In what parts of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird do people talk negatively about Tom Robinson being black or talk negatively about black people?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Racist dialogue concerning either Tom Robinson or African Americans in general occurs all throughout Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Some of the best examples can be seen during Aunt Alexandra's missionary circle meeting in Chapter 24.

In this chapter, Scout is invited to join her aunt's missionary circle for refreshments, as part of Scout's training to be a lady, and she does so dressed in her Sunday best. However, Scout witnesses some very unladylike conversation in that the things the ladies say at the meeting are very racist and hypocritical. One example can be seen in the conversation that follows when Mrs. Merriweather says to Scout how fortunate she is to "live in a Christian home" outside of all of the "sin and squalor" of other regions, such as Africa. One woman named Gertrude responds to Mrs. Merriweather's comment about "sin and squalor." While we aren't told what Gertrude says, we are told Mrs. Merriweather's surprising response:

Sin and squalor—what was that Gertrude? ... Oh that. Well, I always say forgive and forget, forgive and forget. Thing that church ought to do is help her lead a Christian life for those children from here on out. (Ch. 24)

When Scout asks Mrs. Merriweather whom she is speaking of, Mrs. Merriweather replies that she is talking about Helen Robinson, Tom Robinson's wife. In other words, Mrs. Merriweather is saying that Helen should be forgiven and her disgraces forgotten, even though Helen has actually not done anything wrong. Mrs. Merriweather is also saying that the town needs to help Helen "lead a Christian life," which assumes Helen has not been doing so already. But that assumption contradicts what we already know to be true of the Robinsons; we learn back in Chapter 9 that the Robinsons are decent folks and active members of Calpurnia's church. All of Mrs. Merriweather's comments show she has judged Tom Robinson to be guilty, despite court evidence proving the contrary. She also believes Tom's guilt has somehow rubbed off on Helen. Mrs. Merriweather's comments further show that she assumes all African Americans are somehow inherently immoral or evil.

We see the exact same prejudiced assumption expressed later in the conversation by Mrs. Farrow:

We can educate 'em til we're blue in the face, we can try till we drop to make Christians out of 'em, but there's no lady safe in her bed these nights. (Ch. 24)

As we can see, Mrs. Farrow's comment shows she assumes that African Americans are incapable of being educated and incapable of being taught Christian values because she assumes not just that they are inferior to whites but that they are inherently evil.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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