“Atticus, Jem and I, Plus Calpurnia Our Cook”: Reading Race in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird andGo Set a Watchman

By Cameron Williams

Less than twenty-four hours after the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, my social media was ablaze with outrage. Headlines from various web outlets, angry tweets, and indignant Facebook posts all decried the terrible news: Atticus Finch is aracist. The sound of faithful readers’ heads exploding everywhere was practically deafening. Ensuing reviews of Lee’s new novel affirmed that fans of To Kill a Mockingbird were near traumatized to learn that their beloved Atticus—a symbol of justice and of white goodness, “a moral archetype…reflecting nobility upon us, and…having the courage to meet the standards that we set for ourselves but can seldom attain” (Lubet 1340)—could harbor any kind of ill, racist intent.

For many, however, the “news” of Atticus’s prejudice is really not that shocking. Critics have written about Atticus’s paternalism, itself an insidious form of racism, for some time now (myself included—see chapter ten). What is perhaps more shocking is how the discussion of Atticus’s racism has eclipsed a more meaningful consideration of the representation of race in Lee’s fiction. Sure, scholars have written “about” race, since it’s so central to both storylines, but overwhelmingly, critics and readers alike continue to overlook the decidedly problematic treatment of one particular character central to Mockingbird, yet practically absent in Watchman: Calpurnia.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Calpurnia is the black housekeeper and surrogate mother figure to the young Finch children. Scout describes Calpurnia as “all angles and bones,” “nearsighted,” with hands that were “as wide as a bed slat and twice as hard,” and remembers Cal always shooing her out of the kitchen, scolding her for misbehaving, and ordering her to come home before she’s ready (7). Though Calpurnia’s authority is second only to Atticus’s, she serves as the primary disciplinarian in the Finch household. Because of this, the rambunctious Scout—who often finds herself in trouble—considers Calpurnia’s presence “tyrannical” and frequently gets upset with Cal. Scout recalls how her “battles” with Calpurnia were always “epic and one-sided…mainly because Atticus always took [Cal’s] side” (7). Despite this, as Atticus confirms to his sister, Alexandra, “the children love her” (183). Scout refers to her as “our Cal” (31) and Atticus calls her “a faithful member of the family” (182).

Cal is equally devoted to the Finches. Diann Baecker observes the ways that Calpurnia, in To Kill a Mockingbird, “fulfills all the functions of a wife in 1930s Alabama—she cooks, cleans, disciplines the children and essentially provides for the Finch family as if it were her own” (131). Notably, this is one of the many ways that Calpurnia fits squarely into the mammy stereotype, a pernicious and oppressive controlling image of black female identity. The mammy, according to Diane Roberts, represents the “acceptable face of black servitude” and legitimates a repressive white patriarchal social order that not only demands her subordination but further insists that she “enjoy” being subservient (41). As Patricia Hill Collins writes, the mammy signifies white patriarchy’s concept of “the ideal Black female relationship to elite White male power” (72). This is seen through the mammy’s steadfast devotion to her white “family,” primarily demonstrated by her ability to nurture and love her white children “better than her own” (72).

Cal clearly has her own home and her own family, but in To Kill a Mockingbird, references to Cal’s family are only fleeting. Instead, she spends the vast majority of her time at the Finch house raising the white Finch children—so much time, in fact, that it barely occurs to Scout that Cal could lead a “modest double life”; Scout muses, “The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one” (167). This is because, as far as Scout knows—and as Atticus affirms—Cal is part of the family. When Alexandra tries to persuade Atticus that it’s time to fire Calpurnia, that the children no longer need her, Atticus refuses, and in so doing employs a very peculiar turn of phrase, one that is deeply rooted in antebellum, proslavery ideology: Calpurnia, Atticus tells his sister, is “a faithful member of the family” (182). Historically, the phrase “one of the family” is “an expression of paternalism, which included both the giving and the taking of care, affection, and responsibility, [and] worked to obscure the brutal coercion of slavery” (McElya 9).

Harper Lee at the time of To Kill A Mockingbird‘s releas

In the case of Calpurnia, it works to obscure the true conditions of Cal’s servitude. Atticus may insist on Cal’s inclusion in the Finch family, yet there are several moments in the narrative that make conspicuous how Calpurnia, as black, hired help, is very much and always will be an outsider. Scout notes early on inMockingbird that her childhood family configuration consists of “Atticus, Jem and I, plus Calpurnia our cook” (6). Here, Scout speaks to the centrality of Cal within the Finch household, while at once still marking her—through the qualifier “plus” and by identifying her as “our cook”—as separate from it. Cal’s marginality becomes most apparent when Scout and Jem accompany her to church—Cal’s church, Maycomb’s black church—one morning. While there, Scout and Jem are surprised to learn that Cal talks “black” (167). Jem, who earlier praises Cal because she doesn’t “talk like the rest of ‘em” (“the rest of ‘em” meaning “colored folks”), is particularly adamant that Calpurnia should “know better” than to talk “that way” (167). Jem’s comments, not-so-subtly couched in “us” versus “them” language, not only speak to the way that Cal can never fully integrate into the Finch family because of her affiliation with “them,” but furthermore reveal how Cal is only acceptable on certain terms—namely, when she’s acting “white.” Also while at church, one of the other congregants remarks on Cal’s place in the Finch household. One especially vocal parishioner, Lula, contends that “those white children” have their own church. In the face of Lula’s disapprobation for “bringin’ white chillun to nigger church,” Cal maintains that Jem and Scout are her “comp’ny” (158). Lula, however, venomously retorts, “Yeah, an’ I reckon you’s comp’ny at the Finch house durin’ the week” (158-59).

Atticus’s description of Calpurnia as “faithful” is also noteworthy in that it evokes the myth of “the faithful slave,” another controlling image of black identity tied directly to the mammy figure. According to Micki McElya, this myth persists in the American cultural consciousness “because so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves—of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism—seem not to exist at all” (3). The mammy made such wishes possible by enabling a narrative that is ingrained in the “American racial imagination”; as McElya writes, “It is the story of our national past and political future that blurs the lines between myth and memory, guilt and justice, stereotype and individuality, commodity and humanity” (3-4). When Lula insults her, Cal keeps her composure and assures the children that she does view them as her guests. Even when criticized by other members of her black church community, Calpurnia is unflaggingly faithful to the white Finch family.

Another hallmark of the faithful slave narrative can be seen in the mammy’s role as “beloved cook” and “loving caretaker” (McElya 8). Calpurnia’s primary domain, the kitchen, is revealed early on in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout identifies Cal as “our cook” (6). Though Calpurnia can often be found in the kitchen preparing a meal of some sort, one scene most exemplifies Cal as both cook and “loving caretaker.” When Scout comes home from school one day (a day she spent harboring a grudge against Cal for earlier scolding her), Cal tells Scout, “I missed you today…The house got so lonesome ‘long about two o’clock I had to turn on the radio.” Scout then asks Calpurnia, “Why? Jem’n me ain’t ever in the house unless it’s rainin’.” In response, Cal tells Scout, “I know…But one of you’s always in callin’ distance. I wonder how much of the day I spend just callin’ after you. Well…it’s enough time to make a pan of cracklin’ bread, I reckon. You run along now and let me get supper on the table” (38). Even Calpurnia’s physical description aligns with that of the mammy as big, feisty, and of “advanced age” (McElya 8). Importantly, the mammy’s role as cook and nurturer goes hand-in-hand with her physicality. The mammy narrative—entrenched in antebellum, white patriarchal ideology—that circulated during and after the Civil War was a direct “response to abolitionists’ charges that the institution of slavery was wracked with sexual depravity and the rape and concubinage of black women by white men” (8). According to McElya:

In this way, southern proslavery writers sought to legitimize relations between black women and white men as maternal and nurturing, not sexual. Their elaborate construction of the mammy included not only her physical attributes, which stressed her advanced age or wide girth, but also her spirited character. […] [S]he was the antithesis of desirable white femininity, an answer to charges of rampant, violent sexuality and white men’s fathering of black women’s children that were promoted by abolitionists and the accounts of runaway slaves. (8)

Scout calls Calpurnia “fractious” (38) and describes her hands “as wide as a bed slat and twice as hard” (7), suggesting that Cal is an imposing figure. Scout also notes that Cal has grandchildren, cementing her status as “grandmotherly.”

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Cal does not subvert the image of the mammy, but seems rather like a glowing endorsement of black female servitude. The purpose she serves in the narrative is ultimately to validate the Finch’s white goodness. Like other “narratives of slavery and black fidelity to white masters,” the mammy in general and Calpurnia in particular serve as “an essential site for grappling with the meaning and burden” of racism in America (McElya 13). Atticus, Jem, and Scout love their Cal, and Cal loves them, too—as long as she maintains the neat role prescribed for her by her white society.

By the time Go Set a Watchman rolls around, Cal has been ousted from the Finch house entirely. Apparently, Jem’s death upset Calpurnia so deeply that “she had run off the place and not come back” (29). Though Calpurnia is largely absent fromWatchman’s central narrative, she is present through Scout’s memories and flashbacks. Scout (now referred to as Jean Louise) reminisces about Cal’s sudden departure following Jem’s death. That Cal’s reason for leaving the Finch house is because she is so devastated by the loss of Jem certainly indicates her level of devotion to the Finch family; in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise gives readers the impression that Calpurnia—while in the Finch’s employ—loved Jem and Jean Louise as if they were her own children. Jean Louise’s memories also reveal more about Cal’s role in her childhood. Because the Finch matriarch is no longer around, Cal takes on the part of maternal figure, especially with the young Jean Louise, who needs guidance in the ways of womanhood. Though Jean Louise “never knew what a mother was,” she only “rarely felt the need of one”—until one day at the age of eleven when she “found that her blood had begun to flow” (116). Terrified and completely clueless about what’s happening to her body, Jean Louise fears she is “dying” and screams for help, at which point “Atticus and Jem came running, and when they saw her plight, Atticus and Jem looked helplessly at Calpurnia, and Calpurnia took her in hand” (116). Cal is the one to educate Jean Louise about “the birds and the bees,” both in this scene and one that occurs shortly after, when Jean Louise—after being kissed by a boy—mistakenly begins to think she is pregnant (130).

In Go Set a Watchman, Cal similarly typifies the stereotype of the mammy as surrogate mother, a nurturing figure and “beloved cook.” In Jean Louise’s memories, Calpurnia is almost always cooking something (68-70) or carrying around some kind of food (59, 134). Watchman further offers a description of Cal’s physicality. Jean Louise observes Cal as “past middle age and her body had thickened a little, her kinky hair was graying, and she squinted from myopia” (136). Her hands, compared to bed slats in To Kill a Mockingbird, are still powerful and big (69).

As in MockingbirdWatchman also makes apparent the ways that Cal is and will always be an outsider, no matter how much the Finches insist to others that she is “part of the family.” Atticus is asked to represent Zeebo’s son (Calpurnia’s grandson), Frank, who has just been arrested for accidentally hitting and killing Mr. Healy while driving drunk. Atticus takes the case, but not strictly out of the goodness of his heart; his principal reason for choosing to represent Frank is to prevent the case from falling “into the wrong hands” (148). Atticus explains to Scout that “the NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards,” that those lawyers “demand Negroes on the juries in such cases. They subpoena the jury commissioners, they ask the judge to step down, they raise every legal trick in their books—and they have ‘em aplenty—they try to force the judge into error. Above all else, they try to get the case into a Federal court where they know the cards are stacked in their favor” (149). Atticus talked a big game in Mockingbirdabout Cal being “a faithful member of the family” despite her race, but—as in Mockingbird—that affection has limits. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus’s motivations for helping Frank are self-serving. After all that Calpurnia has done for his family, Atticus has little compassion for hers and is instead more concerned about upholding Maycomb’s racial and class hierarchies.

Jean Louise, like most readers, is horrified to see this side of Atticus, and so she goes to Calpurnia’s house to offer her help and condolences. Even this, one of the most poignant moments in the narrative, evidences the very stark divides between the Finch family and Calpurnia’s family. When Jean Louise arrives at Cal’s home, there are other black people there mingling on the front porch. They immediately defer to her: “When they saw her, they stood straight and retreated from the edge of the porch, becoming as one. The men removed their hats and caps, the woman wearing the apron folded her hands beneath it. […] Jean Louise was acutely conscious that the Negroes were watching her. They stood silent, respectful, and were watching her intently” (156). Also, this scene reveals another pernicious stereotype of black identity and sexuality. Zeebo has apparently fathered children with multiple women, and Jean Louise finds herself confused about Calpurnia’s family tree: “For the life of her, Jean Louise could not disentangle Zeebo’s domestic history. She thought Helen must be Frank’s mother, but she was not quite sure. She was positive Helen was Zeebo’s first wife, and was equally sure she was his present wife, but how many were there in between?” (157). Jean Louise also observes that Helen is “heavy with a pendulous stomach from having carried so many children” (157). In terms of plot, these details don’t serve any real narrative purpose; they do, however, indicate the deep-seated assumptions that Jean Louise and others from a white, privileged upbringing are conditioned to make about race and difference.

Harper Lee at the time of Go Set a Watchman‘s release

Ultimately, Calpurnia’s purpose in Go Set a Watchman is the same as inMockingbird, and her more or less absence from Watchman’s central storyline is important. As Catherine Nichols points outTo Kill a Mockingbird isn’t about how racism is inherently “bad”; instead, “[i]t’s about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves.” Go Set a Watchman is also about a white person’s sense of right and wrong. Nowhere is this more evident than in the moment when Jean Louise visits Calpurnia. Initially, she does so in order to offer her support for Frank, but by the end of her brief conversation with Cal, she essentially asks her for absolution: “Tell me one thing, Cal,” she implores, “just one thing before I go—please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?” (160). Jean Louise waits for an answer as Calpurnia “sat silent, bearing the burden of her years…Finally, Calpurnia shook her head” (160). That simple shake of the head is a loaded one, ultimately serving as a way of validating Jean Louise and in turn the entire Finch family as good white people.

Our cultural obsession with Atticus speaks to our need, like Jean Louise’s, to be validated as good white people. Over the years, Atticus has become more symbol, more myth than man, and Scout’s first person narration in To Kill a Mockingbird—“the Gospel According to Atticus in the words of his chief disciple” (Atkinson 1370)—only works to obscure the more troubling depictions of race in the novel. Nichols writes, “By itself, I thought To Kill a Mockingbird was a racist book. Now, with the publication of Watchman, it stands to be redefined as a book about racism not just in Maycomb County, but within the Finch household itself.” Indeed, those elements of racism are there in both novels, and they can most clearly be seen right smack in the middle of the place where we least want to look for them: in depictions of Calpurnia, her role in the Finch household, and in her relationship with the Finches.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Rob. “Comment on Steven Lubet, ‘Reconstructing Atticus Finch.’” Michigan Law

Review 97.6 (May 1999): 1370-1372. JSTOR. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.

Baecker, Diann L. “Telling It in Black and White: The Importance of the Africanist Presence in

To Kill a Mockingbird.” The Southern Quarterly. 36.3 (1998): 124-33. Print.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of

Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.

—. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1960. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010. Print.

Lubet, Steven. “Reconstructing Atticus Finch.” Michigan Law Review 97. 6 (May 1999): 1339-

  1. JSTOR. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.

McElya, Micki. “The Faithful Slave.” Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-

Century America. Cambridge: Harvard U P. 1-14. Print.

Roberts, Diane. Faulkner and Southern Womanhood. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994. Print.


 

Cameron Williams received her Ph.D. from Florida State University, where she studied twentieth and twenty-first-century Southern literature. Her research explores the intersection of sexual violence and gender representation in the fiction of Harper Lee, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy, among others. Her work has appeared in South Carolina ReviewGender ForumSouthern Literary Review, and the Cambridge volume Constructing the Literary Self: Race and Gender in Twentieth-Century Literature. She is also the creator and editor of the web magazine, Beyond the Magnolias. She currently lives in Atlanta and teaches at the University of North Georgia.