How does the illiteracy of African-Americans in To Kill a Mockingbird contribute to the novel's themes?
Harper Lee examines several themes related to the illiteracy of African Americans in the community of Maycomb. Lee examines the theme of education and prejudice by illustrating how Calpurnia and her son learned to read in chapter 12. When Scout and Jem visit First Purchase African M.E. Church for Sunday service, they witness how the African American congregation uses a technique referred to as "lining" to sing the hymns, because most of the citizens are illiterate. However, Zeebo demonstrates his literacy by leading the congregation in song. At the end of the service, Cal tells Scout that Miss Buford taught her to read using Blackstone’s Commentaries. Cal then says she taught Zeebo out of the same book, which amazes both Jem and Scout. Other than Cal, Zeebo, and Reverend Sykes, the rest of the African American community is illiterate because they were not afforded an education or opportunities to learn how to read. In the prejudiced, segregated society of Maycomb, African Americans were considered unintelligent, second-class citizens who were not capable of learning. By illustrating Cal and Zeebo's education and literacy, Harper Lee subtly conveys the message that race has nothing to do with intelligence nor cognitive ability. Harper Lee also illustrates that access and opportunity to education are the predominant factors related to literacy.
Lee addresses the issue of education, and more specifically, literacy, in several parts of the novel. In regards to race, Lee includes the incident in Chapter 12 when Calpurnia brings the children to church, and Scout and Jem are fascinated by the manner in which the church members sing their songs (not by words in a hymnbook). When they ask Cal about this, she explains to the children that most of the church members do not know how to read; so they have to repeat what is modeled for them in order to sing. Cal tells Jem and Scout that she taught her own son to read by borrowing books from her boss years ago. This conversation illustrates several truths. First, Lee proves that if humans, no matter what race, want to be literate, they will do so, even if it means having to develop ingenious ways to accomplish their goal. Secondly, Lee demonstrates that in order for someone to be moral and decent, he or she does not necessarily have to be literate. Tom Robinson and other members of the church are the epitome of this.
On a more general note, the author subtly reveals the fact that those in power often try to use illiteracy as a means of controlling others. They know that it is dangerous for someone whom they desire to control to "think" too much.