Why don't more people recognize that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is white apologist crap?

In all my life, I’ve met only a single black person who actually liked this book, and the longer I live, the more I understand why. The novel presents white racism the way white people want to think of it, not the way it actually was. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be an archetype for the Jim Crow South, but that is how a lot of people think of it (that I’ve met, anyway) and I find that confounding.

In the world of the novel:
The town is made up of lovable eccentrics and essentially good-hearted people. The most virulent racists are the nasty, white-trash people who live out on the edge of town. A group of townspeople get together to lynch the accused, and this crowd is shamed into going home by Scout’s innocence and purity. The best lawyer in town has volunteered to represent the accused in the name of justice, and does such a good job that when he walks out of the courtroom, the black people observing stand up out of respect. The white-trash father of the accuser tries to harm this justice-serving lawyer, and is killed by a mentally disturbed eccentric. The local lawman decides to do nothing about this, and it is subtly suggested that some kind of rough justice was done, because of who the victim was and the nature of his killer.

Don’t make me laugh.

In reality, the sheriff would’ve been LEADING the charge to lynch John Robinson (law enforcement contributed plenty of Klan members), and kids like Scout would’ve either cheered them on or stood and watched. This is not hyperbole; pictures of children posing with adults under the hanging bodies of lynching victims are just a google search away. Note that in almost all such photos the people are not the white trash from the edge of town, but average, middle-class people. Racism was not some “low brow” activity; it was endemic. There’d be no real trial with evidence and witnesses, and even if there was any desire to hold one no lawyer in town would be willing to act as defense counsel and take the job seriously, because they valued their careers. And Boo Radley? Yeah, he’d be stuck in a state institution for life, a place built and maintained specifically FOR people like him

Whew! Felt good to get that out.

good post well needed!

I concur. The function of TKAM is to give Nice White Person a white person they can identify with–we can watch it and feel like we’d have been Atticus.

In reality, no one in the South was willing to be Atticus. The Scottsboro Boys were defended in court by a Jewish lawyer from New York whose fees were paid by the American Communist Party. Transforming that into Atticus Finch is a preposterous act of whitewashing.

The jury that convicted Tom Robinson was not “white trash” as the OP suggests.

Scout described the jury as “[s]unburned, lanky, they seemed to be all farmers, but this was natural: townsfolk rarely sat on juries, they were either struck or excused."

That describes a relatively few people in the novel, mostly acquaintances and relatives of Scout’s family.

Actually the intended victim was Scout, not her father.

I would not assume that kids are always to blame for the malevolent acts of their parents. As for “white trash” (you do love that phrase :dubious:), one factor which compounded racial hatred was economic stresses (lynchings tended to increase during hard times), so there was added motivation for poorer whites to get rid of blacks seen as competition for resources (egged on to be sure by civic leaders).

I’m not sure how a novel about virulent racism in the deep South, the failure or inability of a few decent people to overcome it, and the violent death of a falsely accused black man counts as “white apologism”. For its time, it made a pretty bold statement.

Glad you feel better :). I think your take is pretty reasonable, though I do still love the book.

It was fiction, but it was also at least partly autobiographical. To whit:

Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was an attorney, similar to Atticus Finch, and in 1919, he defended two black men accused of murder. After they were convicted, hanged and mutilated, he never tried another criminal case. Lee’s father was also the editor and publisher of the Monroeville newspaper. Although more of a proponent of racial segregation than Atticus, he gradually became more liberal in his later years.

Essentially Harper Lee wrote an idealized version of her father and town as seen through a child’s eyes. And that last I think is the important part. It has warts, but in the end is still an optimistic vision.

Interestingly enough the “sequel”( it was actually her original version )she worked on, with the main character returning to the family home as an adult, is apparently a lot more conflicted and scathing. The adult Scout discovers her father is rather more bigoted than she had remembered from childhood. She ends up furious and partially disillusioned. By all accounts it is not really a good or finished book. But it represents a different, more adult take on her hometown. Harper Lee had no illusions, I think.

Yeah. Don’t forget the era it was published. Today it may be a whitewashed racism apology, but at the time that was Not Done.

That’s fascinating! I had no idea TKAM was disliked by black Americans. Makes sense.
The last time I talked to anyone about that book was just over three years ago, when one of my co-workers told me she was naming her son-to-be “Atticus.” She loved TKAM. (Twenty-something white woman.)

The controversial quasi-sequel Go Set a Watchman – which presented Mr. Finch in a much less favorable light, closer to Lee’s actual father (see Tamerlane above) – was released just a month or so after little Atticus was born.
His mom took it in stride, by the way. Said something about there always being a dark side to history or the like. Good for her.

Well, it was fiction, not journalism, after all.

I agree that the novel depicted racism as a much lesser problem than it was in reality.

The novel suggested that racism was something that only a handful of low-class white people were involved in and the majority of good white people disapproved of it. Which is nonsense; if the majority of white people had really disapproved of racism, it wouldn’t have been allowed to exist.

The real attitude seems to have been the majority of white people supported racism. They just didn’t want to get their hand dirty. They regarded racism the way they regarded manual labor; a unpleasant necessity that was best handled by poor people.

I said nothing about the jury; I was describing the family of the girl that accused Tom Robinson of rape. And if Lee doesn’t use the term “white trash” she might as well have. It is implied in a million subtle ways.

Actually, there are almost no characters who aren’t relatives or acquaintances of Scout or her family. The story is seen through her eyes, after all.

While I could’ve worded this a bit more clearly, I don’t think anyone could say that a man would not feel harmed by the murder of his young children.

No … but they sure don’t restrain adults in any way either.

How is their motivation important? What difference does that make to all the people they murdered, and their families/descendants? Yeah, times get tough all over … “let’s kill someone!” is not a universal–or even common–response. That’s why the :dubious: is just as strong over here.

I do not believe the novel is about actual racism. Intentionally or not (I want to give Harper Lee some room for sincere intent, however flawed the outcome) it uses an alternate-reality version of racism as scenery. I think Manda JO put it well:

As Icarus mentions, it was fiction. But to me, the point of the novel was not exactly a whitewash.

Tom Robinson, the accused black guy, is pretty obviously innocent. Finch makes that painfully clear. But he is convicted anyway. The racism of the whole town is that they are willing to sacrifice someone clearly innocent and well-liked, rather than give up the myth of white superiority (and the purity of white Southern women). That was the point of the earlier anecdote that Scout tells about the white-trash child who only shows up the first day of school. Some people are disposable, in service of how things have always been. “The truth is not in the Delafields”, any white person is to be believed over any black person, some children are disposable. Because the cost of giving all that up destroys the whole settled order of things.

That’s the tragedy of the conclusion. The sheriff is willing to pretend that “Tom Ewell fell on his knife”. Everybody knows it isn’t true - Boo Radley stabbed him. But Tom Ewell is defined as disposable, so that everyone can go on pretending that nothing is wrong, and Boo Radley doesn’t exist, and that things are better now because one nasty racist is dead - not because he threatened Tom Robinson, but because he attacked a white boy.

Things are not better between the races in the town. They have just agreed to sweep it under the rug, again.


For those of us who didn’t grow up in that era, these depictions of racism in fiction often form the basis of our “reality” of what we think happened. It makes it much easier to think that only a fringe part of society was racist to the point of lynchings and cross burnings. It makes it easier for each of us to think that we wouldn’t be racist back then, when the reality is harder to face. The reality is that racism was a much more prevalent. It’s pretty likely that many of us would have been racist if we had grown up at that time.

One thing that brought this home to me was seeing the photos of lynchings in conjunction with the recent memorial to lynching victims. All this time I thought they were perpetrated by a bunch of thugs, which was not the case at all. Almost the whole town showed up, dressed up in nice clothes and with smiles on their face. The victims would sometimes be taken straight from the courtroom after their hasty trial and guilty verdict to a hanging tree. Along the way, people would taunt and beat the victim. Rather than recoiling in horror, much of the town’s citizens were eager to join in. The reality was too horrible to contemplate, and very different than what was presented in TKAM.

TKAM is a great book, but I think it in schools it needs to be accompanied with a discussion of what racism was actually like at that time.

Is it fair to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is good fiction but bad history?

Good points.

Ok, the boos is often read by high school students. What would you tell them about the book?

As much as say Huckleberry Finn which was quite progressive for its era but not by modern standards.

It’s been a while since I’ve read TKAM, but I don’t think this is accurate. Scout’s Aunt Alexandra, Miss Stephanie Crawford, and most of the rest of the middle-class ladies’ luncheon crowd are portrayed as openly racist, though in a genteel way; Miss Maudie is the only exception. Scout’s elementary school teacher also endorses racism at home (while condemning anti-Semitism abroad).

To Kill a Mockingbird is a iterative in a step in the correct direction and not an end state nor a description of an ideal state.

Irrespective of the authors intents it simply would have been dismissed our unread if it directly attacked racists vs a less direct condemnation of racism.

Even almost 60 years later racism is a difficult topic and the majority of white Americans cannot have even minor discussion on the topic without overreacting with anger, fear, and guilt.

Even today the real attitude seems to be majority of white people support racism, even if that support is merely due to their lack of emotional tools to have real dialog on the subject. Even if their support of racism is merely due to complacency and/or denial, their inaction still perpetuates the effects and is support.

I think it is unrealistic to expect a piece of literature to become popular while addressing all of the problems at once even today.

I doubt that further progress and condemnations like Blazing Saddles would have been been possible without these earlier incremental steps.

Mod Hat On

Better suited for Cafe Society.

Some of the characters in the book are not racist: This is true. And doubtless it was also true in even the worst times and places in the Jim Crow South. But enough people are still racist enough that they can still condemn a clearly innocent man to death, just because it’s easier to pin a crime on him than on the obvious real criminal. And that’s true even though the obvious real criminal is literally the most despised white man in the county. That doesn’t sound like a whitewash to me.

I have to agree with rat avatar. Lee intended to provide a positive and badly needed message, and to depict positive role models.

The intent was clearly not to provide a realistic depiction of conditions in the South, but if she had nobody would have read the damned thing… And that would not have helped anyone, at all.

The fact that the accused was found guilty even after Atticus proves his innocence should be evidence that the story isn’t THAT kind to white people.