Harper Lee is not immune

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Today in class I showed the courtroom scene from the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Though the movie is a pale reflection of the book, like most movies based on books, the courtroom scene is not too bad—Gregory Peck is exactly how I picture Atticus. Mayella does a very convincing job of the lying victim of the supposed rape.

After the verdict of guilty, the scene ends with all the white people of the town, who had been sitting on the first floor of the courthouse, leaving and Atticus packing up his briefcase while slowly the blacks in the upstairs blacks-only section stand up as an honor to Atticus who, though having lost the case, had put forward a terrific defense. The Reverend Sykes says to Atticus’ daughter, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

It’s a powerful scene, even tugging on the heart strings. But this time, as I watched it, the scene felt awkward to me. It was like the black people in Maycomb were incredibly impotent with only the white hero Atticus to carry their charge. It made me feel that even within this tragic story of racism, there was embedded a story of white privilege— the people of color compliant, victimized without any agency, looking to a white man to save them.

I brought this up to my students. Some of them nodded their heads. Others looked unconcerned. I wanted them to know that the character of Lula, who makes a very small entrance in the scene at Calpurnia’s church, reflects another narrative that is going on at the time— an angry, more activist, more radical, more empowered approach in the fight for civil rights. I wanted them to remember that To Kill A Mockingbird, though one of my favorite books, was written by a southern white woman at the end of the 50s and that in a meta way even Harper Lee is not immune to the notion of biased perspective/point of view which she so deftly portrays in the novel itself.

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