What is the idea of the "background" Miss Maudie mentions in Chapter 24 of To Kill a Mockingbird?
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The quote you're referring to is from Miss Maudie: "'The handful of people in this town with background, that's who they are'" (236).
This is in response to Aunt Alexandra's question about how the town could let Atticus stand up to intolerance and racism when it tears him up inside so much.
Miss Maudie uses the term background to refer to those tolerant and unbiased people (Judge Taylor, Heck Tate, Mr. Raymond, Link Dees, and so on) who see the racism in Maycomb and refuse to accept it, even though the majority of the town seems willing to just let things be. In this way, those with background are paying Atticus "'the highest tribute'" because they "'trust him to do right'" (236).
Of course, the idea of "background" plays a major role throughout the novel. Remember, previously Aunt Alexandra was explaining to Scout that she couldn't be friends with the Cunningham boy because of her background, as a Finch Scout is expected to behave a certain way. Whereas the Cunningham boy is viewed as white trash because of his background. Now it seems that Alexandra's view of a person's "background" may have changed some.
When Miss Maudie refers to people of "background," she alludes to a social class of the South.
In the Alabama of the 1930's, there were many families who were descendants of the aristocratic plantation owners and other people of property. These people, of course, had slaves in the fields and servants in their houses. Certainly, they did not view their servants as equal to them and they were not without bias; nevertheless, they treated "the Negroes" as human beings. These people were the people of "background," people who have a history of treating "Negroes" with kindness, while at the same time holding to their bias that Negroes were an inferior race. (It is noteworthy to mention that many of these large landowners showed kindness to "Negroes" and left provisions in their wills that their house servants could remain on their property and live in the cabins built for them. For example, in north-central Alabama, there is a blueberry farm on which the Wadsworth servants' descendants lived for several generations after the cotton plantation owner died.)
While most of the upper class of Maycomb do not go so far as to treat their maids as a family member like Atticus Finch does, they are not as cruel as Miss Merriweather, either. So, although they believe in the separation of the races and the inferiority of "the Negro," they do not believe in cruelty or hateful treatment of the black community as long as they "know their place." Also, they perceive members of this community as individuals, unlike the racists of Maycomb such as the Old Sarum Bunch, who perceive Tom as a stereotypical n****r. Thus, Mr. Link Deas stands up for Tom Robinson because he is a decent, kind, and hard-working Negro. (Because he probably would not want Tom to vote or to mix with whites, however, Link would be considered racially biased by contemporary standards.)
Certainly, race relations were much more complex than many of the North perceived, as often all Southerners were lumped together as "racists." Many of them--those of "background" who were descended from land owners--did make distinctions among the Negroes, whereas others categorized them all in stereotypical terms. This making of distinctions is what Miss Maudie implies when she alludes to "[T]he handful of people in this town with background." Her subsequent remark--
"The handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord's kindness am I"--
reinforces that Miss Maudie, although a kind woman of "background," is still a Southerner of her era who believes in the distinction between the races and the concept of racial inferiority.
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