This past July was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird. Recently I participated in a radio show to celebrate the anniversary. You can listen to it here. The show was a wonderful opportunity to reflect not only on the book itself, but also on the ways in which some of the themes addressed in the book, racism, classism, the role of gender in shaping identity, even access to education, have and have not changed over the last half century. When I first read the book in my late childhood, I was focused first on racial issues, especially on the prosecution of Tom Robinson, and next, on how Atticus Finch, the protagonist, represented what was good and right in America, standing firm in his convictions even in the face of adversity.
However, over the years, especially as I have used the book (and the film based on the book) as texts in law teaching, I see the book and the characters differently. I think that the true hero of the book is Scout, the child narrator who delivers the tale. Scout, because of her age and gender, is able to move between the worlds of black and white and of male and female. Her relative social unimportance allows her a veritable cloak of invisibility from which she can see and hear and thereby gain what comes close to an omniscient knowledge of her community and its people. Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a white woman, becomes, with every successive reading, a distant symbol, a cipher, someone who must be convicted and who must die, however unjust such an outcome may be. Tom is, however, no “magic negro” as there is no magic in To Kill a Mockingbird. There is only a finely-wrought and complex sense of truth, but it is a truth that falls well-short of despair. To Kill a Mockingbird troubles the notion of thesis and antithesis often seen in discussions of race, whether fictional or real. Scout and the other children in the book illustrate this, for they are more real than many of the adult characters. They are flawed and imperfect, but joyous, passionate and ultimately just. They are the antidote to our 21st century postmodern, poststructual, and allegedly post racial world.