By Andy Rogers (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In order to teach critical reading and thinking skills, I developed a lesson plan for my Modern World Literature class that focused on the American South. The purpose was to demonstrate the complexity of a literary character and examine the interaction of literature and society. The assigned texts were To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The students were asked to examine the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch. Why is he heroic? What does he oppose? Why does he oppose it? Does his opposition to the lynching of his legal client mean that he is opposed to all lynchings? Does his public support of an African-American man mean that he supports racial equality? What are his views on race? After discussing Atticus, the next phase of the assignment was to read the legal memoir Just Mercy and focus on the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian in Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee and setting for Mockingbird(although thinly disguised as Maycomb). We discuss the irony of a horrible case of racial injustice taking place in the proud home of Atticus Finch, how this is possible, and what it says about the contemporary American South in a putative post-racial society.
The first part of the discussion focuses on the importance of point of view in narrative. Scout, a child narrator who clearly idolizes her father, narrates the novel. Students are asked to identify passages where Scout’s account of events is unreliable or reveals bias. One example is the passage where Dill, Scout’s friend from out of town, is sickened by watching the cross examination of Tom Robinson during his trial for rape. I ask the students why they think that Scout is not bothered by the prosecutor’s insistence that Tom is lying or by his confrontational style. Scout believes that the prosecutor is wrong and knows it, so why does she excuse his insistence on a wrongful prosecution? Why is she so insensitive to the fact that her friend is so disturbed by it that he vomits? Why is it that the outsider is sickened? Is Scout so accustomed to racism that she is not horrified by it anymore? What does this reveal about the author’s views? Are the author’s views different from the narrator’s? Why would the author create a scene that casts doubt on the reliability of the narrator? The students see at this point that the narrator’s accounts have to be examined and that they might not have read the book that they thought they had read.
If the reader only has Scout to rely on to present Atticus, does this mean that Atticus is as Scout believes him to be? Scout believes that her father is fair, but observations reveal troubling details. For example, when she asks what the word “nigger” means, he replies that she should not use the word because “it’s common.” The expression was a patrician expression used to indicate behavior associated with the laboring class, so this remark shows that Atticus is more concerned with maintaining social appearance than denigrating others. He also states that he has asked Calpurnia about Tom Robinson and been told that Tom is “a clean negro.” The expression “clean” was used to mean hardworking, cheerful, and subservient, qualities essential for survival as an African American in the Deep South. Modern readers should find it curious if not unethical for an attorney to subject a client to racial stereotyping before agreeing to represent him and even more troubling that primacy is given to this profile over the facts of the case. During the trial, Atticus comes home in an unusually foul temper and explains his frustration to Scout. His most vehement points are about what constitutes “trash.” According to Atticus, the cardinal sin that will designate anyone as trash is to “take advantage of the negro in his ignorance.” Applying this statement to the facts of the case, the “trash” who “took advantage of the Negro in his ignorance” would have to be Mayella Ewell. According to Tom Robinson, whom Atticus admits that he believes, Mayella lied to Tom that she needed help moving furniture in order to lure him into her home, where she tried to seduce him. Atticus obviously believes that her deceit was the cause of the series of events that led to a false accusation of rape against Tom Robinson, and what outrages him is that he believes that Tom would have never entered a white woman’s home had he not been deceived. Atticus’s paternalistic and condescending belief is not merely that Tom did not see the trap, but that no “colored” man should ever enter the home of a white woman, and the poor ignorant Negro lacks the intelligence to see that there are no viable exceptions, even when simple decency would appear to intrude. Atticus is no proponent of equality, nor is he an opponent of segregation. His opposition is to an illegal execution, but with qualifications. The Negro must be “clean,” completely innocent, and fully respectful of a judicial system that has wrongfully arrested him, is wrongfully prosecuting him, and seeks to wrongfully execute him.
The next section deals with Just Mercy. Walter McMillian was convicted of a murder despite having multiple witnesses provide an alibi for him and a complete lack of evidence against him other than a witness who provided shifting, easily disproven testimony that he later recanted. Mr. McMillian’s only crime seems to have been having an interracial affair quite publicly. I asked the students if they find this case to be surprising, and they responded that they did not. Their responses indicated a strong belief that racism is not fundamentally different today from what it was. More specifically, several students said that the difference between a lynching and a legal execution of a wrongfully convicted man was insignificant. While Monroeville may pride itself on no longer forming lynch mobs, there is no need to as the criminal justice system performs the same function. They also note that Atticus was a revered literary figure in Monroeville because he never challenged racism, only one of its most violent and illegal manifestations. Furthermore, a student added that the legacy and lionization of Atticus actually makes it easier for racists to carry out heinous injustices because they can conceal their racism behind their piety for a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.
The most surprising revelation to me was how pessimistic several of my students, particularly minority students, were about racial progress. They expressed views that “There’s no point in discussing this” and that “racism has always existed and always will.” They also stated “it will never get any better” and that the only possibility for change is if “white people experience the same kind of discrimination and violence themselves.” No student advocated for retributive violence; they made these statements with resignation, with the attitude that the only thing that may possibly effect any change is horrible and should never be done, so we’re stuck with things as they are. They readily accepted Atticus as a racist and Bryan Stevenson as a hero, but as a hero who will not be able to rectify the underlying causes of the injustices he works to correct. These responses were obviously anecdotal, but I was surprised and concerned; but one thing was clear: Bryan Stevenson is right when he writes that the Civil Rights Movement is happening right now, and failure to take part in it will enable apathy, injustice, and hopelessness.