The mulatto kept his eye upon the sheriff. "I didn't kill the old man," he replied; "but I shall never be able to clear myself. I was at his house at nine o'clock. I stole from it the coat that was on my back when I was taken. I would be convicted, even with a fair trial, unless the real murderer were discovered beforehand." What specific details in the above passage from "The Sheriff's Children" stand out? Are there literary elements that invite attention? What ideas or questions does the passage raise?

This passage raises many ideas, notably how horrible and extensive the impacts of systemic racism are. The speaker alludes to the way his freedom was taken from him when he “was taken.” In reclaiming the coat that was his, symbolic of his freedom, he ended up facing more injustice and being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. This shows how social institutions work against people of color in so many ways.

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The specific details that stand out in this passage will of course depend on your own reaction to reading it. But there are several elements that undeniably invite attention.

For example, consider how aware the speaker is that he will “never be able to clear” himself. This prompts the reader to reflect on the systemic inequity in the criminal justice system. Even though the speaker does not explicitly say it, the reader can infer that he knows he will not be able to clear himself because he is not white. The story behind the item that he stole, that it was the coat that was on his back when he was taken, also prompts the reader to reflect on the extreme circumstances the speaker has been through. This man’s freedom was taken from him against his will, and that coat is a symbol of the freedom he had in his past. Yet in attempting to reclaim what was rightfully his, he has ended up facing even more injustice.

This passage draws attention to the way that legal and social institutions like the criminal justice system work against people of color. It also highlights the way that people of color are fully aware of this but are unable to confront the social forces that are working against them.

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