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There are stereotypes on both sides of the racial issues raised in this book, and Lee tries to show that both of them are unfair and generalized, and that there were exceptions on both sides of the Black/white controversies and disagreements in the South.
Lee uses rape as a shocking way to bring racism to the surface, because sexual relations between a white woman and black man were even more volatile than just about any other kind of racial contact. The whites could never accept this, which is why it would be impossible for them to acquit Tom Robinson at his trial. One critic sums up this mentality quite nicely. She writes, "Atticus Finch chided his son, Jem, for wondering why the jury did not give Tom Robinson a prison sentence rather than the death sentence by saying, '[He's] a colored man, Jem. No jury in this part of the world's going to say, "We think you're guilty, but not very" on a charge like that'" (Dorr 711). Lee shows the racial tensions of the South, and how tensions existed there that did not exist in other areas of the country.
She manages to make the southerners in the novel seem foreign and familiar at the same time, while portraying a way of life that many Americans had never seen or understood before. She does not make many of the southerners sympathetic, but she does make the Finch's and the blacks sympathetic, which adds to the impact of her novel. She crafts well rounded characters that demand respect and sympathy, which helps make the theme of racism all the more difficult to understand.
However, not all critics agree with the methods Ms. Lee used in her novel. One critic believes that the novel had less credibility because the author was white, and was attempting, not too subtlety, to gain sympathy for Black with her portrayal of stereotypical racist behaviors (Klein 2). In addition, other critics note that even many Blacks are not happy with the portrayals in Lee's novel. Another critic notes, "Although all the black characters are sympathetic and the novel exposes racism as abhorrent and white racists as ludicrous and hypocritical, to Kill a Mockingbird, like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has frequently been challenged by African-American parents chiefly because it contains racial slurs" (Johnson 200). Yet another critic notes, "To be sure, the novel's earnest liberalism, so lavishly admired at the time, would come in for some vicious criticism by the end of the decade, and its racial politics, which had been thought enlightened, would be dismissed by some as offensively paternalistic" (Bawer). Thus, while Lee attempted to bring attention to the plight of Blacks in the South, many were critical of her methods and ideals, making the book more controversial and interesting for many readers. No book or writer is perfect, and there will always be critics who find fault. Whatever her methods, Lee still made people stop and think about racism and their own ideas about it, and that cannot be a bad thing.
In conclusion, the racism in to Kill a Mockingbird is real, and it was a reality in the South when Harper Lee wrote the book. Her work illustrates the great gulf between whites and blacks in the 1930s South, and how bigotry and racism can create misunderstandings and falsehoods that are difficult to overcome. Atticus Finch attempts to bridge the gap with understanding and courage, but some things are difficult to overcome when they are so ingrained into a society. Racism is ugly, and Lee shows the worst side of it in this novel, which is one reason it has remained so popular and so insightful even today.
Bawer, Bruce. "The Other Sixties." The Wilson Quarterly Spring 2004: 64+.
Dorr, Lisa Lindquist. "Black-on-White Rape and Retribution in Twentieth-Century Virginia: 'Men, Even Negroes, Must Have Some Protection'." Journal of Southern History 66.4 (2000): 711.
Hertz, Karl V. "Seize the Teaching Moment in Behalf of Goodness." School Administrator Mar. 1995: 54.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding to Kill a Mockingbird a Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Kasper, Annie. "General Semantics in to Kill a Mockingbird." ETC.: A Review of General Semantics 63.3 (2006): 272+.
Klein, Gillian. Reading into Racism: Bias in Children's Literature and Learning Materials. London: Routledge, 1990.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Paperbacks,…[continue]
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