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“To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” Essay

From Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela and many more in between, people have tried to encourage the condemnation of prejudice. Harper Lee and Mildred D. Taylor have tried to do this using the medium of the novel. Many people would feel that the books could be set in the 19th century due to the significance of the prejudice and racism involved. They are actually set in the 1930s and, whilst these childhood accounts were written in the second half of the 20th century, the prejudice still existed at the time of writing and still occurs in inexcusable amounts today. Throughout both books, there are many instances where characters endure or cause suffering due to their unreasonable prejudice. The authors use some similar and some differing techniques to persuade us, the reader, that the only option is to condemn prejudice in our society.

“Roll of thunder, Hear My Cry” portrays a young girl, Cassie’s, black family who are constantly jeered at by white people, who think that, simply due to the fact that they are white, they are better than any black person. They are even spiteful towards Little-Man, who is only a very small boy “enveloping him in a scarlet haze while laughing white faces pressed against the bus windows.” The young white school children, who are mainly below ten, already have the opinion that they are better than any member of the black race. It is repugnant, that these young people, who are only just going to school, already believe that they are better than even the wisest, oldest, black person. They must have inherited this prejudice from their parents as young children are not naturally prejudiced. A society portrayed in such a sickening manner, is obviously designed to condemn prejudice.

Even the Government system of the southern states is extremely prejudiced. They reserve the best books from condition “Excellent” to “Poor” just for white children. When the book has a quality of “Very Poor” it is sent to the black children. Little Man is the one of the youngest in the class but he is the first child to be affronted enough by what he sees to raise the issue with the teacher. The teacher has obviously been faced with this fact for many years. Most of the other children either weren’t affected by this, or completely overlooked the problem.

This may have been because they have been subjected to prejudice for such a long time, that they are starting to feel that what is stated in the table is true; they only deserve the decaying books. This is appalling and clearly encourages the reader to condemn the prejudice highlighted to them. The government is likely to consist of those from white society and therefore what is even more scandalous, but not surprising, is the fact that the Board of Education would even find the need for a ‘Race of Student’ column. This indicates that when the books were first handed out in 1922, the Board of Education had already decided that when the books were in a very poor condition they would be sent to the black people. The incident condemns the institutional aspect of racial prejudice.

Several people at the Wallace store, owned by the most prejudiced and racist man in the whole area, openly jeer at the black children, who are all very young. The white people clearly find no pain in insulting small children. “Melvin Simms said, “Just look at all the little niggers come to dance,” and the laughter of men filled the room.” The manner in which the white men treat the children is disgraceful. The white men talk about the children, not expecting the black children to understand them. Unfortunately the black children understand all too well. You have to admire Cassie’s courage in being able to cross this room, showing the strength of character she has been able to develop in the face of all this adversity.

This is incredibly effective at condemning prejudice, calling on everybody’s own abhorrence of bullying. Imagine being a young girl, aged about 12, and you enter a room where everyone laughs because of what you look like. Now imagine that happening with a roomful of huge, dangerous and probably inebriated men. This is exactly what happened to Cassie, and is completely unjustifiable. The way the author enables you to feel empathy for Cassie is what condemns prejudice.

More of this open prejudice appears in Mr. Barnett’s shop, as he plainly ignores the black children in favour of a white woman, who had a lot more shopping than the black children:

“Mr Barnett walked to another counter and began filling the order, but before he finished a white woman called, “Mr. Barnett, you waiting on anybody just now?” Mr. Barnett turned around, “Just them,” he said, indicating to us with a wave of his hand. “What can I do for you, Miz Emmaline?” The woman handed him a list twice as long as T.J.’s and the storekeeper, without a word of apology to us, proceeded to fill it.”

After Mr. Barnett had displayed this blatant show of prejudice, Cassie went on to ask him why he wasn’t helping them. Mr. Barnett became exceptionally angry because he thought that Cassie was acting outrageously just by talking back to him, even though she spoke very politely. This is partly because he has no respect for black people in general but also because he just cannot believe that a young black girl would have the moral courage to act differently to the norm. Even though she acts in a manner that we could easily accept by today’s standards, Mr. Barnett thinks that she is conceited and a menace. This condemns prejudice because the reader cannot find any genuine reason that would cause Mr. Barnett to become as infuriated as he became.

Furthermore, Mr. Barnett adopts a different attitude to the black children than the one he exhibits towards white people in general. In conversation with Miss Emmaline, he refers to her very formally, calling her “Miz Emmaline”. When he refers to the black children, he doesn’t talk to them formally, or even use their names; a complete disregard for their feelings and self-esteem. His prejudice now is so strong that it outweighs his need to make a living, as he makes no attempt to value their custom. He refers to them in this manner because he essentially knows no better way to act.

T.J. and Stacey also notice Mr. Barnett’s blatant racist attitude, but they each react differently. T.J. recognises that there is a problem, but decides not to act on it, or even to show any sign of response to it. T.J. has learned that it is easier for you to get along with white people if you stay out of their way. He is effectively changing the way he acts when he is around white people. This is shocking, because having to change your own life to suit the preferences of others is unacceptable. Stacey understands what Mr. Barnett was doing, but he reacted differently to T.J. While he and T.J. both ignored Mr. Barnett’s racism, Stacey tries to make what he is doing into a normal occurrence. Stacey quietens Cassie, so that nothing problematic will occur. Prejudice must be condemned when even children recognise the threat posed by a bullying majority.

Even the white children at the time are racist and seem to enjoy the misery that racism causes. Lillian Jean Simms was walking the opposite way to Cassie, and Cassie knocked into Lillian Jean. Cassie said sorry, but Lillian Jean wanted Cassie to walk into the road. Lillian Jean offered a very irrational reason for why Cassie should walk in the road “Maybe that way you won’t be bumping into decent white folk with your nasty little self.” One young girl saying that to another younger girl definitely indicates something about the society in which they live; mainly the sickening fact that most of the Lillian Jean’s attitude has been picked up from her parents and other adults.

When Cassie refuses to get into the road, Lillian Jean tries to push her. Fortunately Cassie was too quick and was able to move out of the way. Mr Simms grabs Cassie, twisting her arm and pushing her to the floor. Mr Simms is a fully grown man, and Cassie is a small girl. Just the fact that Mr. Simms feels that it is acceptable to push a little girl is disgraceful, but he also made such a commotion that many white people came to prevent the situation going any further. They themselves showed prejudice, as they immediately sided with Mr. Simms rather than with Cassie, even though she was scrambling around on the floor.

Big Ma tried to help Cassie, but one frail, ageing lady cannot stand up against lots of prejudiced white people. Big Ma had to force Cassie to say sorry not because she felt it was right, but because she had no choice. Cassie becomes very downtrodden by this. “No day in all my life had ever been as cruel as this one”. I think that this is one of the best ways in which “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” condemns prejudice, because of the manner in which Cassie is put under such stress. She said sorry, but was forced to humiliate herself in front of a large amount of people.

Cassie was told, by her mother, the awful truth about prejudice in her society after she had experienced first hand what racism truly is. Mama states that Mr. Simms thinks that Lillian Jean is better than Cassie, not just because Lillian Jean is his daughter, but mainly because Lillian Jean is white. For several pages, the book is merely an interview between Cassie and Mama, with Cassie’s thoughts also being added. This is so successful, because we acquire a very clear description of racism and prejudice from a black person’s point of view. Mama has very high principles and good moral judgement when she and Cassie talk:

“”Ah, shoot! White ain’t nothing’!”

Mama’s grip did not lessen. “It is something, Cassie. White is something just like black is something. Everybody born on this earth is something and nobody, no matter what colour is better than anybody else.”

It is astonishing that only a few people in the whole of “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” actually believe in these excellent morals.

Uncle Hammer has a very strong personality, and will not stand for anything that is unlawful or prejudiced. He went to the north to work and managed to buy himself a car. He is driving this car, with Cassie and most of the family inside, towards a bridge. On the other side, the Wallace’s truck has started across the bridge which is just big enough for one vehicle at a time. Uncle Hammer sped up in the car and raced over the bridge. The Wallace family in their truck backed off the bridge thinking the car to be that of Harlan Granger. When they see that the car they let past contains black people, they become incredibly irate, just because the occupants of the vehicle were black. The author condemns prejudice in an entirely different manner from before; this time it is more comical. The book makes you want to laugh at the state of the prejudiced white people

Jeremy Simms walks to school with the black children everyday, and is laughed at because of it. This definitely condemns prejudice, because he is the only one strong enough to admit that he likes the black children. Mama also takes a stand against the problems in the education system. She teaches the truth about slavery, rather than the lies portrayed in the history books, and gets in deep trouble because of this. This is condemning prejudice by identifying that even some of the roots of our modern society need to be called into question.

Papa, Stacey and Mr. Morrison were travelling back from Vicksburg when they were ambushed by three people in a truck, who were most likely from the Wallace family. They shot at Papa, hitting him and they caused the horse to pull the cart over Papa’s leg. Mr. Morrison had to fight the three white men, and he luckily overpowered them. They returned home, and Papa was still in a bad way. Someone actually having enough hatred for a fellow human being just because of their appearance to attack them would be considered insane today but that is exactly what happened here.

The main incident involving T.J. occurs near the end of the book. TJ is brought into Mr. Barnett’s store to steal the gun he wanted, but shockingly the Simms brothers destroy the shop, murder Mr Barnett and maim Mrs. Barnett. They then beat up TJ when he threatens to tell of their exploits. He is severely injured and returns to Stacey for help. TJ is returned to his house, but he is beaten up further by a gang of white people, including the Simms brothers, who are the real perpetrators of the crime. He is dragged off to jail, knowing that he will never be released. The last page of the book is really Cassie’s contemplations of everything that had occurred. The beating of T.J. certainly condemns prejudice because a young boy being beaten by two vile, scheming adults is unforgivable, no matter what the circumstances surrounding it.

Prejudice comes through ignorance and therefore Mildred Taylor is trying to educate the reader with as many examples as possible of blatant racism so that they can make their own informed choices.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird” Harper Lee also produces a condemnation of prejudice. Although this is also a portrayal of the insidious racism of white against black other prejudices are highlighted including those against people from differing backgrounds or life choices.

The reader is first asked to condemn the prejudice shown towards Boo Radley, a man who has never left his parents house, has no social life and no future. He stabbed his father with a pair of scissors when he was thirty-three, and was sent to prison. Miss Stephanie Crawford was prejudiced and made judgements about his character, just from listening to exaggerated stories. Boo Radley life is described as sad and tragic. It is the sadness of Boo’s life that causes you to disapprove of the prejudice shown by what seem to be upstanding citizens.

In addition, Jem and Scout are unintentionally prejudiced towards Boo Radley. They act out a play based on their conceptions of Boo’s life. This involved running around, trying to catch and devour each other. They engaged in this activity right outside the Radley’s house so Boo Radley could easily have seen them. This would have made him feel extremely isolated because Boo has fun watching out of the window; it is his only outlet into the real world. Now, people were even showing him in a bad light from the sanctuary of his own home and his peace is shattered even there. Thinking about the state of his life and how he could have led a normal life if somebody had just been friendly, condemns prejudice. Any society which allows incidents like this to occur must be a very unhappy society to be a part of.

In addition there is prejudice present in the education system. There is a two tier education system to begin with as there are separate schools for the black and white children. However, there are also more subtle personal prejudices. Miss Caroline firmly believes that Scout should not be able to read. Miss Caroline thinks that Atticus doesn’t know how to teach, and that Scout should forget everything she has leant. It is clear to see that Scout is a very intelligent girl, but Miss Caroline still wants Scout to learn her way. This partially occurred because Miss Caroline thought Atticus was incompetent and unable to teach properly. I think that she thinks that, with her educated upbringing, her teaching methods are better than Atticus’ who she sees as misguided:

“As I read the alphabet a faint line appeared above her eyebrow, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading”

Miss Caroline’s reason is completely illogical, as Scout is able to read better than many people at her school. It is not very polite to look at an obviously talented child as if their success was wrong. Caroline has basically made a value judgement based on misconception, ignorance and stereotypes; the basis for all prejudice.

The black people in the book have accepted that prejudice occurs, and even refer to themselves in a negative fashion. Calpurnia uses language like “nigger-talk” She has accepted that prejudice occurs, and has integrated it into her life.

Even Miss Maudie, a caring and sociable person, has prejudices against black people. She describes the gossip surrounding Boo Radley as “That is three-fourths coloured folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford”. I don’t believe that she is intentionally prejudiced; she just had to condemn the rumours easily, and to a little girl. She has accepted that prejudice occurs, and uses it to suit her purpose. Upon reading the whole book, you can see how Miss Maudie is one of the least prejudiced characters.

Mr Radley also holds prejudices against black people. Jem, Scout and Dill are in his “collard patch” and he fires in the air to scare of any possible intruders. Without any solid evidence he immediately suspects the intruder to be black. He assumed this because he feels that only someone who was black would have the nerve to enter his property in this manner. He later says “if anybody sees a white nigger around, that’s the one”; referring to how frightened the intruder appeared to be. This is a derogatory term to use and he uses it light-heartedly. He has been taught through society that this is the normal way to behave. Many white people think of themselves as “civilised” or “well-educated” yet they still have such coarse principles. Currently, many people think that slavery and racism ceased when slavery itself ended yet here we have clear evidence that it was still present 70 years ago, in the century after the official abolition of slavery.

Although Jem has been brought up to be an exceedingly good person by Atticus, occasionally he uses words which hint at the prejudices he is subjected to outside his home. When Miss Maudie’s house is burnt down, she gets her hands covered in mud and dried blood. Jem suggests that she hire a black man to help her with household tasks. I believe that he doesn’t mean to seem prejudiced he just is trying to comfort Miss Maudie and state the reality of the job situation.

One of the most famous quotations in this book, and the inspiration for the title is “… it is a sin to kill a Mockingbird”. Harper Lee tried, and succeeded, to make a metaphor which covers all incidents in the book. Tom Robinson is a “Mockingbird” as he did nothing to harm anyone, but was still killed. Boo Radley can also be called a “Mockingbird” because all of his intentions are good but he receives unwanted attention. This is compelling verification that the book is designed around a theme of condemning prejudice.

In addition, the black people in general can be considered mockingbirds. They accept Jem and Scout into the church exceedingly enthusiastically, even though white people have constantly jeered at them.

Furthermore, Aunty has a lot of prejudices towards black people. Calpurnia, who is the black maid to Atticus, Jem and Scout, has been a major part in the upbringing of the Finch children. She has helped the family on innumerable occasions, but Aunty still thinks that Jem and Scout are too civilised to visit Calpurnia at her house. Aunty shows such prejudices because she thinks that any social connection to with a black person would ruin the family name.

Prejudice is condemned from another angle, where Scout uses her childhood innocence to show how racism has blinded the moral judgement of the adult white population. She describes the entailment of Mr. Cunningham, one of the mob, and refers to how Atticus defended him:

“…… “Well, Atticus, I was sayin’ to Mr. Cunningham that entailments are bad an’ all that, but you said not to worry, it takes a long time sometimes …… that you all’d ride it out together….”

Scout is referring to the fact that Atticus has helped Mr. Cunningham through his court case, and many times before, and now Mr. Cunningham may try and hurt Atticus. She goes on to describe her friendship with his son, to try and appeal to his better judgement. The white men have planned the killing of Tom Robinson who is falsely imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commit. Their blinkered prejudice ensures that they think they have the right to kill him simply because there is a suggestion that a black person may have wronged a white person. Scout’s words are used to condemn prejudice by revealing to the men that they have no right to do anything to Tom.

Even before the trial commences, the book condemns the underlying prejudice. The black people are ordered to remain outside while every white person enters the court room. Several jobless and unkind white men, push in front of the black people to get the last good seats. The black people meekly oblige and let the men get up the stairs. Tom Robinson is a valued member of the black community, and it is disgraceful that these drunkards are allowed in before his closest friends. The white people are going to the courthouse for a bit of fun, to watch a circus, but the black people are going to show their support for Tom Robinson. The black people meekly accept this treatment, as they feel that they cannot do anything to stop it.

Having taken an oath, Mr. Ewell still shows his blatant prejudiced attitude. He stands in the witness box, and curses and swears at Tom Robinson, causing uproar from the white people; the black people feel it is better if they remain silent. However, when Tom Robinson stands in the witness box, he uses the English language perfectly and respects everyone who is involved in the case. He even shows respect towards the Ewell family, who are prosecuting him and have made such racist remarks against him. Mr. Ewell seems to be the type of person who would commit such a crime whilst Tom Robinson appears to be a helpful and friendly young man. It seems impossible to understand why the white people support Mr. Ewell so much when before he was seen as a total liar and time waster. This is therefore a very effective way Harper Lee is able to condemn prejudice.

Tom Robinson clearly looks as if he will win the case, with no convincing evidence against him. Mayella was beaten by a predominantly left-handed person, while Tom Robinson’s left hand was crushed by a cotton gin. This is made clear in court when he tried to take the oath making it obvious to all that he doesn’t have the capability to have committed the crime. It is of no surprise to the reader to learn that Mr Ewell is left handed. Mayella was also strangled which obviously requires the use of two hands.

She was apparently raped, no doctor was ever called; therefore, there is no evidence of her being raped at all. All the evidence points to the fact Tom should be acquitted. It has already been made clear that Atticus is an excellent lawyer; almost anyone in a fair system could have defended Tom successfully based on the all evidence available. The justice system, however, still seems able to find him guilty so Harper Lee uses this opportunity to condemn prejudice by showing even the institutions are racist.

Mr Dolphus Raymond is a parent of mixed race children. This in itself highlights prejudice. “… around here once you have a drop of Negro blood that makes you all black.” Dolphus has to pretend to have lower moral standards than he actually has so as to fit in with the white community who see themselves as morally superior to all black people. He pretends to be a drunkard when actually he only has a soft drink hidden in his bag not whiskey:

“Secretly, Miss Finch, I am not much of a drinker, but you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live.”

The author tries to condemn the racism by highlighting that even respected well educated members of the black community still feel a need to show their inferiority and respect to even very young members of the white community. Even the Reverend Sykes feels a need to use the phrases “Mr Jem” or “Miss Scout”.

Harper Lee uses the compassion of the black people after the trial to again condemn the prejudice of society. Even though Tom was found guilty and therefore Atticus appears, professionally, not to have been successful the Finches awake next morning to a pleasant surprise. On their doorstep they find a profusion of luxury gifts of food including grapes, tomatoes, beans and a jar of pickled pig’s knuckles! – this from a community that has so little.

At the end of the book, Mr. Ewell tries to kill Jem and Scout, until Boo Radley stabs and kills Mr. Ewell. Condemnation of prejudice is highlighted when Mr. Ewell, even though he won his case, still feels he has to avenge his embarrassment. However, the black people reward Atticus even though he did not win the case. In addition, Boo Radley throughout the book has been seen as a timid, incredibly strange hermit. He is the least likely person to rush to the aid of someone else especially as he has not left his house for many years. The prejudice the reader has been asked to buy into is that he is evil and uncaring. This is condemned by Lee when she shows Boo overcoming all his fear of society and the outside world to dash out and save the lives of children who, although they are kind and caring, he has seen making fun of him through his window on life.

Harper Lee uses her own experiences of the racism and prejudice she witnessed to inform the reader what that racism can do to society. This allows readers to make their own educated choices. Education is one of the key factors in ensuring the condemnation of any stereotype or prejudice.

There are many cases where there are similarities between the two books; however there are also more than a few instances where the authors’ approaches to prejudice differ.

The main similarity between each of the author’s treatment of prejudice is that both of their books condemn the racism of the white community towards the black people; the setting for both being the southern states of America in the mid twentieth century.

Both of the books describe the prejudice as perceived through the eyes of young children. Maybe as both of the authors are women, their choice is to see events through the eyes of a young girl. The different approach is that in “To Kill a Mockingbird” the children are white while in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” the perspective is shown from a black family. Also the “Finch” and “Logan” families in both books are very stable families, and the members of both families respect every race and have no prejudices. Neither of the families is rich, although the Finch family doesn’t ever in the book find itself in financial trouble.

The authors both tackle the subject of racism and prejudice, not directly, but by using incidents that occur in major parts of the government and education systems. These include the standard of the books in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”, and the separate schools for black and white children, which occurs in both books.

In both, a lawyer becomes the voice of reason by the end of the book; in “To Kill a Mockingbird” the lawyer is Atticus whilst in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” the lawyer is Mr. Jamison. Both of these lawyers are white, but defend black and white people alike, and they have both been labelled “nigger lovers” because of their protection of black people.

The author’s own real life families inspired many references in the two books. Both Harper Lee and Mildred Taylor based the characters in their books on their own family. Harper Lee’s mother and sister both had “Finch” as their middle name, and that is the last name of Atticus, Scout and Jem, the “Finch” family. Mildred Taylor similarly bases the whole of the “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” on family stories told to her by her parents and grandparents.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird” Atticus, a white person is portrayed as being without prejudice, while in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” there are no white people with redeeming characters.

In “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”, the author concentrates on the black people’s way of life and how racism affects them, while Harper Lee in “To Kill a Mockingbird” concentrates more on white people’s reaction to how the black people chose to live.

A difference between “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” is the type of prejudice which they describe. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” concentrates on prejudice against black people. However, whilst “To Kill a Mockingbird” predominately concerns itself with the prejudice against black people it also addresses other prejudices within wider society like those shown towards Dolphus Raymond and Boo Radley.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird” Harper Lee gives a very thorough insight into the lives and mind of the people involved in the book. The book concentrates on the build up and causes of prejudice, while “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” looks at how incidents of prejudice can affect people’s livelihood and entire lives.

In addition, Harper Lee is from a white family, which lived in the southern states and saw many acts of racism and prejudice. This indicates that her view on racism and prejudice will be different to that of Mildred Taylor, who is black. Also Harper Lee was born on April 28th 1926, so she would be old enough to remember the segregation when it was at its worst in the 1930s and 1940s. Mildred Taylor was born on September 13th 1943 and moved away from the southern states very early in her childhood. She would have seen less prejudice than Harper Lee, but could possibly have been on the receiving end of a lot more, even several decades on.

With the power of hindsight we can now see the significant contribution both books have made to modern society. As with many novels both are semi autobiographical with Harper Lee being the white middle class daughter of a lawyer whilst Taylor moved with her family as a young child from the Deep South up to Ohio in northern USA. “To Kill A Mockingbird” was written in the 1950’s before the civil rights movement took off whilst “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” was written as the civil rights movement was riding on a small crest of a wave in the late 70’s. Maybe it was still not possible for a black person to have written such a book in 1950’s America. The biggest similarity between the two books is that they both raise awareness of the reality of the situation of 1930’s USA. By giving the reader more insight and information they try to reduce misconception and ignorance which forms the basis of all prejudice. Only with knowledge is one able to truly condemn prejudice.


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