned, such as the quizzical nature of young children such as Scout or Bruno, and transforms it into a literary device through which to ask a centuries-old question:
“Why are these people different to us, and why do we hate them for being different?”
But what exactly is this book about? To Kill a Mockingbird follows the story of a little girl, Scout, who is introduced to racism through her lawyer father, Atticus Finch. When a black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, Atticus takes on the case and chooses to defend Tom Robinson in court. This drastic decision completely changes the lives of his children, Jem and Scout, who are then faced with cruel bullying at the hands of other children, and have to watch as their father is intimidated by members of the community who ambush him with racist slurs and other forms of verbal abuse, attempting to frighten him into surrendering the case. This court case is used to showcase the racism of their town, Maycomb, and as it escalates and ends, the Finch family is forced to face the consequences of Atticus’s determined bid to save the life of an innocent black man, accused just for the colour of his skin.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an absolutely beautiful tale which not only explores racism and why every bit of it is completely wrong, but also explores childhood, growing up, and accepting people for who they are instead of what they seem. Harper Lee introduces a contrast to Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, a recluse who locks himself away in the Radley house, and becomes the centre of children’s wildest imaginations and nightmares. Scout in particular indulges in several horror stories surrounding Boo Radley and why he never leaves his house; when he is actually introduced, however, at the very end of the novel, Scout learns that he is a normal man, and not a strange ghoulish creature.
The judgement with which Boo Radley is faced is similar to the prejudices Tom Robinson, and by extension, the Finches, faces. Harper Lee uses the contrast of the colours of their skin – a white man and a black man, both unfairly judged – in order to highlight the lack of differences between the two. She takes two characters, pushes them side by side, and tells her audience, “Look at this – these men are the same, and are human beings regardless of their race.”
This is just one of many examples of what makes this book so brilliant: the fact that everybody in this novel is an individual, set apart from every other character, no matter what colour their skin is. With its fantastic use of imagery and wording, including the famous “mockingbird” quote for which the novel is named, it’s no wonder that To Kill a Mockingbird is so critically acclaimed today. Not only is it ground-breaking alone, but this book became the foundation on which many other books have been written. Censorship was challenged; controversy was ignored. And that, arguably, is why so many books today are so much more open, and freedom of speech has leaped into fiction.
By Kira Taylor @kirataylor15
To Kill A Mockingbird – through a child’s eyes
When was the last time you thought a child was cleverer than you?
Listening to children isn’t something we consider normal. In fact, we often expect it to be the other way around – children listening to adults. We all assume that, the older we are, the more we know.