One of the reasons that Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is considered an American classic surely consists of the fact that its key theme of racial injustice continues to strike a chord with the fundamental nature of American life and society. This sample book report will explore the theme of racial injustice in the novel, as well as tie this theme into concerns that are presently active in contemporary society.
Overview of To Kill A Mockingbird
Racial injustice is a central theme within Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Indeed, the entire plot of the book revolves around the case of a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white woman. One of the main characters of the novel, Atticus Finch, is the man who is appointed to defend Tom.
Within the novel, Atticus makes a very strong defense of Tom within the courtroom, to the point where no reasonable person could continue to believe that Tom was, in fact, guilty of the crime of which he was accused. Nevertheless, the jury convicts Tom of the rape based on race. It is quite clear that this occurs primarily due to racial prejudice, and not out of any sense of truth, justice, or fidelity to the rule of law.
Atticus experiences considerable social pressure and antagonism from the other people in his town as a result of his decision to represent a black man within the court of law. He is, for example, accused of being a “nigger lover”; and at one point in the novel, he has to face down a lynch mob that wants to take “justice” into its own hands.
Moreover, although Atticus loses the case of Tom in the courtroom, he nevertheless successfully humiliates the man who was accusing Tom of the crime in the first place, thereby making himself a strong enemy in town. This enemy later threatens the safety of his children, Scout and Jem.
Racism as a territorial issue
Harper Lee uses these examples demonstrate is that racial injustice is so deeply ingrained into the culture and society of Maycomb, Alabama that when one man attempts to challenge that system and actually stand up for justice, he provokes violent antagonism, to the point where he begins to need to fear for his own safety and the safety of his family—presumably because once one stops being racist, one is almost categorized as part of the oppressed group itself.
It has been suggested by some, however, that even Atticus’s own actions almost testify to the very nature of the racist system within which he lives. As Marsh has put it: Atticus’s:
“defense of Tom relies…on convincing them [the jury] that he, Atticus, is honorable. By playing to white prejudices in a system that consistently benefits whites, his strategy does nothing to disturb America’s racial caste system” (paragraph 2).
In other words, Atticus’s legal strategy within the novel itself is premised on him being a white man who will presumably be respected within the courtroom setting, whereas Tom himself would have been incapable of commanding this kind of respect. While this could perhaps be chalked up to simple pragmatism on Atticus’s part, it nevertheless represents an even deeper portrayal of racial injustice within the novel as a whole.
Mockingbird’s connection to racism in society
The theme of racial injustice within Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly still very salient within the context of contemporary American society. This is, after all, the era of widespread police shootings of young black men and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which conceptualizes its own mission and vision in the following terms:
“#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of his crime, and dead 17-year-old Trayvon was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder. Rooted in the experience of Black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization in this country, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action” (paragraph 1).
In other words, systemic discrimination against the black community is clearly not a thing of the past; rather, this dark part of the American historical legacy is still very much alive and well at the present time. This fact in and of itself suggests that contemporary people still have a great deal to learn from Lee’s novel.
Recent string of racially motivated police shootings
In particular, there is a clear connection between the recent string of racially motivated police shootings on one hand and the inability of Atticus to procure justice for Tom on the other. In Lee’s novel, Tom is convicted of a crime he did not commit, and then he is killed when he tries to escape from prison—which, of course, only happened because he was not granted justice in the first place.
Likewise, in the contemporary United States, one young black man after another has been killed in an extra-judicial way, without being properly accused and convicted of any crime that would justify such a fate for them. There is thus an uncanny connection between Lee’s novel and contemporary society insofar as in both cases, the criminal justice system is set up in such a way that it is systematically biased against the black community and geared toward treating blacks as second-class citizens.
Moreover, from a racial justice perspective, it can be suggested that Lee’s work—that is, the very act of her writing it—provides a good example of how white people can serve as allies of black people in the shared struggle for the achievement of racial justice. As Smith has suggested:
“To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t about amplifying voices, but about making a clear political statement. Harper Lee didn’t crib from Mildred Taylor or any other black author to write a novel about race in America. Instead, she drew from her own experiences and what she’d learned from people of color to add her voice to the discussion” (paragraph 4).
In other words, Lee was not attempting to speak with a black voice, but rather to express her own voice and distinctive perspective on racial justice, from the vantage point of her own unique humanity. It can be suggested that this provides a kind of model or template of how people from different backgrounds can act today in the shared search for a better and juster world.
Harper Lee’s interpretations of a broader American perspective
Contemporary events aside, it is clear that structural, institutionalized racism has been a fundamental part of the fabric of American society since its inception. It would not be an exaggeration, for example, to suggest that the enshrinement of slavery constitutes the original sin of the nation: a sin that led to the incredibly bloody Civil War in the mid-1800s, and whose effects are still being felt at the beginning of the current century.
The Constitution, for example, originally included the atrocious proposition that black persons are to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person for the purposes of a census. This would seem to be more or less a symbolically appropriate statement regarding how the black community, in general, has been treated across the history of the United States. In this context, the capacity of Lee’s novel to address issues of racial justice enables it to really get to the heart of a key part of what the American experiment has always been about.
Moral responsibility and individualism in To Kill A Mockingbird
Moreover, aside from the strictly racial dimension of the matter, Lee’s novel also encapsulates the strong individualism that has also been inherent in the American experience from the very beginning. Whatever else Atticus is, here is clearly a man who is strong enough to stand up to the pressures of his society and culture, in the name of his own conscience and what he believes to be morally right. For example, Neary has summarized one reader’s experience of To Kill a Mockingbird in the following way:
“In Tom Robinson, the African-American man unjustly accused of rape, she saw not a victim, but a hero. . . . Atticus Finch gave her hope that there really were white people who would do the right thing—and she believes the book may have helped to make that a reality” (paragraph 8).
In a way, then, the theme of racial injustice in Lee’s novel could be understood as merely one manifestation of the deeper theme of fidelity to one’s own conscience. This, too, has always been a part of the American experience, and indeed the very reason why the nation was even founded at all in the first place.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird and the key theme of racism in America. The essay has described the role of this theme within the plot of the novel, the relevance of the theme and the novel to both contemporary society and the broader arc of American history, and the significance of the sequel written by Lee for this key theme. The main conclusion that has been reached here is that To Kill a Mockingbird is rightly regarded as a classic due to how it gets to the heart of a key aspect of the American experience and that the sequel can do nothing to detract from this significance.
Black Lives Matter. “About the Black Lives Matter Network.” 2016. Web. 3 Mar. 2016. http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/.
Garber, Megan. “Go Set a Legacy: The Fate of Harper Lee.” The Atlantic. 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/02/harper-lee-to- kill-a-mockingbird/470118/.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: Harper, 2015. Print.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1988. Print.
Marsh, Laura. “These Scholars Have Been Pointing Out Atticus Finch’s Racism for Years.” New Republic. 14 Jul. 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. https://newrepublic.com/article/122295/these-scholars-have-been-pointing-out-atticus-finchs-racism-years.
Neary, Lynn. “50 Years On, ‘Mockingbird’ Still Sings America’s Song.” NPR. 15 Jul. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128340180.
Smith, S. E. “Why Young Readers Need ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ More than Ever. Daily Dot. 4 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/harper-lee-to-kill-a-mockingbird-sequel/.
United States. U.S. Constitution. Avalon Project, 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/usconst.asp.