To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers
by Harper Lee

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Does Calpurnia adhere to any stereotypes about blacks? If so, does Lee intend to subvert or call into question these stereotypes? Explain.

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Lynn Ramsson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Calpurnia is not a "stereotypical" black woman, and Harper Lee's characterization of her as a significant mother figure in the lives of Jem and Scout does subvert racial stereotypes in two significant ways.

First of all, Calpurnia is perfectly aware of her authority in the Finch household, and she runs the home with a competence and confidence that might be considered unusual for anyone employed in the service of people, much less a black woman, who may be considered the least empowered group at this time in Southern history. Calpurnia does not appear to have even a remotely submissive attitude which might characterize a black woman in the service of a white family, which may reveal Harper Lee's belief that subservience to whites is not a defining characteristic of black women.

As well, Calpurnia is very smart, polite, compassionate, and a strong maternal figure for the children. Her role as a female role model for Scout goes far beyond Calpurnia's responsibility as a housekeeper. That Atticus places Calpurnia in this role speaks to Harper Lee's message to the readers that an educated man like Atticus has chosen a black woman to look after and teach his children, which means that she has a lot more to offer society than the stereotypes of the time communicated.

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troutmiller eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Only at one point do we see Calpurnia as a "stereotypical" black woman in this novel.  That is when she takes the children to her church, First Purchase.  Lula confronts her about bringing "white chillin" to her "black church," and Cal replies with a different dialect and voice than what the children are used to.  In order to live in both worlds, Cal must behave in certain ways in front of both sets of people.

Harper Lee definitely calls into question these stereotypesby using Cal as one of the strong female influences in the children's lives.  She is well-educated, and more importantly, she serves as a "mother" figure to a white family.  Most black women would never have the opportunity to work in a house and fit in as well as Cal does with the Finches.  Lee keeps Cal as a minor character, but she plays a very important role, which helps to dispel the prejudice found everywhere else in the novel. 

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