To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the 1930s southern US, an era of eugenics and Jim Crow laws. While the story is one of tragedy and injustice, it is told from the perspective of a young white girl, who is personally unaffected by these oppressive complexes. This prioritization of white, abled, and wealthy perspectives or interpretations dilutes the logos of the narrative. To Kill a Mockingbird and other memoirs like it are disability and Black trauma pornography that serve to invoke the sympathy, and assert the lack of culbability, of white abled readers, while doing none of the same for Black disabled readers.
This story is told exclusively from the perspective of Scout Finch, between the ages of 5 and 9. Harper Lee, the author, is also a white woman, and is likely the real voice behind Scout, referring to her own childhood in the south. Scout, while being a strong-willed and outspoken youngster, is still a white perspective, and a limited one at that. Scout and her brother Jem, are only friends with other young white children, like Dill, Cecil, or Walter. Most of the adults in her life are white, with the exception of their nanny, Calpurnia. Even when she reacts to racist sentiments, it’s to distinguish her father as an (white) individual separate from the Black clients he defends. While Scout is being raised to stand in solidarity with those less fortunate than her, her father never interrogates whiteness with his children, only moral platitudes of fairness or non-violence. From chapter 9,
“ ‘If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?”
‘For a number of reasons,’ said Atticus. ‘The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.’
In Atticus’ own words, defending Tom Robinson’s hopeless case is a matter of personal reputation, of upholding his own excellent defense record. He doesn’t ask Scout to empathize with the Robinson family, or to consider the real reasons behind being “licked a hundred years before we started.” Rather, he continues;
“…we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”
Scout is, of course, about 6 years old during this conversation. But what sort of conversations should we expect people in Tom Robinson’s situation to have with their own children? Certainly not that everyone is still friends, or that Maycomb is still home. This teaching solidifies for Scout that 1) the Finch family is still white, no matter who Atticus represents, 2) cases like Tom Robinson’s are practically inconsequential since the outcome is obvious. Some other implications tied in may be that Atticus is the main subject of the case, that others’ perception matters more than being equitable. These are the priorities, to defend white reputations of modesty or class rather than to renounce hateful racist rhetoric and white privilege.
Another way that this story prioritizes whiteness is that the Black population of Maycomb hardly ever directly speaks on their pain. Lee expresses certain tensions, undertones of Jim Crow laws, but throughout the whole book, no Black person actually speaks the full truth of their pain over Tom Robinson’s trial. Given that this story is told from the perspective of a white child, it’s easy to explain away Scout’s limited view. The issue is that not only does the novel lack these candid, agonizing moments; instead we have just as many reminders that despite being children, they are still treated as better than Black adults. When Jem and Scout visit Calpurnia’s church in chapter 12, their entrance is a show-stopper.
“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, weekday gestures of respectful attention. They parted and made a small pathway to the church door for us.”
It becomes clear that some want the Finch children to leave, but the majority are excited to have them, to give them “respectful attention.” During Tom Robinson’s trial, four unknown Black attendees voluntarily give up their front row seats for Jem, Scout and Dill. Later on during the trial, Reverend Sykes begs the children to leave, worried about what their father might say, and yet Jem, at only 12 years old, has enough authority to refuse the request. Interactions like these are commonplace, routine, and unquestioned by everyone in the room, and those who disagree are shunned and excluded. Whether out of compassion and understanding for two white children who have yet to comprehend the full sin of racism, or fear of retaliation from white adults, there is no widely shared discomfort with this intrusion upon Black spaces. The Black adults here are portrayed as welcoming, genial, loving, and ironically, color-blind. Even when Tom’s case is lost, despite Atticus’ attitude of resignation, the Black community comes down on the Finch household in droves, with whatever they could get their hands on to express their appreciation. Atticus doesn’t refuse their offerings, even though he immediately acknowledges what an expense this must have been. Throughout the rest of the novel, the Black community of Maycomb is invisible. Culminating with Tom’s eventual murder, the issue of anti-Blackness is neatly wrapped up. As Atticus puts it,
“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe…some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.”
And what this statement does, in line with the ultimate conviction, is re-establish that white supremacy is an undeniable truth. To Atticus, and to the white people of Maycomb, no matter how Black people suffer, it will always be this way and it should, because Black people simply were not made equal. This acceptance of the status quo, this maintenance of privilege, solidifies that To Kill a Mockingbird is a story for white readers, despite what other loosely held sentiments may be thrown in for good measure.
In much the same way that the Finchs’ racism is unbeknownst to them, it is inconceivable that a disabled person like Boo Radley could have his own personal narrative. Boo is immediately characterized as an oddity, a recluse with violent tendencies. As the novel progresses, and his character slowly opens, almost agonizingly, it becomes clear that Boo Radley’s circumstances are not his own doing. The argument of nature versus nurture is sure to have been beaten to death in the gossip circles of Maycomb, when it comes to Boo Radley. Yet, unlike Tom Robinson, Boo Radley’s circumstances are not seen as incontestable. From Calpurnia, we know that Mr. Radley, Sr was the “meanest man God ever blew breath into,” and from Ms. Maudie Atkinson, “but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of-”
The people of Maycomb are aware of what sort of abuse goes on in the Radley household, but don’t see any pressing need to intervene. They pity Boo Radley, and speak sympathetically to his situation, because it is a natural fact to them that Boo Radley deserved better treatment than he received from his father. As true as this statement is, the closest thing we have to direct characterization of Boo at this point in the novel is that, in his younger days, according to Ms. Maudie, “…He always spoke nicely to me, no matter what folks said he did.” But who is Boo Radley now, more than 30 years later? What chances has he had to tell his own truth?
The answer to this, is sadly, none. Arthur Radley, like many neuro- or physically diverse people, has a narrative of violence, inhumanity, and pure evil placed upon him. It is only through Scout and Jem’s companionship that Boo Radley is rehumanized, instead of through his own words or explicit feelings. Boo’s only line in the entire story comes from the last chapter, as he timidly asks 8 year old Scout to walk him home. Despite this clear evidence of his affection for the Finch children, as he gently caresses an unconscious Jem, or humors his vertically-challenged walking partner, he is not expanded upon or revisited after this passage. Scout recalls, “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” And yet, Scout isn’t really walking around in them; she’s reshaping Boo’s narrative into one that works for her. Where she had earlier acknowledged that she and Jem hadn’t done much of anything to reciprocate Boo Radley’s friendship, she then turns to create a romanticized ideal of the isolation Boo has experienced.
In their book, Cultural Locations of Disability, Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell posits the following; “Even in the face of benign rhetoric about disabled people’s best interests, these locations of disability have resulted in treatment, both in the medical and cultural sense, that has proven detrimental to their meaningful participation in the invention of culture itself” (Snyder, Mitchell, 3). Meaning that, regardless of best intentions, actions and behaviors that consistently dehumanize disabled people, whether it be by race or neurodivergence, are simply a reiteration of institutional power that these disenfranchised people will never be benefited by. It doesn’t matter that Atticus saw it as his ethical obligation to defend Tom Robinson just as he would any other client; Atticus was not able or unwilling to interrogate the ways in which his own attitude and “private” beliefs affected the outcome of the case. The Finch family as a whole never seems to take pause and really consider their role, or how much space they take up in the Black community of Maycomb (both figuratively and literally.) In the same vein, it’s meaningless that so many people had an opinion about the way Mr. Radley Sr brought up his sons. Because no one intervened on behalf of Arthur Radley, whether they found it necessary in the first place, or important in the second, Arthur too, was never given a real chance to contribute to his community. Sentiment and prayer, while lovely to taste, have no real substance. Imagine if perhaps, that those who were so inclined, such as Mr. Link Deas, had taken it upon themselves to resolve Mr. Ewell and his smear campaign against Tom Robinson? Or if Ms. Maudie had marched herself right up to the front porch of the Radley house and invited Arthur over for tea whenever he might want it? Those small steps taken by sincere allies, would’ve opened up a world of possibilities for people put into unfortunate circumstances like Tom Robinson and Arthur Radley.
Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder, Cultural Locations of Disability, Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006. Print.