The topic for my extended essay is racism. What led me to this topic is the trivial amount of racism I have encountered while abroad. I remember reading these books and thinking to myself how far society has progressed since the times these books were set. As a young black woman in a white country, I have only experienced racism twice which upset me at the time but reading these books has made me realise that my experiences are nothing compared to those of coloured people in the past. The theme I have chosen shows how three different authors portray the common theme of racism which I found very fascinating.
I have chosen three books for this essay and they are: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman.
Set during the Great Depression in the racist white community of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is a book centered around the lives of Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch. Atticus is appointed by the state to defend a black man, Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman and much to the dismay of the people around him, he agrees. Because Atticus takes the case, Jem and Scout (his children) are subjected to abuse by others due to their father defending a negro. The book sheds light on how people were treated by their own race when they associated with the blacks who were thought to be inferior.
The Help tells the story of coloured maids working in white Southern homes in the notoriously racist town of Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s. The book shows the amount of racism and hatred for black people that continued to exist even after slavery was abolished. It is written from the perspectives of Ms. Skeeter, a white journalist and two black maids, Minnie & Aibileen. It also deals with white and black people working together to achieve a common goal even though cooperation like that was abominable.
Noughts & Crosses is quite different from the other two books I have chosen. The racial roles have been reversed in this novel and the blacks are superior to the whites. It is the tale of two lovers, Sephy and Callum, who are of different racial background. Their relationship is frowned upon by both races and they are bullied for it with Sephy’s father doing everything in his power to halt the relationship. It also shows a lot of violence carried out by both races.
Black people were predominantly treated as though they were inferior to the whites in The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird. It was the same in Noughts and Crosses. The only difference being that the caucasians were regarded as inferior. There were always a few exceptions in each book who believed that both races should be equal and treated with the same respect one would treat their own race. Interracial relationships were generally frowned upon by everyone in the three books I read.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the relationship between Scout and her maid Calpurnia is an odd one. Calpurnia had more or less been a mother to Scout since her mother died when she was about aged two. Scout had never seen anything wrong with her relationship with her maid and didn’t treat her the way others treated negros. It was quite an unusual relationship with Calpurnia being the maternal figure in Scout’s life despite their difference in their races. Harper Lee showed the important roles coloured nannies played in the lives of white children during that era.
Ms. Skeeter had a particularly good relationship with the maids In The Help, . Especially Aibileen. In fact, they were like best friends. Skeeter treated Aibileen and the other maids with utmost respect which was very unwonted to them. She perhaps even treated them with more respect than she treated her own race. At first, Aibileen was wary of Skeeter and thought she was trying to use her but their friendship evolved and they began to trust each other. Though they were friends, it was impossible to disclose their friendship and had to keep it clandestine as others wouldn’t be too understanding of their relationship.
There is also Aibileen’s relationship with Mae Mobley, her ward. She uses Mae Mobley to fill the void that her dead son has left and loves her like her own child. Mae Mobley loves her as well and even called her “mama” a few times because Aibileen was more of a mother to her than Elizabeth Leefolt, her real mother. Aibileen always quits her nanny job before the children she takes care of get too old because their parents start telling them their nannies are beneath them because of their race.
Another unusual interracial relationship in The Help was Celia Foote’s relationship with her maid, Minnie. Minnie had previously worked for Hilly Holbrook (perhaps the most racist woman in Jackson)’s mother. Hilly deposited her mother into a retirement home and dismissed Minnie from her job. The only person Minnie could find work with was Celia. Celia was a desperate, lonely woman who hired Minnie to clean and cook so she could impress her husband. Since Celia grew up poor and was isolated from the elite in Jackson, she wasn’t aware of how black people were supposed to be treated by their employers. Celia was extremely friendly towards Minnie even sitting at the same table to eat lunch with her. At first, Minnie tried to educate her about the differences between white and coloured people telling her things like how they didn’t use the same cutlery, eat at the same table and white people didn’t serve coloured people. But Celia heard none of it. She still treated Minnie the way she would treat a friend so later on in the book, they ended up being good friends. Which most people in society at that time wouldn’t have taken lightly.
Noughts and Crosses like I said earlier on, is a dystopian fiction with a twist. The Africans made the Europeans their slaves instead of the other way round. Sephy is a cross (a black person) and Callum is a nought (white person). They met when Callum’s mother, Meggie, was Sephy’s nanny. Meggie was fired by Sephy’s mum and instructed Sephy to cut all ties with Callum but she didn’t. They met on the beach near Sephy’s house almost everyday and their relationship was surreptitious. Eventually, they fell in love but things quickly became rotten. Two people of different racial backgrounds being in a relationship was quite scandalous. People desperately tried to ruin their relationship but their love prevailed. Sephy and Callum’s relationship was onerous and it eventually resulted in Callum’s death.
Having any kind of relationship with someone from another race was an abomination and had to be kept a secret. I think the author that portrayed the difficulties of interracial relationships the clearest and most realistically was Malorie Blackman. The relationship between Skeeter and Aibileen is very easy to understand and relate to while in the other books, the relationships aren’t as easy to grasp. Especially in Noughts and Crosses. Callum and Sephy’s relationship was too exaggerated and complicated which made me quite weary while reading the book. The relationships the nannies had with the children under their care in The Help and To Kill A Mockingbird were motherly. It was obvious that these women loved the children as though they were theirs. However, Calpurnia’s and Scout’s relationship differed from Mae Mobley and Aibileen’s. Scout’s father had brought her up to know that black people should be equal to white people and didn’t tolerate racism of any kind. Whereas Elizabeth Leefolt, Mae Mobley’s mother, was constantly telling Mae that coloured people were scum. It portrays how much influence parents have in their children’s lives and also nannies.
ABUSE OF POWER
The abuse of power is an important theme in all three books. It’s almost as significant as the major theme of racism. Mostly,the black (white in Noughts and Crosses) characters in the book were downtrodden by the opposite race. Although, people belonging to the superior race were sometimes victimized. There was commonly a powerful figure who abused his/her power and used it to tyrannize others.
In The Help, Hilly Holbrook was that person. A woman of sovereignty and head of the prestigious Junior League. She had a great deal of influence over the other women of Jackson. Hilly was feared by all and used her power to destroy lives. As I mentioned in the first chapter, she dismissed Minnie from her job. Minnie being upset made a “chocolate” pie for Hilly but instead of chocolate, she had added lots of sugar to her faeces and fed it to Hilly. When she told Hilly what was in the pie, she was so outraged and disgusted that she tried to destroy Minnie’s life by telling all the women in town that she was a potty mouthed thief. Minnie searched and searched for work for a long time as she needed the money to provide for her six children. Finding a job became nearly impossible but with the help of Aibileen, she found someone to work for.
Hilly almost destroyed more than one life in The Help. Skeeter was another person whose life she tried to destroy. In fact, she bullied her and basically obliterated her social life. Skeeter and Hilly used to be the best of friends but the day Hilly found a book on civil rights in Skeeter’s bag, she became very hostile towards her. Hilly stripped Skeeter of her Junior League newspaper editorial duties, stopped inviting her to matches and got the rest of the Junior League to stop associating with her. Thankfully, a turn of events occurred at the end of the book when the book Skeeter and the maids wrote was published. In it was an embarrassing secret (eating Minnie’s “chocolate” pie) of Hilly’s that she wanted no one to find out about. The inclusion of that in the book made her unable to report the maids to the police and forced her to deny the book had any relation to Jackson. The roles had been reversed and Skeeter and the maids now had power over her.
Sephy’s father in Noughts and Crosses was a very wealthy and influential politician named Kamal. Her father was an extremely hypocritical racist man. He had some knowledge of Callum and Sephy’s relationship and was appalled by it. He warned her to stay away from him. When she became pregnant with Callum’s child, her father was furious and begged her to terminate the pregnancy which she refused to do. What Kamal does in response to Sephy’s defiance is he gets Callum arrested and claims he raped his daughter. He then gives Sephy an ultimatum; if she says Callum raped her, he will only go to jail but if she doesn’t corroborate his claim and defies him again, Callum will be given the death penalty. After deeply contemplating, Sephy decides not to give in to her father and lets the world know that she is in love with Callum. Tragically, her father kept his word and Callum was executed at the end of the novel.
To Kill a Mockingbird is quite similar to The Help in this aspect. Bob Ewell discovers his daughter making sexual advances towards Tom Robinson, a negro. He then takes Robinson to court and accuses him of rape. There is a difference between the two books though. Sephy, as she was in love with Callum, refused to tell the media she was raped. Whereas, Bob’s daughter fully complied with him and corroborated his made up story. It was clear in court that Bob and his daughter had fabricated that story but because Bob was white and Tom was black, his words meant more than Toms and he had more power. So naturally, Tom was incarcerated.
The three authors portrayed the issue of corruption clearly in the books with the abuse of power in To Kill a Mockingbird and Noughts and Crosses being very similar. Kamal had Callum arrested and executed and Bob did basically the same thing with Tom. However, there was a crucial difference in their daughters’ personalities. Sephy was not as easily influenced by her father than Bob Ewell’s daughter. She refused to be manipulated by her father and had a strong, rebellious personality. Whereas, Bob’s daughter turned against Tom just because her father told her to. In Noughts and Crosses, Kamal was wealthy and influential but Bob in To Kill a Mockingbird was what people would refer to as “white trash”. Bob was on the lowest scale of the social hierarchy but he was still better than the blacks which is why he had the power to get Tom Robinson incarcerated. Everyone knew Bob to be a dishonest, untrustworthy fellow but because he was white, his word was taken over Tom’s. The same also applied to Hilly Holbrook in The Help. She was a chronic liar and no one had the courage to stand up to her for fear of being disliked by the whole community. Hilly and Kamal are examples of people that hold powerful positions and abuse their positions greatly. Corruption is still a major problem in today’s society and needs to be properly dealt with.
Violence is always an issue that goes alongside racism. From the superior race oppressing the inferior race to the inferiors resorting to extreme violence in an attempt to gain equality. Each book contained violence but Noughts and Crosses was the most severe. Though the book is a dystopia, the extent of violence still frightened me and reminded me of the violence in today’s world. Most of the violence in the book was due to the actions of the Liberation Militia. A biased terrorist group whose belief was that all crosses should be killed or made slaves to the noughts. The group wasn’t looking for equality, their aim was to rid the world of crosses. Instead of protesting peacefully, they went about bombing shopping malls and coffee shops where innocent people gathered. They were not fazed that they were also slaughtering their own race in their attempts to kill the crosses. To them, these people were “martyrs” even if they didn’t all share the belief that the world should be cleared of crosses. Their disregard for human life was terrifying and the degree of violence was like nothing I have ever read. As terrifying as it was, their methods are very similar to the methods used by religious terrorist groups in today’s world.
To Kill a Mockingbird and The Help were violent to some extent but the violent content is miniscule in comparison to Noughts and Crosses. In The Help, the violence was solely interracial unlike the other two books. No instances of violence between two black people or two white people were portrayed. Though there was some conflict between people of the same race. The most despicable act of violence in the novel was against Louvenia Brown’s grandson. He was beaten to a pulp and ended up blind because he unknowingly used a white bathroom. For such a minor thing, a man lost his eyesight and the perpetrators of the act weren’t even prosecuted. Something similar almost occurred in To Kill a Mockingbird when a lynching party was organised by Bob Ewell to go to the jail where Tom Robinson was imprisoned and murder him. The party was then unknowingly broken up by Scout. Even though that attempt on Tom Robinson’s life didn’t happen, he was still shot to death seventeen times when he attempted to escape from prison.
CHANGE OF PERCEPTIONS
As people discover things, their perceptions obviously begin to change. The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird and Noughts and Crosses show how associating with the other race could completely ruin a reputation. Skeeter in The Help, whose father owned a cotton plantation was a woman of very high social standing. When she returned from university, she realised that her perceptions of maids and black people had completely changed. She then wanted to write an exposé. When her best friend Hilly saw a book about equal rights in her bag, her respect for Skeeter deteriorated. She refused to be associated with anyone who thought whites and blacks should be treated equally. Another person that changed their perspective of Skeeter to a negative one was Stuart Whitworth, her lover. The day he asked her to marry him, Skeeter spoke to him with candour and told him of everything she had been doing in secrecy. She wanted his support but he refused to give it. Stuart immediately retracted his proposal. He was disgusted by her support for civil rights and his perception of Skeeter completely changed.
When the people of Maycomb heard that Atticus Finch was going to defend Tom Robinson in court, they were outraged. The citizens felt that it was disloyal for him to defend a black man in court against a white man. Atticus was a highly respected man in Maycomb before he took the case but he quickly became taunted, tormented and disrespected after taking the case.
In Noughts and Crosses, Sephy was bullied for trying to show that her and Callum were friends at school. She was beaten up by other girls at school because of her association with him. As the daughter of a well respected politician, she shouldn’t have been fraternizing with a nought. Things got worse when she became pregnant with people giving her judging looks every time she left her house. From being at the top, she rapidly slid down to the bottom of the social ladder.
The books have a similar theme of how people of the superior race are cut off from society because they are associated with people of another race. Behaviour like this was thought to be scandalous.
The books I read have given me an understanding of what life was like for black people in an almost totally racist community. I have now begun to grasp how lucky and privileged I am that the world has metamorphosed. It is impossible for me to even conceptualize constantly being downtrodden the way black people were in the past. Being unable to use the same toilet as the “superior race” without getting beaten up, being unable to trust the unscrupulous judicial system and just every odious act portrayed in the three novels. Though they were all fiction, coloured people in the past had experiences like that and worse.
I think all the writers portrayed the issue of racism quite well and showed the severity of it. The Help was simple, very easy to understand and didn’t overcomplicate things. The writer of Noughts and Crosses exaggerated everything which was honestly quite annoying. It was an interesting book but it just wasn’t believable enough.
To Kill a Mockingbird was my favourite. The novel was spectacular and very inspiring. It was amazing how Atticus, living in a world filled with social inequality and injustice was able to turn his back on all that was believed to be right and have his own views. He wasn’t influenced by anyone and taught his daughter Scout to be just like him. He was unbiased and believed in equality and civil rights which wasn’t an easy thing to come across in Southern America during that period in time.
They were all great reads and I would recommend the books to everyone to read, especially To Kill a Mockingbird.
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Noughts and Crosses - Malorie Blackman