From Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, I had the privilege of reading and studying a variety of books in my high school English classes. While each book maintained their own compelling stories, one that struck a chord with me in particular was Harper Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird.
Most people are familiar with the book, and if you’re not, it's not exactly about killing a mockingbird. The book is about Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout),” and her father Atticus, who is defending an African American man named Tom Robinson who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. The title explains a key metaphor in the book-- that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird-- explained by Atticus himself and then Miss Maudie:
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
To elaborate, killing a mockingbird is a sin because they are harmless, innocent creatures. This is a central theme of the novel, as the drive to defend the innocent is what pushes Atticus Finch to defend the accused and vulnerable Tom Robinson. Out of all the books I read in high school, I can say that To Kill A Mockingbird is one that stands out as still culturally relevant — over 50 years since it’s release.
This is demonstrated towards the end of the book, when Tom Robinson is found guilty regardless of the overwhelming evidence that suggests otherwise. Set in 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill A Mockingbird offers a moving account of racial injustice in America. But here we are in 2017, with racism still rooted deep in the foundation of our society.
To Kill A Mockingbird speaks volumes about ignorance when it comes to any type of injustice in United States. In the courtroom, Atticus contradicted the accusations against Tom Robinson over and over again, but the white jury turned a blind eye to his evidence, focusing instead on the color of Tom's skin. This goes to show that our court and legal systems are far from immaculate, and Atticus is aware of that:
“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system — that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality.”
Atticus is suggesting that our legal system is not run by omnipotent individuals, but rather by people with their own prejudices that guide their judgment. But Americans tend to place their faith in these systems, not acknowledging the discrimination that serves as the foundation. This is what systematic racism is. It goes far beyond microaggressions. It is when our own legal systems fail people of color time and time again — it is bloodshed that cannot be covered up by a flag.
Scout and her brother, Jem, begin to realize the discrimination ingrained within their society after Tom Robinson’s verdict. Jem is angry and upset, but Atticus gives him a wholeheartedly honest answer:
“Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom's jury, but you saw something come between them and reason.... There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those are the facts of life."
The fact is that To Kill A Mockingbird offers a powerful narrative that is still relevant today. The killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer is what sparked a series of protests across the country, but regardless, his killer will not be charged. The same can be said for the murders of Philando Castile and Trayvon Martin, because despite the evidence against their killers, they were still able to walk free. This resonates with me because it is too similar to the fate of Tom Robinson, who was found guilty regardless of the evidence suggesting otherwise. The systematic racism of 1930s America is still here, alive and well in 2017. But many people look the other way because they believe that racism went away with Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech and the Civil Rights movement. The truth is that racism is still present and killing innocent people every single year.
When an innocent African American man is killed and the murderer is not brought to justice, the themes of “To Kill A Mockingbird” seem too familiar for being set in the 1930s. It inspires the kind of anger that Scout and Jem felt after Tom Robinson’s verdict. It is incredibly frustrating to think that although To Kill A Mockingbird was released over 50 years ago and set almost a century in the past, the story is a stark reflection of what still occurs in 2017. Racism and prejudice sticks out so starkly in our society, yet people still pretend it isn’t a problem.
“Atticus-" said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. "What, son?"
"How could they do it, how could they?"
"I don't know, but they did it. They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep.”