Killing a Mockingbird: Letter to my unborn daughter

There is something about education that confers dignity and breaks chains. It is the reason, dear daughter, why I cannot wait to read you this book once you are born. What Jem and Scot know at 10 and 6 years of age, many adults do not know at 50 and 60 years of age

Damola Awoyokun
13 November 2010

Dear Little Girl,

As I write, Osman Rasul Mohammed, an Iraqi Kurd and a protracted victim of stinging penury has just jumped to his death having, once and for all, lost the hope of staying legally in this country of freedom and opportunities. He was officially asked by the immigration to leave voluntarily or be forcibly removed. Perching on the railings of a terrace on the seventh floor of an apartment building in Nottingham, Osman calmly placed his hand on his heart, looked up to the brutal brilliance of the British skies and freely let go. Six months before, over 70 inmates of Yarl Wood’s deportation camp (a place reserved for only women and children) were on a six weeks hunger strike protesting their unjust detention, the violent and vicious ways they and their children were constantly treated, and the racial abuse they routinely suffer. During that hunger strike, up north in Glasgow, a Ukrainian family of three jumped to their death from the thirty-storey apartment buildings which local residents insightfully brand the United Nations of Hell. Two weeks before, the family received a notification from the proper authorities that since they are not fit to live in our midst, they must voluntarily leave the country or be forcefully removed. Like the Iraqi Kurd, the family too got composed, went vertical and let go. Dear little one, in a month’s time, you will be born into this beautiful country and as its citizen, you will not have to suffer the nonstop existential dread or experience the climate of official menace we your family members unceasingly suffer as unwanted aliens or illegal immigrants.

I tell you girl, it has grown too cruel to stand. In the classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee which I cannot wait to read to you once you are born, Simon Finch fled Britain for America because he grew tired of the persecutions he was receiving in a civilised society. The episode happened in a period of history when the prevailing persecution has Methodists for its target because they preached without being ordained or licensed by the proper authorities. And the persecutors were clergymen and judges. Simon Finch in an ironic twist belonged to a persecuted minority in Britain but on getting to America, he rose to enter the privileged group who cruelly exploited the persecuted minority there and purchased some of them as chattels to establish himself. He died rich. At the thematic centre of the book is a variant of this heartless code of social stratification that makes that persecution possible, “a rigid and time honoured-code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with.”

The place is Maycomb, an old, small, family-oriented town in Alabama where to deliberately ostracise yourself by missing church services on Sundays is not only offensive but an unforgiveable crime as well. The main residential houses are located along a single street and each family knows the other, look after the other, knows each others’ histories and pursuits. They are not only “related by blood or marriage,” they can accurately predict a person’s behaviour from the type of family he or she comes from generations before. To a stranger travelling along that main residential street, they typify an ordinary, law-abiding and civil society. But there is certainly an unseen periphery to this privileged class:

Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuation changed their status... no truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them  from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.


Yet however admirable the cleanliness and lofty values possessed by the black community, they squat below the Ewells in terms of the social hierarchy. While the Ewells live on the edge of the border, “behind the town garbage dump,” the Negroes live further off in an über-ghetto called Quarters which is ‘outside the southern town limits.’ They do jobs which are indispensable but challenging to dignity. They are the garbage collectors, field hands, cooks, and house cleaners just like illegal immigrants who however sparkling their educational qualifications or intellectual capacities, are reserved at the bottom of the social ladder to confront the arduous, undignifying and dangerous jobs with little pay others will never do to get by. The novel tells us that when Boo Radley of the privileged class, committed an offence, the chief police officer “hadn’t the heart to put him in jail alongside the Negroes.” Being a system of oppression, the jail is “certainly someone’s dream. [It was] Maycomb’s only conversation piece: its detractors said it looked like a Victorian privy; its supporters said it gave the town a good solid respectable look, and no stranger would ever suspect that it is full of niggers.” As a society of aesthetes, they pleasure themselves debating the art of the building not the moral seriousness of what it contains and how. This same disconnect explains why to many, Great Britain is a splendid sprawl of freedom and opportunities but to some unseen others, those whom the police, the immigration and media headlines never leave alone, it is a huge prison camp with a Victorian privy on every street.  

The Radleys, though living on the main residential street, belong to the bottom too. On them are heaped wild speculations determined to cast them constantly in a scary light:  “Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events: people’s chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie...people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions.” Why? Initially, “they were welcomed anywhere in town, [but] kept to themselves, a predilection unforgivable in Maycomb.” The Radleys were not made strangers, they chose to be. Hence, their offence lay in appropriating the power to define themselves in their own terms, not letting others do so for them. It is a question of who controls representation. The human mind is persistently searching for a weak, vulnerable, unassertive Other that it might use to service or idealise its own sense of superiority. If it cannot find this Other, it creates them. This is why in every society there will always be an embattled minority. They vary from society to society but historically, the major contenders have been women, Jews, Jesuits, Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals, Muslims. And once you have been found or created, you are expected to live on the edge of your own nothingness in order to be readily available to the whims of the definers, the powers that be. Since illegal immigrants are those who have the sense and courage to prefer persecutions occasioned by breaching immigration barriers to the promise of unquantifiable hardships back home, they have consented to their own nothingness and surrendered themselves to the whims of the comptrollers of representation.

In the United States, after slavery was abolished, and the equality of all men reaffirmed through the passage of thirteen, fourteen and fifteen amendments, the Supreme Court still laid the foundation for heinous segregation laws through its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. This is because slavery is not just the feat of converting fellow human beings to manufactured chattels for economic interests, nor is it solely about rending the intolerable ordinary for them, it is a system where those down there are compelled ultimately by law to send up their dignity to fatten the prestige of those high up there in the social hierarchy. That was the part of the slavery bundle that the Supreme Court restored. This is also the reason why immediately an embattled group begins to assert and protest like the Abolitionists or Women Suffrage Movements, Gay Pride or Civil Rights Movement, and eventually win the fierce battle for equality and social mobility - another group is soon made embattled on whom the fortunate majority unceasingly unload their insecurities. This new embattled group in turn is expected to send up their dignity to assuage and at the same time feed these insecurities. Ironically, the old embattled minority, now assimilated, participates in persecuting the newly embattled. Just as Simon Finch did: persecuted in Britain, he goes to America to buy slaves. Just as women did in history, who having achieved some feminist victories and secured the rights to vote, did not see anything wrong in denying black people the same right. Currently it is gay immigration officers and their contractors, seeing nothing wrong in the maltreatment of refugees or illegal immigrants in the name of the law. How do black people - despite their own history - still join in the gleeful torment of Latinos or east European immigrants?

But the Atticus Finch household stands out. As impartial as sunshine, they hold an unflinching and unsentimental belief in the intrinsic goodness of all human beings irrespective of class, race or gender. In fact, with the death of Mrs Finch, their black maid, Calpurnia steps in as surrogate wife and mother to Jem and Scot. She tutors them on social conventions, matters of right and wrong, and wields the power to punish them when they err (this of course contravenes the social consensus on Negroes as wielders of any kind of power). The children in turn accept her as an authority figure with a pull of respectability. The code of values which Atticus, a member of the  elite himself, instils in Jem and Scot does not operate by belittling other people for the welfare of one’s ego, or regard them as ‘trash’ based on their race and economic conditions, as other Maycombites do with glee. With Atticus, the will to class pits itself against the will to dominate, unlike others who see their conjunction as a necessary basis of self-worth. Atticus even inducts his children in the unreliability of a single perspective: “you’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” That is: before you pass judgment or condemn others, imagine what it feels to be like them; understand their motives and the pressures they are subjected to. If everyone in a given society took in that admonition, there would be no illegal immigrant. Imagining what it feels like to be someone else is the meaning of humanity, the basis of morality.

Atticus’s sister, Alexandra, comes to intervene in the Finch’s household because there is too much equality, gender parity, independence, and religious freedom which is severally offensive to her own loftiness and the family tradition, their liberal British father being an American slave owner. Preoccupied with drawing lines and defending barriers, she brings in what has been missing in the household: the allure of a functional caste system. She asks Scot not to play with the little Walter Cunningham anymore because of the third tier status of his white family. She orders Scot to stop contemplating visiting Calpurnia’s household in the Quarters. Though a devoted Christian herself, she frowns at Calpurnia’s independent decision to take the children to a black church. She later asks Atticus to sack Calpurnia for being instrumental in the offensive atmosphere of class pollution and status abuse she perceives in the household.  

The black church is called “ ‘First Purchase’ because it was paid for from the first earnings of freed slaves. Negroes worshipped in it on Sundays and white men gambled in it on weekdays.” One fine Sunday morning, Calpurnia, Aunt Alexandra’s foil, walks Jem and Scot to the church setting the stage for the most moving scene of the book. Harper Lee through narrative dexterity heavily foregrounds the emotional intensity of this scene such that it becomes the first ethical apotheosis of the book. How? In the early chapters of the book while the children did what children do, getting curious, going to school, playing, fighting, tricking the reclusive Boo Radley, soon without warning, they begin to get verbally abused, then physically, by their own playmates, then by neighbours, then by close family relations for being children of a ‘nigger-lover,’ for staining the honour in the family name. Atticus, a lawyer, has decided to defend Tom Robinson, a black man and a father of three accused of raping the 19-year-old Mayella Ewell. Chapters upon chapters, dire images of Negroes as Negroes, outsiders as Negroes, criminals as Negroes, evil as Negroes accumulate with exceptional subtlety. Immediately the second part of the book opens, as Calpurnia begins with painstaking care to go over the children’s clothes for church service, telling them which colours match and which do not, polishing their shoes shiny “until she saw her face in them.” We are at the precipice of one of the best moments in American literature. Scot observes:

The warm bittersweet smell of clean Negro welcomed us as we entered the churchyard...When they saw Jem and me with Calpurnia, the men stepped back and took off their hats; the women crossed their arms at their waists, weekly gestures of respectful attention. They parted and made a small pathway to the church door for us. Calpurnia walked between Jem and me, responding to the greetings of her brightly clad neighbours.

But every heaven must have its hell. The prose supplies us with its CEO: “Her weight was on one leg... She was bullet-headed with strange almond eyes, straight nose, and Indian-bow mouth. She seemed seven feet high.” It is Lula, an activist of revenge and enemy of equality. In fact, all enemies of equality in the Maycomb, both black and white are a variant of Lula’s description: “she seemed seven feet high...her weight was on one leg.” Lula contemptuously asks Calpurnia: ‘I wants to know why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church.’

But she is condemned and quickly expunged from their midst as fast as she came, unlike the haughty Aunt Alexandra at home, another enemy of equality, who has come to stay:

When I looked down the pathway again, Lulu was gone. In her place was a solid mass of coloured people. One of them stepped from the crowd. It was Zeebo the garbage collector. ‘Mr Jem,’ he said, ‘we’re mighty glad to have you all here. Don’t pay no ’tention to Lula...She’s troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas an’ haughty ways – we’re mighty glad to have you all.’ With that, Calpurnia led us to the church door where we were greeted by Revered Sykes, who led us to the front pew.

The other emotional watershed in the book follows the same format. It lies at the end of the trial placed squarely at the centre of the book. It is summer and the atmosphere is carnivalesque. The trial about to begin is not that of Tom Robinson, for Tom’s fate has been sealed, since according to Maycomb’s code the testimony of Negroes cannot be believed over the whites. Also, Harper Lee’s description of the court before the trial confirms Tom has no chance.

The Maycomb County court-house was faintly reminiscent of Arlington in one respect: the concrete pillars supporting its south roof were too heavy for their burden. The pillars were all that remained standing when the original court-house was burned in 1865.

1865 was the year the south lost the civil war and their right to hold slaves. And so the federal forces set fire on the court-house. The prose continues, sketching the rise of Jim Crow:

Another court-house was built around [the pillars]. It is better to say, built in spite of them... Greek revival columns clashed with big nineteen-century clock tower housing a rusty unreliable instrument, a view indicating a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past.

What is on trial is this scrap of the past which is the very foundation of the “time honoured-code” that police their social interactions. That is why it is the two bottom classes in the status hierarchy and the most basic of human rights that are involved in the trial. When Maycomb does not accept the weight or veracity of Negro testimony, why is the case still going to court? To the Old Sarum bunch letting the case proceed to court means credence is already being allocated to the Negroes, their voices are being empowered to have a say. Of course, in any system that seeks to oppress peoples, one of the first things it takes away is the embattled’s power to have a say. Why? Because at the sound of oppressed voices, the power of truth and truth of power may begin to form. That is why of all inalienable human rights and fundamental freedoms, freedom of speech is the most key and to the oppressors, the most threatening.

The Old Sarum bunch understands the implications of this concession for status hierarchy, so the night before the trial, drunk on intent, they proceed to the prison as if on pilgrimage to lynch Tom Robinson once and for all. But the children steal forward in all their goodness and naivety, and together with Atticus, they stand up to the bunch. They cry out for a different approach to the status anxieties afflicting the majority; they seek to help Maycomb break its unacknowledged addiction to hatred. However, during the trial the following day, after the principals are examined and cross-examined, what the lynching party could not achieve the previous night looking threatening, the gentlemen of the jury achieve looking civilised: they preserve the sacredness of the status quo by recommending Tom for elimination; they renew a vital source of their social power.

In his final peroration before the jury goes into deliberation, Atticus waxes rhetorical about this vital source of power:

But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.

The court holds the power to dismantle the framework of injustice bone by bone, but chooses instead to move against itself, just as the Supreme Court did in 1896. That is why at the end of the trial, when the judge and the jury file out, and, as tradition demands, all members of the audience has to stand up, the black community confined to the upper balcony of the courtroom refuses to budge. But when Atticus afterward makes his lonely walk down the courtroom aisle, one by one, they get to their feet in solemn reverence and affectionate greeting because he is walking the desolate walk in their own very skins. By the following morning, despite being poor and the Great Depression biting them the most, they deposit overwhelming food items and farm produce at the Finch’s doorstep. Thus ends the second emotional crescendo of the novel. It is important to allow the presence of the Negroes at the court proceedings as a sort of warning to them on the dangers of bursting their allocated strictures or penetrating the mainstream. More, their being seated up in the court balcony above everybody else constantly reminds the jury of what will happen to the status hierarchy and the ruling view if Tom were ever to win the case.

Atticus with the children, in spite of his tight sense of detachment sheds tears for Tom and the defeat of the best hopes of civilization. They all have a heart that can beat across the gates, unlike Aunt Alexandra at home who is only concerned about the traumatic and exhaustive impacts of the trial on them. She decides to induct Scot into the polished ways of privilege. She invites her to a Missionary Ladies Society meeting where their discussions on benevolence to the downtrodden are nothing but an overflow of narcissism. They express sympathies for the Mrundas, a ‘primitive’ tribe faraway in Africa, but only disdain for the black race in Maycomb. They do not see anything wrong in proceeding to sympathise with Helen Robinson and tell her family that the crime of her husband has been forgiven and forgotten. They need the viability of the crime in order to feel they are doing something spiritually correct and religiously hefty. And when Atticus brings word that Tom has been killed while trying to escape in prison, Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra remember crying is necessary. So they summon it for atmospheric effect; they chastise Scot who flusters at the news for not acting with the dignity and grace of a proper lady. Immediately Atticus leaves with Calpurnia to divulge the terrible news to Tom’s widow, Miss Maudie and Aunty Alexandra compose themselves and chameleon-like, rejoin the bubbly meeting.

My daughter you are going to be born into a society where when it is time to donate to faraway Africa or third world countries, people will respond, sincerely motivated by benevolence. But they are largely pitiless to the plight of illegal immigrants from these poor countries right in their midst. This is perhaps because charity maintains the status hierarchy: during the act of giving, the hand of the giver is always on top. Tom’s death sentence becomes more imminent because he reverses the power dynamics by being kind: “he has the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman.” Legitimising the illegal immigrant too nullifies any status-maintenance charity and presupposes equality, because it accords to us the same rights, the same raft of opportunities, the same equal access to luck and the freedom to advance on an open road as any other citizen. Other European immigrants too enjoy these rights and dignities. They are immune to being made illegal. They have absolute freedom to move and work anywhere and anytime without unceasing harassments from the police force, immigration cowboys and media headlines, unlike the illegal immigrant whose sole crime that guaranteed him cold cruelties is that he happens to be born into a different country, albeit a poor one. And yet migration is mankind’s oldest action against poverty and hunger.

What is most sinister in To Kill a Mockingbird is the success of the heinous Maycomb Code. The ultimate purpose of such a code is to wither away once its provisions are dutifully internalised by the people, so that the bottom zeroes of the social hierarchy in particular accept its pernicious consequences as part of the tragic inevitabilities of the human condition. With the elimination of Tom, for instance, no one newly feels compelled to revaluate social certainties. Ms Gates still considers that it was: “time somebody taught them [the Negroes] a lesson, they thought they was getting' way above themselves an' the next thing they think they can do is marry us.” A pervasive threat like a British deportation squad still curtails the freedom of Tom’s wife to move around. The school continues to teach kids that 1930 Germany is cruel to its minorities because Germany is a dictatorship, but America is a democracy so such brutalities can ever happen.

Unlike Tom, who in prison confronts the radical finality of the fate the Maycomb Code foists on him, Osman Rasul Mohammed and the Serkyh family three chose to dramatise the thou-shalt-not-live-amongst-us fate the British Code foisted on them. The oppressed seem to have an affinity with vertical death. Maybe because it sums up their strenuous quest for upward mobility, only for the ground to want them back.

My daughter, read, read, read. Those who embody and defend equality and the idea of social progress in Maycomb are constant readers. It is no coincidence that neither Boo Radley, nor the Cunninghams, nor the Ewells and most certainly not the Negroes, go to school. Even your father like any other illegal is not permitted into any higher institution or college. He will be led from classroom to deportation camp in handcuffs if he dares to insist. There is something about education that confers dignity and breaks chains. It is the reason, dear daughter, why I cannot wait to read you this book once you are born. What Jem and Scot know at 10 and 6 years of age, many adults do not know at 50 and 60 years of age. Education, is the bridge between inclusion and exclusion. When Dill introduces himself to Jem and Scot at the beginning of the novel, he says, “I can read.”

Unlike an upcoming young musician who recently denounced his brother when a media headline found him illegal, you should be proud of your family, since you will be a legitimate in a family of illegitimates. Atticus warns his child:  “shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Why? “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.”

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