Race, Class, and Gender in To Kill a Mockingbird: Crash Course Literature 211

Race, Class, and Gender in To Kill a Mockingbird: Crash Course Literature 211


Hi, I’m John Green, this is
Crash Course Literature, and today we continue our discussion
of To Kill a Mockingbird. So the takeaway from last week’s video about
Mockingbird was this: “You never really understand a person until you consider things
from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And for
me, at least, that’s one of the great pleasures of reading. We get to escape the strictures
of our narrow lives and travel through time and space, imagine the world from other people’s
perspectives. And by accessing this wide range of human experience, we can understand that
other people are really real and isn’t that an amazing thing to be able to do while you’re
also eating Cheetos?!? Downside, you stain all your books with Cheeto
fingers, but it’s worth it! [Theme Music] So some people argue that the empathy and
understanding that we can get from reading is in fact, like, the point of all culture.
In 1875, the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold argued that culture: “…seeks to do
away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current
everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light.” If that’s the point of
culture, I’m not sure that we’ve done that well, especially since in that quote, Matthew Arnold said,
“men” when I presume he meant, you know, people. So To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t “do away”
with class structure, but it does critique social and racial divisions in the American
South. And like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about
the past, but it is also very much a product of the time in which it was written. All right,
let’s go straight to the Thought Bubble today. So Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in the
1950s—a decade of huge changes in the social landscape of the United States: Rosa Parks
refused to give up her seat on a bus (precipitating the Montgomery Bus Boycott). Riots broke out
after two African-Americans were admitted into the University of Alabama. And that was
just in Lee’s home state! In Mississippi, Emmett Till, a 14 year old African-American
boy, was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman, and the Supreme Court decided
that “separate but equal” schools are inherently unequal in the Brown v. Board of
Education case in 1954. Congress passed a Civil Rights Act in 1957 to support the integration
of schools. In Arkansas, the governor used the National Guard to prevent nine African-American
students from entering Little Rock High School, and President Eisenhower sent federal troops
to integrate that school. Lee reflects on her 1930s childhood from the
perspective of the conflict-ridden 1950s. So yes, Lee is nostalgic for the sweetness
and light of her youth, for summer days playing outdoors, lemonade on front porches, reading
on a father’s lap, but she’s also unflinching in her critiques of the bitterness and ignorance
that characterized social and race relations. That combination of nostalgia and criticism
makes Mockingbird both endearing and enduring. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So our hero and narrator,
Scout, is confused by the hatred and violence she witnesses in her town. At the start of
Mockingbird, Jem explains the social order of Maycomb: “The thing about it is, our
kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and
the Ewells hate and despise the colored folks.” Scout doesn’t like this, she argues that
there is, “just one kind of folks. Folks.” Scout, I don’t wanna cast aspersions, but
that’s literally the definition of communism. But class is deeply entrenched in Maycomb;
like, when Scout asks her Aunt Alexandra if she can invite a poor classmate named Walter
Cunningham home, Alexandra tells her: “…you should be gracious to everybody, dear. But
you don’t have to invite him home.” And when Scout pressures further, Alexandra finally
says: “… he—is—trash, that’s why you can’t play with him. I’ll not have
you around him, picking up his habits and learning Lord-knows-what.” But in the logic
of the novel, Alexandra’s thinking isn’t just mean-spirited, it’s flat-out dangerous, because
Scout and Jem have actually already hosted Walter Cunningham—a fact that saves Atticus from
a beating and (briefly) saves the life of Tom Robinson. Because, remember when a mob converges on
the jail to lynch Tom, they find Atticus waiting outside, right? Scout and Jem then arrive
on the scene and when Scout innocently mentions to Mr. Cunningham, a leader of the group that
wants to lynch Tom, that his son is “a real nice boy,” a humbled Mr. Cunningham tells
the mob to disperse. So it’s by not honoring the class structure of Maycomb that Scout
is able to achieve a small measure of justice. It’s also telling that it’s not Atticus, or any
other member of their white upper middle class social order, who taught Scout how to
pay young Walter Cunningham proper respect. It’s the family’s African-American housekeeper,
Calpurnia, because in fact, Scout’s really rude to Walter when he eats at her house.
She asks Walter “what the sam hill he was doing” after he pours syrup all over his
food, and then Calpurnia summons Scout to the kitchen and lets her have it. Calpurnia
explains that guests, no matter who they are, must be treated well and then tells Scout
that if she is not going to behave, she won’t eat at the table, she has to eat in the kitchen. And Scout really respects Calpurnia, who,
by the way, is a fascinating character. Unlike most African Americans in 1930s Alabama, Calpurnia
reads, writes, she has excellent grammar. And Scout notices that Calpurnia chooses to
speak differently with white people than she does with African-Americans. When Scout asks
her about this, Calpurnia replies, “….Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church,
and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin‘ on airs to beat Moses.” And Scout’s
awestruck by the notion that Calpurnia “led a modest double life… The idea that she
had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one, to say nothing of her having
command of two languages.” This is again a moment of Scout learning to imagine others
complexly, which, after all, is her real education. So Calpurnia’s “double life” is a textbook example of what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “double-consciousness” in his famous book The Souls of Black Folk (published in 1903). Du Bois describes “double-consciousness” as the “sense…of always looking at one’s
self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks
on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two
souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged
strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” And Calpurnia is acutely aware of how she
looks in the eyes of others. She has internalized the racism of whites as well as the classism
inside her own community, and she treads carefully in both worlds. And she’s also a woman,
so she has to navigate gender expectations. Like although Calpurnia usually allows Scout
to wear overalls, she dresses her up for church. And I think that gesture represents more than
professional pride. It also demonstrates how deeply ingrained ideals of Southern femininity
are in Calpurnia’s life: it’s one thing, and certainly this heroism shouldn’t be
dismissed, to allow a girl to “act like a boy” at home. But when it comes to her
church and her community, Calpurnia ultimately forces Scout to conform to the gender roles
that we discussed last week. So that’s one way that race and gender discrimination
manifested itself in Maycomb. Another is the experience of Tom Robinson. Despite being proven
innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt, Tom is sentenced to death. So how is Scout supposed to make
sense of that? Well for this, we turn to Atticus Finch. He’s sort of a Gregory Peck — oooh. It’s
time for the open letter. Oh, look at that, it’s the movie tie-in
edition of my own book, The Fault in Our Stars. An open letter to movie adaptations. I just
want to state, for the record, that this was Meredith’s idea. It’s not like I need
Crash Course to inform you that the paperback edition of my book is now available for just
$12.99. Dear Movie Adaptations,
Why are you so often so bad? The standard narrative is that movie adaptations
are bad because you can’t fit a whole novel into a movie. But one, that doesn’t explain
Where the Wild Things Are, which is, like, 32 pages long. And two, you will rarely in
American literature come across a more interesting and complex book than To Kill a Mockingbird, which
had, like, the greatest movie adaptation of all time! I think it’s ultimately because movie people
know that they need to make something that will appeal to millions and millions of people,
whereas books don’t have to have that broad of an audience. Because let’s face it, not
that many people read them. But, Movie Adaptations, when you’re good,
and I think I’ve been lucky enough to get a good one, you’re not obsessed with getting
the broadest possible audience, you’re obsessed with trying to make a good movie. So more
of that, and less pandering with gratuitous sex scenes and explosions. Oh Stan, always pandering with explosions.
Best Wishes, John Green. Right, but Atticus is magnanimous. I mean,
he waves at old Mrs. Dubose, the morphine addict who screams insults at Jem and Scout.
Like although Atticus knows that Mrs. Dubose doesn’t approve of his own actions, he still recognizes that she has, quote, “real courage”—something he defines as, “…when you know you’re
licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
Real courage, seeing it through even when you know you’re doomed, like the Demi Moore
Scarlet Letter adaptation. They knew it was gonna suck, but they just kept going. No one
knows who Demi Moore is anymore, Stan. We gotta update our references. Did Mila Kunis
make any terrible movie adaptations? Meredith has informed me that Mila Kunis is also old. But this is precisely the kind of courage
that Atticus displays when defending Tom Robinson. Like before the trial, Atticus tells his brother
that he knows he is already “licked”: “You know what’s going to happen as well
as I do.” But Atticus still defends Tom passionately, although to be fair, it’s
not that difficult to argue in court that a man with a damaged left arm would have had
a difficult time punching someone on the right side of their face. Now that was his job,
but outside the courtroom, he also holds an all-night vigil near Tom’s cell. Atticus
is fighting for more than abstract principles of social justice. He wants to serve as an
example that will prevent his children from, quote, “catching” racism, which he calls,
“Maycomb’s usual disease.” Astoundingly, Atticus even has compassion
for Bob Ewell, the drunkard who beat (and likely raped) his own daughter, Mayella. I
mean, Ewell successfully pinned this on Tom Robinson, knowing full well that a conviction
would lead to the death penalty. And Ewell stalked Tom’s wife, spit in Atticus’ face, and
threatened, then later attacked, Jem and Scout. And when Jem’s a little incredulous
that Atticus is able to empathize with Ewell, Atticus replies, “Jem, see if you can stand
in Bob Ewell’s shoes for a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial,
if he had any to begin with. [….] So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved
Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take
it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there.”
That may seem like almost over-the-top in terms of heroism, but let’s remember this is a
Southern Gothic novel. It has to have its knight. All right, let’s close today with Atticus’
line that gives the novel its title: “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” When Scout
asks Miss Maudie why, she learns: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us
to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do
one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
So who’s the mockingbird in this novel? Is it the elusive Boo Radley, confined to
the nest of his home, but generous in his love for the Finch children? Is it Tom Robinson,
whose kindness to Mayella Ewell was literally the death of him? Is it the author herself,
singing her heart out about the imperfect gardens of her youth? Or is it Scout herself,
whose education in empathy is also an education in race, class, and gender oppression? (It
could also be Katniss Everdeen.) But regardless of how you answer that question,
To Kill a Mockingbird leaves us with a timeless takeaway: it requires courage to try on the
proverbial shoes of others, to try to walk around in their skin. It’s difficult but
important to listen to other peoples’ voices and to try to empathize across the barriers
of sex and class and race. And ultimately, that’s the great heroism of Atticus Finch. He’s able
to seek and find the essential humanity of others. Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is made by all of these nice
people, and it exists because of your support at Subbable.com, a voluntary subscription
service that allows you to support Crash Course directly. So if you want to help us out in
our mission to keep Crash Course free for everyone forever, please check out Subbable.
You can also get great perks. Thank you for watching, and as we say in my home town,
“Don’t forget to be awesome.”

100 thoughts on “Race, Class, and Gender in To Kill a Mockingbird: Crash Course Literature 211

  1. The Movie adaptation for "To Kill a Mockingbird" was a little disappointing for me. The second act was greatly portrayed but the first half of the book was almost completely skipped over.

  2. Correction this year the white lady admitted emitt till didn't even whistle at her, he did nothing. he died a innocent 14 yr old for an attention whore

  3. 8:18 Oh, John Green, enough of us know who Demi Moore is that we know it's pronounced Duh-MEE Moore, not DIH-mee Moore.

  4. We really need a reevaluation of this book with Go Set a Watchman and an evaluation of Go Set a Watchman

  5. Thanks for this great video! More crash course literature vids would be amazing, you make things so gripping! Next? Madame Bovary? David Copperfield? 🙂

  6. thanks for this. I grew up at the height of a violent appartheid South Africa. attending a Christian National education whites only school. in the late 60s to 70s. We were given this book as a setwork. Someone clearly slipped up since even Black Beauty had been banned because of the title (true or maybe myth). Thank you for this analysis …i think our teacher managed to skillfully skip over any actual message or meaning emerging from the text.

  7. As one who lives in a state that has bestowed upon the mockingbird the title of 'state bird', I have to testify that they do make melodious calls, but also hisses as they divebomb hapless college students who have to use the door that said birds have decided to make a nest by.

  8. Stating that there is just one kind of folks and that's folks is not communism/socialism. From saying "folks is folks" it doesn't follow that one is saying wealth should be re-distributed. These Green brothers are good at subtle distortions.

  9. 9:47 It does sound like over-the-top heroism, but I think that's only because our standards as a society are so low.

  10. Scout: (with innocence) There's one kind of folks. Folks.

    John Green: (acting as Atticus) That's literally the definition of communism, Scout.

  11. The book is so brilliant, it reveals the world only a child can see! The book is still iconic because the world it depicts is in such technicolour detail.
    All its words, situations and experiences are wonderfully realistic for any child that grew up in a world of social divide, unwritten rules and rank hypocrisy. Place it in Alabama or Mumbai, Mombassa or Medellin, and people who grew up there can still relate to it.

  12. I was watching this in the background as I worked on another assignment and all I heard was him pronounce Debois as "Da bois." I started screaming. The boys?!? NOOOOO. Duh-bwah. Say it with me now John. lmao

  13. John, all you gotta do is hold the cheetos with different fingers than the ones you use to turn the page. Duh.

  14. hihi to anyone seeing this,what are some important quotes to memorise and analyse. im having my first literature exams tomorrow and i have no idea what to do ahhhh Thanks in advance!

  15. “I just want to state for the record this was Meredith’s idea. I don’t need Crash Course to tell you that my book is available in paperback for $12.99”

  16. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a good book. I particularly liked how scout sounded like a young girl in the way she thought rather than sounding like an adult remembering childhood. Scout's perspective is unusually well done. Yet, I do not think "To Kill a Mockingbird" was over-the-top amazing.

    In Stephen King's "On Writing," King classifies writers as poor, competent, good, great, and genius. He places Harper Lee in the "great" category. Reading between the lines, King seemed to be itching to place himself in the "great" category also. However, he avoided categorizing himself, probably to avoid criticism.

    King and other modern writers typically face more literary criticism than did Harper Lee. Harper Lee was bolstered by political correctness at the time her work was published. Critics were afraid to criticize her work. They were afraid of being accused of supporting racial segregation if they found fault in her writing.

    Even though the current PC winds are blowing Harper Lee's sails in the opposite direction recently, I still don't like free tickets to greatness.

  17. That moment when you know your books got butchered by Hollywood (Paper Towns and The Fault In Our Stars R.I.P good adaptations)

  18. Wait… you wrote "The Fault in our Stars"?…. I've lost all respect for you

    Joke. I may not precisely like that type of book, but I do get why people like it. It is a good book. Just not my type of book

  19. If culture is both inherently Marxist, socialist, communist, and democratic and I don't mean democratic in term of party democrat I mean in term of ideas of democracy you know ideas that both our founding fathers, usa constitution and if you guy played fallout new Vegas you know of new California republic you know ideas they represent any who then advertising and propaganda and disinformation and misinformation is inherently Stalinist,Maoist,North Korean,juche,Nazism and fascist?

  20. "There just one type of folk and it just folk" while that is definition of communist but it also essential concepts of free and open society you know what you call a democracy you can't really call yourself a democracy if you has inequality. inequality is essential to many tyranny. Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Eastern block, fascists Italy, Nazi Germany, and fascists Japan so on.

  21. I just wanted to point out that the Monster who got Emmet Till murdered recently admitted that he never whistled at her or touched her in any way. Not that it would have mattered if he had, but he didn't and she lied all these years.

  22. Mockingbirds don't do anything bad to us? Pretty sure anything that flies still takes a dump on the things below now and then.

  23. Quote about black people having a sense of "two-ness" makes me wonder whether calling black American people "African-American" is a good idea. We don't call white Americans "European-Americans" or "Caucasian-Americans" – we just call them "American" – without any description of their heritage. It's taken for granted that people from the USA are white unless stated otherwise. Maybe adding a descriptor such as "African" or "Hispanic" or "Asian" before the word "American" subconsciously marks those people out as being "other" and reinforces perceived differences or barriers between those types of people.

    I'm not saying the UK is perfect, but it seems to me that race is far less of an issue here in comparison to the USA. In the USA, de facto segregation still goes on, mainly due to minorities not being able to afford housing in the more affluent areas of the country. Living in a poor area means attending a poor school, as less tax revenue is generated, which equates to less funding being available to invest in local education, leading to lower grades being attained by the pupils who attend them. I've even heard of churches in the USA being described as "black" or "white" churches – as if God cares about your skin colour! In the UK, children of different races go to school together, we worship together (especially Christian churches), work alongside each other and no-one thinks anything of it.

  24. Atticus is painfully naive when it comes to human evil. He actually can't fathom how vile Bob Ewell could get.

    Also, Gregory Peck was basically Atticus Finch in real life.

  25. I'm cramming a bunch of these in the night before my AP Literature exam as a review for the FRQ's, thank you guys for making these.

  26. “Scout I don’t want to cast dispersions but that’s literally the definition of communism.”
    That quote is amazing. I laughed so hard

  27. 2:55 Well, it still beat capitalism. Assuming the government isn't taken over by people driven strictly by greed… Nevermind…

  28. So how did Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, The Coasters, The Chords, and The Drifters get so big in a time of harsh racial segregation?

  29. I love how people say I just see people I don’t see race… do you see the problem with that… with race comes culture and when you ignore race you are also assuming that that person would be just like you causing a lot of dissonance which we can see today…

  30. I would argue that the immediate and continuing popularity of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Atticus Finch are evidence of White Americans literally whitewashing the then and enduring Racism. Atticus is Heroic and a representative of the Better Class of Maycomb society.
    It obliterates the deep-seated Societal Racism thus excusing it and allows White Southerners be accepted by the, claimed non-Racist Northern Whites.

  31. Have you guys ever thought about go set a watchman? I think it came out after this video and it really changes to kill a mockingbird

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