“In the frosty December dusk, their cabins looked neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside. There were delicious smells about: chicken, bacon frying crisp as the twilight air.”
–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Where we live says a lot about who we are. I’m thinking a lot about this right now. Not just because, at 34, I’m hoping to buy my own first house this year. But also because every spring I find myself thinking about what our homes and our neighborhoods say about us as I prepare to teach Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth-grade English classes. Of all the famous passages by the venerable Ms. Lee — who passed away last month at 89 — it’s the one above, a relatively obscure few lines describing the homes of the African Americans in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the novel, which haunts me most.
There’s a been a lot of debate in the last five years about the role of fiction in American classrooms. The Common Core calls for 70% of a student’s literary diet to be comprised of nonfiction. But in all the talk about skill development and critical thinking, I think we often forget one of the chief aims of teaching fiction: to encourage empathy. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. And every year that I teach this book, I find myself empathizing more and more deeply with Tom Robinson, the African American man falsely accused of rape in the novel. It’s not merely the injustice of his conviction that stops me in my tracks each time I reread. It’s that symbol of the American Dream that Robinson can almost have but never quite touch. It’s that cabin he lives in.
Where we live says a lot. Visiting the South, Bill Bryson once wrote, “It struck me as notably ironic that Southerners could despise blacks so bitterly and yet live comfortably alongside them, while in the North people by and large did not mind blacks . . . just so long as they didn’t have to mingle with them too freely.” I was always struck living in Washington, D.C., how starkly the city was divided by race. On the west side the schools and neighborhoods were predominantly white. But cross over Rock Creek and immediately everyone on the street was black.
But it’s just that interracial neighborhood that Harper Lee — who died last month at 89 — uses to show the bitter reality of racism during Jim Crow. Tom Robinson lives just down the street from the white woman — Mayella Ewell — he’s falsely accused of raping. What’s more, Robinson lives better than his accuser. The Ewells live in utter filth alongside the town dump, from which it is implied that they scavenge food. Meanwhile, Robinson lives in the cabin described above — neat, modest, cozy. Each year I press my students: how does this feel for the Ewells, especially for Mr. Robert E. Lee Ewell, the family’s ne’er do well patriarch? The answer of course is that while his own grating poverty concerns him not in the least, a black man like Tom Robinson living better than he does just down the road stirs him to a wild bitterness that spawns the unjust trial at the heart of the novel. Of Ewell’s bitterness Lee writes, “All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”
But even more than detecting the seeds of bitter racism, when I think of Tom Robinson’s tidy cabin, I think about a man who wants very much — just as I do — to buy into the American Dream.
Look at the homes they live in — Tom Robinson and the other blacks. Their homes are modest, surely (many of the cooking smells emanating from their chimneys are from cooked possum), well-kept and loving. The fire glows inside, representing warmth and family. Tom Robinson embodies the classic hardworking American who wants to provide a better life for his children. He’s young — still in his twenties — and he’s surely poor, but he gets up every morning and walks to work. He goes to church on Sunday, and he’s such a respected community member that his boss, Link Deas, will later give an impassioned (if ill-timed) speech about his virtues during the court case.
This country tells its citizens, “Work hard, live modestly, and pay your taxes — and you’ll get to enjoy all the benefits of being an American.” Tom Robinson wants nothing more than anything to buy into the promise of America. He’s done everything this country asks of its citizens. He’s held up his end of the bargain.
But America does not hold up its end. Any agency Robinson seemed to possess by being a contributing member of society and a homeowner vanishes at the drop of a hat — or at the whisper of a white woman. That’s all it takes to show that he never really had any agency. He never had any authority. The laws didn’t protect him. The American Dream for Tom Robinson was nothing but a sham, a dead-end, a promise that was never real.
Ironically it’s the fact that he’s a good neighbor — helping Mayella with extra chores — that is his undoing.
This is especially appalling precisely because he has done everything right. Unlike his neighbors the Ewells, who subsist on welfare, Robinson never asked for handouts. He never asked anything from anyone except the chance to succeed in America according to its terms. Ironically it’s the fact that he’s a good neighbor — helping Mayella with extra chores — that is his undoing. He’s been hoodwinked. Not even Atticus Finch, the most powerful lawyer in literature, can outmuscle the racism of the Jim Crow-era South and save Robinson from playing the very role that society that has picked for him: not homeowner, but criminal.
That’s why the image of his tidy cabin — tranquil and peaceful and hard-won before all of the trouble goes down — stays with me. That cabin (which, let’s be honest, was probably sold to him, or rented to him, at an exorbitant, exploitive rate) is as close as Robinson, or any of the African Americans in To Kill a Mockingbird, will ever get to the American Dream.
Part of Harper Lee’s genius, of course, is to show precisely that it can all be plucked away from an upstanding man like Robinson by even the most worthless of whites: the Ewells. Robinson’s industry and thrift are sharply contrasted with the indolence and filth of his white neighbors. Unlike Robinson’s clean, well-kept property, the Ewells’ yard is littered with trash. Unlike Robinson, who works for every penny, Mr. Ewell lives off government relief checks and the local government’s tolerance toward his hunting and trapping out of season. Unlike Robinson, Mr. Ewell is a neglectful, even abusive father who spends his relief checks on whiskey rather than food for his kids, none of whom attend school for more than a day each year. Even though no one in town — particularly Atticus Finch — respects the Ewells, yet because their skin (after a firm scrubbing) is white, they’re still waved into the tent of the American Dream.
What’s particularly striking is that while Tom Robinson is shunted straight into jail without so much as a shred of evidence, whites such as Mr. Ewell are given incredible latitude by the law. Everyone in the town — including the authorities — bend over backwards to look past Mr. Ewell’s crimes. And it’s not just hunting out of season or spending his handouts on booze that’s overlooked. It’s much worse. For example, the implied incest between Mr. Ewell and his daughter Mayella is the worst-kept secret in town, but it’s something everyone is content to look right past. (So, for that matter, is the small matter of Mr. Radley, who is also white, locking his son, Boo, in the basement for 15 years!) Incest and child abuse are fine — just don’t try to help out a white woman with her furniture. The white Ewells are, despite their transgressions, given every chance to prosper provided they ever show (to paraphrase Atticus Finch) “the faintest hint of desiring an education.” Meanwhile it’s just too much for the town to consider the men and women who once worked their land as slaves to be granted the American Dream.
A common response that students have is: “Sure, but that was the Jim Crow South. It wasn’t like that up here.”
But, I tell them, the Tom Robinsons who moved north during during the Great Migration — who looked for their own tidy cabins in Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit — found little more than further discrimination in the form of redlining and blockbusting. The ghettos of today in those same cities play out that legacy. The American Dream was no less an illusion there than in Maycomb, Alabama. Tom Robinson’s cabin was about as good as it got.
Great books not only help us understand people who are not like us, but they help us understand our own society in clearer light. With To Kill a Mockingbird, you’d have to be dense not to see the same issues at play everywhere in our society now: in the courts, in the economy, in the stories of young men like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and, this week, Gregory Gunn, and of course in the kinds of houses we’re allowed to live in. It’s all still around us, surely different in many ways, but strikingly similar in a lot of others. That’s what great literature shows us.
And that’s why the image of Tom Robinson’s house stays with me.