To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of my favorite classics, which is true for many people. In fact, in October it was voted America's favorite book. As such, I thought it might be appropriate for me to talk today about why it's one of my favorites.
The first thing we need to recognize is that To Kill a Mockingbird is not a novel about a black man. Nor is it fully a novel about racism. Many black critics and social justice activists point out that it falls into the "white savior trope" of focusing on a "good" white person and their fight against racism instead of focusing on the actual black people. That in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, since there's a place for many different stories in the world--but very nearly all the stories we have about racism are like that. Certainly, the popular ones are, and not recognizing that would be wrong. The stories of black people need to be heard, much more than another story about a white person, and their stories need to be told by black people themselves. When white people constantly envelop racism in self-soothing narratives about white saviors, it's unhelpful and disempowering to others, and acting like To Kill a Mockingbird is the book about racism only worsens things.
(For some of these important diverse, own voices stories, at least in the YA sector, I recommend checking out Rich in Color.)
Having learned about all that, years after I first read the book, I still do love To Kill a Mockingbird. Why? There's a number of reasons. I've always felt drawn towards books that address social issues in some way. I love the fact that it touches on multiple kinds of prejudice, multiple marginalizations. And there's no denying it: I love this book because its story is my story.
To Kill a Mockingbird is not the story of a black man. It's not the story of Atticus, either, though I know many people disagree. To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of a little white girl who starts to see, for the first time, her privilege.
Being particularly privileged and sheltered, I didn't reach that point as early in life as Scout does. I knew in a vague way about racism growing up, and I knew from personal experience some of the realities of sexism and ableism. But I didn't have the words for my experiences, and I knew nothing about the actual experiences of nonwhite people, or about the issues faced by those of marginalized religions, those living in poverty, or LGBTQ+ people. I don't think I even really knew what poverty was, or that it existed in the U.S. I had no idea how I privileged I was, and am, until I discovered the social justice community via the Twitter #YesAllWomen event in 2014. (I was 20 years old.)
Of course, I'm still learning. I suppose we all are.
For that difference, Scout's story is still mine. Even reading it at the age of thirteen, before I actually understood any of these concepts, it was my story. In real life, I was grappling not only with my feelings of powerlessness, but also the ways that others took advantage of that powerlessness. On top of that, I'd never read a book like this before, about all these issues, which means that much of it was new to me. In real time along with Scout, I was learning about marginalization and privilege and most of all, about the ladder of power. Being eight years older than Scout, in some ways, I understood more than she did. In other ways, I understood less.
To Kill a Mockingbird present four common prejudices: racism, sexism, classism, and ableism. These prejudices, and the way marginalization is experienced relative to them, are exemplified in four characters: Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, Robert Ewell, and Boo Radley. Their interweaving stories, and the way other people react to them, inform Scout's growing understanding of the world.
Tom Robinson's story is the story of a black man just living his life, acting with kindness, even, who pays the price for an abusive white man's crime. Mayella Ewell's story is the story of an impoverished white woman who condemns an innocent black man in the hopes that, by pushing down someone who has less power than her, she'll be levered up to safety. Robert Ewell's story is the story of an impoverished white man who, looked down on by those who have more money, abuses the nearest person he does have power over, his daughter.
Their stories line up on a ladder, with each person being pushed down by the one above them and then, in turn, pushing down on the one below them in the hopes that it will help them become, or at least feel, more powerful. Instead of reaching down to pull each other up, they continue reinforcing the same patterns, the same societal structure that mistreats them in their own ways. This way, at least they know they have some power, right? But there's always someone at the bottom, someone who has nothing, and there's always someone at the top who has everything, and in between there are all sorts of shades of suffering and mistreatment. Though somewhat simplistic, this is an accurate reflection of how power works in our society. If you question that, you should probably take a closer look at the current state of our politics and culture.
On the ladder shown in To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom is at the bottom, and he dies under the weight of everyone else's pushing without ever pushing down anyone else. In reality, there are all sorts of ways that we can push on each other, all sorts of intersections. A black man like Tom could push down a black woman, for example, while more races than just black and white exist and there are more ways to lack or have privilege than just the four marginalizations shown in this book.
Where is the fourth I mentioned? Well, additional complexity is added to the book through Boo Radley, who's a kind of outlier on this ladder of power. Where he might have fallen isn't fully shown, because he, and some of the people around him, stop playing by the rules of the ladder.
Boo Radley's story is the story of a mentally ill recluse who is viewed by Scout and many others through an ableist lens that renders him violent and frightening, but who proves to be about as innocent as Tom. Atticus's defense of Tom, though it pushes down on Robert Ewell for good reason, exacerbates Robert's feelings of powerlessness. Despite all the damage he's already done and the "success" of the court trial, Robert chooses to take these feelings out on someone less powerful than him yet again by attacking Scout. Boo swoops in deus-ex-machina style and saves Scout, murdering Robert in the process, and yet his intentions were good and his actions innocent. Those who know the truth decide not to reveal it, because of that innocence and in order to avoid Boo being pushed into his "place" on the ladder of power. (It’s reminiscent of Trifles by Susan Glaspell, another favorite of mine.)
With everything she's now seen, combined with her own small experiences with sexism, Scout looks at Boo and understands what she's been learning all along. She understands how people push down those who are less powerful than them. She understands her own privilege and her own prejudice. She understands that she's been pushing Boo down by viewing him stereotypically, and that, like Tom, he was an innocent "mockingbird" all along. She understands that, while her privilege and her potential frustration with sexism make it easy to continue to push Boo down, to do so would be wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of how a little white girl, with her father's guidance, learns to do the right thing and stop pushing down on the people who have less power than her. Because "it is a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Scout's story, as I said, is mine, and my story is interwoven with so many of the stories of others. I am a woman, I am mentally ill, and I am disabled by multiple chronic illnesses. In those ways, I am marginalized and I lack privilege, and people who have privileged identities in those areas can and sometimes do push me down. Society itself is built in such a way as to allow and even encourage that pushing. I suffer from sexism and from ableism.
Yet I am also upper middle class, white, cisgender, and mostly straight. (My religion is kind of in this weird middle place where it's more marginalized than most Christianity and atheism/agnoticism, but it's also less marginalized than Judeaism, Islam, and others.) I have privilege, and with that privilege I can either maintain the existing structure by pushing down those who don't have the same privilege, or, like Scout and Atticus, I can choose not to do so. Though it's only hinted at in To Kill a Mockingbird, I can even (and should) reach down to help those below me up, so they can have the same power and respect. Instead of responding to the powerlessness I sometimes feel by weaponizing the power I do have, I can do the right thing.
That doesn't mean it's easy. It doesn't mean that I won't "lose" more power to those above me who dislike the attempt to change the status quo. Mayella Ewell experiences that when she reaches out to Tom, in her own small selfish way, and she then caves under the pressure, leading to Tom’s death.
When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird at thirteen, I was not yet disabled and I wasn't aware of my mental illness, but I had an autistic brother. I had seen the way people pushed him down, felt it like my own pain, and I tried, so hard, to protect him. For that, some of the pushing that had been directed towards him was now directed towards me, on top of the pushing down I already experienced as a girl, and it all hurt, so badly. Reading about Boo and Scout gave me some of the hope I'd needed to keep fighting, and it validated my feelings about the wrongness of how my brother was treated. To this day, Boo holds a precious place in my heart.
Ultimately, I didn't have enough power to protect my brother from it all. No one does, which is one theme of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, in case you wanted to know. Protection isn’t and shouldn’t be the goal. Empowerment is the goal, and even that can be near impossible at times. With the situation we were in, I only had the power to pull my brother up the tiniest amount, and at times, I had to stop pulling in order to protect myself from unraveling completely under the pressure. It took others with more power and privilege than me helping me and my brother both for a real difference to be made. But I refrained from pushing down, and I kept trying to help whenever I could. That not only was what needed to be done morally, but it also played a key role in helping us both gain a little more power.
As I've gotten older, despite my growing disabilities, I've gained some more power through age and education. I've learned more about how we can all work together to pull each other up. I'm constantly striving to be the person who pulls up instead of pushes down, because that is what's right. Yet it still hurts. Sometimes I have to step away from the news for a while because all the heartbreak and sorrow and helplessness starts unraveling me again. That's okay. Self-care does matter, and it takes multiple people to make a difference, not just one. But that pain is also the price of compassion. It's the price of change. It's the price of doing the right thing. In our imperfect, broken society full of imperfect and sometimes cruel people, it's a price that's worth paying.
To Kill a Mockingbird is not perfect. It is not the story of a black person, or a poor person, or a disabled person. It is not the ultimate story about racism or classism or ableism or even sexism. In fact, it leverages tropes that marginalize the stories of these people for the sake of educating those in privilege. Their actions and their suffering become a lesson for someone else. All of that is vital for us as readers to recognize, and we need to seek out and support storytelling that does center marginalized people.
But To Kill a Mockingbird does have meaning and weight. It expresses important and very real concepts that we all need to understand. It teaches us to be better. It tells the story of a person like me, my story, and it resonated with me in such a way as to give me hope and strength in times I needed it. That’s why it’s still one of my favorites.
Thanks for reading! I'll be back next week with some gift ideas for book lovers.
Images via wikipedia.com, [mine], sites.google.com, and whats-on-netflix.com.
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