When studying American history, there’s no way to avoid the subject of slavery. It was a key facet of the American economy in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a major contributing factor to the Civil War. It is, no doubt, a most shameful aspect of American history, and one many would like to gloss over, but it’s crucial to painting a “warts and all” portrait of America.
Equally worth covering are the complex race relations that exist in this country of immigrants. Slavery may have been abolished in the 1860s, but the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t immediately lead to a harmonious relationship between the races in this country, particularly in the South. It may be hard for a student today, particularly one who lives in another part of the country, to really understand events like the Jim Crow laws, the bus boycotts or the March on Washington.
Traditional history studies can familiarize students with the dates, names and facts associated with this time period, but it can be argued that it’s only works of literature like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that can really capture the true injustices, horrors, and hopefully, the triumphs of this period of American history. Because, ultimately, history is not about dates and facts, it’s about people.
A quick To Kill a Mockingbird summary: The Finch family, which consists of father Atticus, older son Jem, and six-year-old Jean Louise, better known as Scout. Jem and Scout, along with friend Dill, spend their summer speculating about their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley. While Atticus sagely warns them against making judgments about people they don’t know, he is preparing for the toughest part of his career a lawyer: defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. It’s probably worth mentioning here that To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Alabama in the 1930s.
Atticus never questions his client’s innocence, nor the certainty that he will be convicted regardless, but works his very hardest to create the best possible defense anyway. Though many people in the community respect Atticus for his integrity, there are plenty of others who view his actions as treachery. Scout and Jem are forced to acknowledge the ignorance and cruelty of not just the world, but the people around them, while Atticus attempts to show them that fighting for what’s right is a worthwhile endeavor regardless of the outcomes.
The book is a work of fiction, though generally considered to be largely autobiographical. It was just about an instant classic, and it still one of the few required reading novels that is almost universally beloved by middle and high school aged readers. Harper Lee’s ability to create timeless characters like Atticus and Boo, and write sentences that have become often-cited To Kill a Mockingbird quotes have cemented her as one of the top American writers of the 20th century, even though she never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird.