A Note on “Fairness”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” and children’s books that address fairness.

The epigraph for “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a quotation from Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a young girl called “Scout” watches Atticus, her lawyer father, defend the wrongly accused black man Tom Robinson from the charge of rape. These events occur in a fictional small town in rural Alabama during the 1930’s and they end badly: Robinson is killed when he tries to escape jail. This immensely popular and Pulitzer-Prize-winning book ultimately shows Scout’s loss of childhood innocence as she recognizes her society’s pervasive racism.

This plot summary, I realize, may be entirely unnecessary. Many, many people know To Kill a Mockingbird because it is an almost universal reading choice in middle school or high school. Others know the story because of the beloved Academy-Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck. In recent times, however, this classic has been questioned.

Writing for the New York Times Book Review, the black author Roxane Gay has complained that the novel’s blacks are two dimensional and that Scout’s belated discovery of racism really reflects her white privilege. On top of that, the recent publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015), an earlier draft of Mockingbird, considerably tarnishes the reputation of Atticus because it shows that Scout’s father was originally conceived as a bigot in league with anti-segregationist forces. But to my mind, one of the most interesting comments to arise out of this controversy was a letter to the Times Book Review by Gene Kahane, a Los Angeles high school teacher and LGBTQ advocate:

Having taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” to thousands of kids, I can explain the significance of Harper Lee’s novel with this observation: It causes kids to cry out, “That’s not fair.” And from that simple comment comes all the power of literature and all the hope in the world.

Kids say that when they read “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” “Maus” and “Two Boys Kissing,” and when they hear about children being separated from their parents at the border. At the core of Scout’s story is her harsh discovery of unfairness: Tom Robinson is falsely arrested, unfairly tried, unfairly convicted and then killed. Recognizing unfairness is the engine for empathy and activism, and literature — the great window and mirror — is where it starts for so many of us.

While jaded adults may find the concept naive, Fairness seems to be a native notion in childhood. Reporting on their years of studies in Scientific American, researchers have shown how the very young (no matter what culture they come from) have an innate sense of justice and–in a classic experiment involving the distribution of candy–will not tolerate the disadvantaging of others.

This concept of “Fairness” can also serve as a useful tool in examining children’s stories. Take the small moment in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when the townspeople discover that the three boys they thought were drowned are actually alive. Aunt Polly swoops up her nephew Tom and smothers him with kisses. Joe Harper’s family pours out their thanksgivings. But no one is there for Huck Finn and, abashed, he tries to slink away. This causes Tom to explode:

“Aunt Polly, it ain’t fair. Somebody’s got to be glad to see Huck.”

And, indeed, Aunt Polly soon remedies that situation, lavishing attention on Huck and “making him more uncomfortable than he was before.”

This small episode can serve as a hint of what might be found by the scholar or enthusiast who goes on a scavenger hunt for Fairness in the fields of children’s literature–finding it not only To Kill a Mockingbird but in the other works Gene Kahane mentions in his letter. Or in The Diary of Anne Frank. Or the stories of Kipling and Dickens. And “fairness” may ultimately explain what motivates a boy, against his own interests, to help an escaped slave in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In fact, such a venture may be already launched. In a call for research papers for their June 2019 convention, the Children’s Literature Association asks researchers to consider how children’s stories cultivate empathy and what that leads to. What these literature specialists may find is what childhood scientists have already discovered: an early and biological sense of Fairness.

If you liked this, “clap” below so others will see this on Medium. To see the ten most popular entries on this blog, click here. And if you’d like to read more essays like this, click the “follow” button at the top of this page.

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.