(un)common ground

a commonplace book

How “To Kill a Mockingbird” Perpetuated a Myth about Racism

To Kill a Mockingbird seemed to usher in a new trend in Southern literature. It proved that a book could acknowledge and even condemn the South’s racist past and still be wildly commercially successful—provided it was just the right amount of progressive. The key to this was not to betray the central tenets of the post-racial delusion: 1) That racism was an American scourge that resided firmly in the past, and 2) That any remaining racism represented a personal, rather than a political, problem.

Kate Jenkins, “Harper Lee and the Myth of a Post-racial America,” Literary Hub, Feb. 23, 2016

Indeed, the novel’s popularity over time, its status as a “classic” is enough to make anyone familiar with African American literature a bit suspicious; why is it the novel about racism written by a white person from the perspective of a white family that gets the praise for being so visionary? for example.

Compare Mockingbird with novels like Invisible Man (Ellison) or Native Son (Wright) or The Bluest Eye (Morrison).

I think there’s something to be said for the argument of Jenkins’ that Lee’s novel is so successful because of its ostensible exorcism of racism, its [facile?] hindsightedness. It’s certainly a fine book, but perhaps too neat. The value of African American literature, on the other hand, is the discomfort it induces in the white reader: to be forced into the subjectivity of the Other, somehow, to become confronted with the uneasiness of double-consciousness, to be disturbed and to come away from the novel still disturbed…


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This entry was posted on March 25, 2016 by and tagged , .
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