The most tragic figure in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is Tom Robinson. An African American in the American South during the period depicted had the weight of the world on his or her shoulders to begin with, institutionalized racism already reducing such individuals to second-class citizens in the world’s greatest democracy. To also be crippled and wrongfully accused of raping a white woman would be, under these circumstances, tantamount to a death sentence. Such would be the fate of this character in Lee’s novel. Described early in the story by Atticus Finch as “a member of Calpurnia’s church,” who the Finch’s trusted housecleaner attests are “clean-living folks,” Tom is a hard-working, God-fearing man thrown into a situation for which he is desperately ill-prepared. Evidence to the contrary, a jury convicts him of the rape and he is sentenced to prison -- and prison for a black accused of raping a white woman in the American South constituted under any objective measure cruel and unusual punishment. Tom, of course, will die “trying to escape” prison.
Interviewing Tom without specifying where during the course of Lee’s novel this hypothetical discourse will occur leaves one free to place its timing in the prison to which Tom is condemned. As such, the chain of events leading up to Tom’s death can be discussed. It is important to keep in mind that Tom is uneducated. The precise language used in the following sample questions would need to be rephrased in order to be understood. That said, questions to be addressed to the now-wrongfully-imprisoned inmate could include the following:
Tom, what did you think when Mayella Ewell asked you – or, more precisely, ordered you – to come onto the Ewell’s property to chop up the chiffarobe? You testified during your trial that you regularly walked past the Ewell property. Did you find it strange that Mayella would suddenly address you? Bob Ewell is one of the town’s more vocal and belligerent racists. Did it cross your mind before stepping onto his property that it might be a bad idea?
Tom, to an objective observer, it appeared as though your trial was conducted somewhat fairly, but that the jury was hardly representative of your peers and was predisposed towards a conviction irrespective of the content of the testimony. As you sat and listened to the proceedings, did you at any point think you might be acquitted of raping Mayella?
Tom, you are a church-going man who believes fervently in the word of God as spelled out in the Bible. During your trial, was there any question in your mind that, to paraphrase John 8:32, the truth would set you free? Has the outcome of your trial shaken your confidence in Biblical scripture?
Tom, there was a moment, prior to your trial when you were being held in the town jail, when a lynch mob stood outside the jail and demanded of your lawyer, Mr. Atticus Finch, that he step aside and allow them to seize you. What thoughts were going through your head at that time? Did you believe that that was your final night on this earth? What did the decision by Mr. Finch to stand firm mean to you?
If you could turn back the clock and revisit that fateful day when you agreed to help Mayella Ewell chop up the chiffarobe, what about that day would you change? Would you ignore Mayella and simply continue walking? Do you think that refusing to step onto the Ewell’s property would have spared you the terrible events that followed?