‘Everybody remembers the first time that they were taught that part of the human race was Other…It’s as if I told you that your left hand is not part of your body.’
Throughout American history and literature, race has always played a huge, and often debilitating, role in the construction of Black American identity. This is most notably seen through the differentiation between the ideal of ‘Americanness’ and the alienated Black African American. In the cult novels of Post-1945 America, Black characters consistently find themselves trapped by societal conceptions, ideologies, and notions of inferiority. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird undoubtedly highlight these oppressive principles. The novel evokes American racist societal concepts, as well as use discriminatory racial tropes, to highlight and essentially criticise the fragmented nature of Black American identity in post-war American society.
Black American identity is most clearly stifled by the notion of ‘Americanness’, an ideology that seemingly suggests the true embodiment of the ideal and ‘true’ American are middle-aged, white Protestant men. The Marlboro man, a figure created to sell
Marlboro cigarettes, appears to be the true embodiment of this notion; his rugged individualism, independence and, most obviously, his position as a white American serves to highlight both his position as an individual, whilst also representing simultaneously a mass of individuals. This ideology, defined as ‘a system of ideas that governs the way we experience the world’, singlehandedly foregrounds the oppressive racial attitude towards the Black African American, who in turn is seen as the ‘Other’ figure. This notion of ‘alien’ races and cultures was paramount to both the political and cultural movements of Twentieth-century America. This paranoia and fear of the other is highlighted through earlier war propaganda posters, such as America’s 1918 conscription poster entitled ‘Destroy this Mad Brute-Enlist’. The representation of the German enemy as a looming African gorilla serves not only to accentuate the fear of the ‘unknown’ and enemy ‘Other’ of the German cultural movement, but can also be read as accentuating the fear of ‘known’ alien threat to white supremacy- the Black African American.
This ‘known’ internal threat grasps the helpless female figure (reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty and, therefore, a metaphor for America itself) in his right arm, whilst also carrying a bloodied bludgeon in his left hand. Such propagandist pieces ultimately led to the formation and continuance of a handful of discriminatory racial tropes; as Tommy L. Lott argues, the metaphor of the Black African American as an ape-like figure ‘satisfies the need to provide a biological justification of antiblack racism, and supplies a convenient rationale for ongoing subordination of Black people.’ The representation of the Black man as an ape is perhaps most popularly demonstrated through King Kong, created in 1933, which plays on the notion of the predatory sexual nature of the Black individual, as well as notions of violent primitivism. King Kong encapsulates and plays upon the supposed violent hyper-sexuality of the Black Man; popular portrayals of the Black American as barbarous and primitive continue to pervade to this day.
This same racial typecasting is demonstrated through Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. The reader finds the construction of Tom’s identity based almost solely on a handful of prejudiced tropes, the most obvious of these being the Myth of the Black Rapist. Angela Davis, who coined the latter term, argues, ‘In the history of the United States, the fraudulent rape charge stands out as one of the most formidable artifices invented by racism.’ This trope, built on the stereotype of Black men being hyper-sexual and dangerous, is foregrounded in the film The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. The film famously depicts a white woman throwing herself off a cliff to escape from the barbarous Black rapist. As explained by Michael Phillips, ‘The Myth of the Black Rapist provided a powerful counter-discourse’ that led to ‘Negrophobic images of the black man as ravishing beast’, which suffused ‘the language of even counter-hegemonic movements’.
Despite there being a forty-five-year difference between the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and the Birth of the Nation, this racial stereotype clearly comes to shape the way in which Tom Robinson is portrayed and framed for the sexual assault of Mayella. Despite being physically handicapped and the blatant fraudulence of Mayella and her father’s testimonies, Tom Robinson is still asked if he is ‘strong enough to choke the breath out of a woman and sling her to the floor?’. Regardless of his clear innocence, the court continues to focus on Tom’s strength in a negative light. The verbs ‘choke’ and ‘sling’ highlight Tom Robinson’s conceptualisation as a barbarous and dangerous primitive. This negativity is clearly still informed by such prolific cultural creations as the ape-like other presented in Destroy This Mad Brute-Enlist; his identity, therefore, is colluded with the criminal ‘other’, an alien figure that is in complete opposition to the pure white ‘ideal’ of Americanness. This same ideological stereotyping informed the outcome of the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young African American men falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. All 19 men were convicted and 18 were sentenced to death. Although later acquitted, the case undoubtedly represents the prevalence of the stereotype of the African American man being sexually primitive and violent.
It is apparent, then, that the violent actions of a minority of African Americans come to encompass the entire community. Ellison’s criticism of this is further apparent through Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, who declares ‘you know the truth, and the truth is this: some negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral…but this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men’ (p.226). However, despite Atticus attempting to rebel against the idea of the African American as a criminal other figure, his call for social equality is entirely undermined by his use of the term ‘negroes’. In using the latter phrase, Atticus further accentuates the notion of the Black African American as ‘Other’; they are a ‘different’ ‘race of man’, singled out for the colour of their skin and the ingrained ideology that preaches African American’s to be alien to the true notion of Americanness. Although Atticus attempts to bring justice to the court system by banishing such racist tropes as the Black rapist figure, he in fact complicates and inhibits further the racial identity and progression of the Black American. He unwittingly comes to represent the figure of the White Saviour, a ‘genre in which a white messianic character saves a lower-or working class, usually urban or isolated, non-white character from a sad fate’. Through this embodiment, Atticus allows the reader to feel morally superior and comfortable with the trial. Consequently, morality is racialized as white, with the Black man being presented as incapable of saving themselves. As argued by Roslyn Siegal, ‘[T]he Negro[…] is usually depicted as stupid, pathetic, defenceless and dependent upon the fair dealing of the whites, rather than his own intelligence, to save him.’ Rather than representing one truth, then, the figure of Atticus perpetuates another racial trope, one that suggests the Black American to be both morally and physically inferior. The exploitation and monopolisation of the Black African American figure by white supremacist figures is also apparent in To Kill a Mockingbird. The motif of the Mockingbird greatly accentuates this notion. Upon Scout and Jem asking Miss Maudie why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird, they are told that:
‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird. ‘
Miss Maudie’s explanation contains several troubling aspects; in particular, it suggests the only reason for not killing a Mockingbird is due to their entertainment value, not for their sentient nature and individual identity. This disturbing idea, when coupled with a reading of Tom Robinson is being a major Mockingbird in the tale, suggests that Tom should only be kept alive for the sake of ‘us’, ‘us’ in this instance being the white American population of Maycomb County. Tom is only there to ‘sing’ and please the community, performing menial, low wage work to please the white superior figures. As Isaac Saney argues, ‘by foisting this Mockingbird image on African Americans, the novel does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior ‘races’; rather, Miss Maudie’s comment simply states ‘that Black people are useful and harmless creatures- akin to decorous pets…’. Ultimately, it is this same ‘dancing’ and Tom’s frequent attempts to please Mayella, a figure of white ideal ‘Americanness’, that leads to his death. His identity is essentially belittled to little more than his aesthetic use and his physical ability to work and entertain.
Featured Image: Front Cover of Heinemann’s 2003 edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).
 Toni Morrison, as cited in Toni Morrison, ed. by Jill L. Matus (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1998), p.23
 Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Routledge, 2003), p.4
 Harry R. Hoops, Destroy this Mad Brute Enlist- US Army, 1918, Colour Litograph, 106 x 71cm. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010652057/ (Accessed 18/12/2016)
 Tommy L. Lott, The Invention of Race: Black Culture and the Politics of Representation (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p.7
 See King Kong, dir. By Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (RKO Pictures inc., 1933)
 Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage, 1983), p.173
 See Birth of a Nation, Dir. By D.W. Griffith (Epoch Producing Co., 1915)
Michael Phillips, White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), p.30
 Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (London: Arrow Books, 2006), p.217. All further references to Lee’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.
 Matthew Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), p.1
 Roslyn Siegal, ‘The Black Man and the Macabre in American Literature’ in Black American Literature Forum, 10.2 (1976), pp.133-136, p.136)
 Isaac Saney, ‘Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010), pp.58-62, p. 60-61.
Written by Steph Reeves.
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