African Americans in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird are treated as second-class citizens in numerous ways, including the following:
- Many white citizens of Maycomb think that blacks are not entitled to competent defense when they are accused of crimes.
- Even lower-class “white trash” feel entitled to look down on black people.
- Any white persons (such as Dolphus Raymond) who associate intimately with black persons are likely to suffer from discrimination themselves. One of the most common terms of abuse in the book is “n*****-lover.”
- Even the slightest bit of African-American genetic heritage is enough to cause a person to be classified as entirely an African American. As Jem puts it,
“once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black.”
In short, practically every white person in Maycomb, whatever his or her own flaws, feels entitled to look down on blacks, abuse them, accuse them, and even kill them if so inclined. Blacks have almost no protections against such abuse, especially if the abuse is not technically “illegal.” They must, for the most part, simply endure the discrimination they face.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about many of the African Americans depicted in the novel is that they have managed to preserve their dignity despite such frequent and widespread discrimination. Calpurnia is a perfect example of a black person who is at least as dignified, wise, and decent as any white person in the book. Despite her low social status, she easily “out-classes” many of the whites the book describes. Equally impressive is Reverend Sykes, the pastor of the local black church, who acts as a representative and spokesman for the African American community. Just as Calpurnia acts as a kind of substitute mother for the motherless Finch children, so Reverend Sykes, at least in the courtroom, acts as a kind of surrogate father. Thus, when testimony at the trial becomes fairly graphic, the narrator reports that
Reverend Sykes leaned across Dill and me, pulling at Jem’s elbow. “Mr. Jem,” he
said, “you better take Miss Jean Louise home. Mr. Jem, you hear me?”
Similarly, later the narrator describes how,
tired from fighting sleep, I allowed myself a short nap against Reverend Sykes’s comfortable arm and shoulder.
And it is Reverend Sykes, of course, who instructs Scout to join the blacks in the courtroom in paying proper respect to Atticus, even though Atticus has technically “lost” the case:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
In short, the black citizens of Maycomb suffer from various kinds of oppression and discrimination, but they often maintain their dignity even in the face of such suffering. This is especially true of Tom Robinson, but it is true, as well, of nearly all the other black persons depicted.
SOMETHING EXTRA: To Kill a Mockingbirdinvites attention from "archetypal" literary critics. Analysts who adopt the "archetypal" approach assume that all human beings are motivated by the same basic desires, fears, and instincts. Such analysts assume that human beings are far more alike, in fundamental ways, than they are different. Thus, Calpurnia is almost an archetypal "mother figure" (almost an ideal mother), and Reverend Sykes functions in some ways almost as an archetypal "father figure" (as does Atticus Finch). Despite their differences in skin color, Sykes and Atticus are greatly similar.