Maycomb: an example of how to act with ignorance
Tears of frustration roll down Jem Finch’s face after the verdict of guilty is spoken into the courtroom. To Maycomb, this was just another person going to jail; But to Atticus Finch, the verdict added to the years of oppression faced by African-Americans employed by the privileged white citizens of Maycomb. In the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, readers are exposed to the triumphs and tribulations faced by a town post great depression, and in which it’s citizens face the reality of coexisting amongst other races. The story follows Tom Robinson, an innocent black man who was accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the promiscuious daughter of one of the town’s biggest disgrace of a family. Atticus Finch, Tom’s lawyer, seeks to be an understanding ally for the unheard voices, who are shut down due to ignorance and white privilege. Atticus’ states that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view”, where he disputes the close mindedness and benightedness in the town. This claim not only helps to defy racist stereotypes and actions of Maycomb, but also serves as a lesson for the understanding of the less fortunate.
To begin, in To Kill A Mockingbird, readers see many examples of racism and judgement, despite little being known about one’s character. Atticus’ statement that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” helps challenge the ideas behind racism in Maycomb. After hours of presenting evidence and cross examining statements, the trial of black man, Tom Robinson, in the rape of Mayella Ewell, begins to come to a close. During the final few minutes of Tom’s trial, Atticus Finch, Tom’s lawyer makes his last points by explaining that "She was white, and she tempted a N****. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an old Uncle, but a strong young N**** man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards” (Lee 207). This shows the skewed views of society in terms of interracial relationships, as they are labeled as “unspeakable”, even though the only thing said about the man was his skin color. No couple should be thought of as unspeakable when the only thing seen is one’s skin color. In reality, because Maycomb is filled with ignorance, their shallow judgments show they truly don’t understand people, and that one’s character isn’t determined by their skin color. Shortly after, Atticus further defends Tom Robinson by pointing out that "...some N****es lie, some N****es are immoral, some N**** men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire” (Lee 208). In this excerpt, Atticus points out the hypocrisy of the white men/jurors accusing Tom. No one in that room is a perfect person, and people in that room have acted in a similar ‘lustful’ manner (even though Mayella came onto Tom first). Additionally, this also proves that you don’t know someone’s motives or personality after only a glance. Having good or bad ideals doesn’t depend on one’s skin color; there are good and bad people in the world, regardless of heritage and ethnicity. In sum, Atticus uses his time during the trial to point out how the unspoken ‘rules’ of Maycomb are developed without knowing someone’s character.
In addition, Atticus’s statement that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” helps people become more empathetic and understanding towards fellow citizens; To begin, this goes hand in hand with becoming aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to live life like others. For instance, on the first day of school, Walter Cunningham, the son of poor farmers, does not have lunch. After Scout interrupts the teacher by talking about Walter’s situation, she gets angry and goes to beat Walter up; luckily, Jem stops Scout, and invites Walter to dinner. While at dinner, Walter uses a lot of syrup, and this upsets Scout, which prompts Calpurnia (their cook) to remind her that “There’s some folks who don’t eat like us,” she whispered fiercely, “but you ain’t called on to contradict ’em at the table when they don’t. That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?” (Lee 25). This quote shows that even though Scout might not agree with Walter’s food choices, he is still welcome. Additionally, if Scout was in Walter’s position, where syrup and other foods were rarities, she would have understood why he was savoring it. Additionally, Maycomb is also home to Boo Radley, a neighbor of the Finch family. Boo rarely steps outside of his house, or seen for that matter, and as a result, many kids create rumors surrounding him, his appearance or his violent/creepy past. Jem and Scout, in addition to Dill, their friend who visits during the summertime. One night, the kids let their imagination lead them to Boo’s front yard, where Jem is dared to touch the house, but he has his doubts. In response, Dill reassures him saying that “He’ll probably come out after you when he sees you in the yard, then Scout’n‘ mill jump on him and hold him down till we can tell him we ain’t gonna hurt him” (Lee 14). This quote is a clear example of the kids feeding into the stereotypes given to Boo. Although they’ve never met, the three kids still decide to mess with Boo and egg him on, most likely to get a reaction. However, as the story progresses, so does Scout. Later in the story, Atticus takes Jem and Scout to shoot tin cans in their backyard; nonetheless, Atticus is aware they’ll want shoot at birds, he says “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ʼem, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (Lee 93). Although he uses this in a physical sense, Atticus explains that all a mockingbird does is sing, so therefore its morally wrong to shoot it, to which readers infer that the mockingbirds of Maycomb are Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Towards the end of the story, Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout, and Boo ends up stabbing Bob to defend the kids. When Officer Tate, shows up, he agrees to cover it up and say Bob stabbed himself; Scout retorts this by saying to Atticus “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (Lee 280). This shows that Scout now not only understands that it would bring unwanted suspicion and torment to Boo, but it also shows growth; Scout now realizes that Boo is the mockingbird, as he does nothing wrong nor disturbs the peace, so it’d be wrong to poke fun at him. Scout now begins to feel empathy for Boo, thinks about his life and overall picture herself in his shoes, to the point where she doesn’t want to feed into bad stereotypes. This shows that once Scout takes another perspective, she is able to understand many of Boo’s actions, such as why he stays in the house. In the end, unless you can see another person’s frame of mind, you’re not able to fully understand one’s situation.
In essence, Atticus’ statement that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view”debates the old, racist and judgemental thinking of Maycomb citizens. During Tom’s trial, it is clear that the town ultimately let their outdated thinking derive them from having empathy and hearing another side. Furthermore, Calpurnia reminds Scout that just because Walter doesn’t act or eat like them doesn’t mean he is treated any differently than any other guest; this also shows Scout not looking deeper into Walter’s actions and trying to understand where he’s coming from. Moreover, and most importantly, Boo Radley serves as an example of not being understood or given a chance to be heard. When Scout finally meets him and thinks about how he is the mockingbird, she sees his perspective, which ultimately helps her from feeding into rumors and chiches without truly getting to know someone. In the end, people should act based on their own thoughts, because when people assume the worst about someone, especially someone who already is oppressed due to sexuality, religion, skin color or gender identity, they use power to further push limiting confinements onto that person. Because people of power, such as white people, police officers and many government officials, act off hundred year old stereotypes, they push minorities into a corner, where the only way out is to rebel and act in violent ways (7% of the time). At the end of the day, if we can see that riots only happen due to years of pent up mistreatment and that there’s not just a ‘few bad apples’ but rather that corrupt systems are founded and still acting on old stereotypes of minorities, the world can start to see that “liberty and justice for all” is not what's really happening in America (and other countries). Before a white person or a person in a high government position says that ‘racism is not real’ or that the lgbt community is not oppressed, reflect on the fact that you’ve never had to be killed to say that your skin color matters, or that it was only five years ago that one could marry the same sex. In conclusion, citizens should be urged to act from a place of seeing another perspective, like Atticus says; act as if you are in that situation. Just because something shouldn’t happen doesn’t mean it doesn’t. See what is there, not what you want to see.