Around the age of 10, there is a marked change in a child’s perspective. The world is no longer simply a wonderland of curiosities, but a popularity contest. The girls begin to put on makeup and form cliques, and the boys become showman, proving themselves with their fists. Think of Mean Girls or The Outsiders. In Lacanian terms, once we identify ourselves as “others” at the mirror stage, the beasts of jealousy and self-consciousness emerge. This is a time in psychological terms when children, going through their first major identity crisis, often begin to designate others into two categories: the ingroup and the outgroup.
Meet Tom and Scout. They are characters in this very stage and life, and while at times they are carefree and boisterous troublemakers, at others, they are young adults facing a daunting world clearly divided along racial lines. Tom Sawyer is a mischievous urchin who steals jam jars and tricks other kids into working for him. However, his light-hearted antics take a turn for the worse when he stumbles upon a graveyard. He witnesses the murder of a man by Injun Joe, and life is no longer a piece of jam cake.
Although Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer does not directly address issues of race, as his epic masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does, the character of Injun Joe depicts racial stereotypes in a more subtle way. Let’s not ignore the fact that Joe is a vicious killer. Who hasn’t had nightmares of the killer giant chasing Tom and Becky into the cave? However, he does represent a term that will most likely appear on the AP Psychology Exam: the self-fulfilling prophecy. The rest of the town treats him like a savage and does not accept him in the community due to his Native American roots. When a person is ruthlessly treated in a certain way, it’s hard not to live up to this characterization. Individuals see the ingroup as more or less diverse, while they see the outgroup as a single stereotype. Joe is a victim of the latter. More than that, Joe’s indiscretions are acts of revenge; while on the surface he may appear to be a one-dimensional character whose terrible acts simply stem from greed, his motives are much more complex. The settlers horribly displaced Native Americans from their land, and in part he is avenging the wrongs they have suffered.
Tom Sawyer is also a mixed bag of tricks. He is such a cunning rascal that even when he takes the blame for Becky or saves a man’s life by exposing the killer, he is not humble and enjoys the rewards of attention and praise. This really stems from the insecurity that inevitably comes with being a teenager. His unstable identity suggests that he is at a stage where prejudices and stereotypes can easily take hold; although he appears to be rebelling against adults, he is paradoxically deeply influenced by their attitudes and actions. In the end, there is no clear resolution to Tom’s identity crisis or the town’s prejudice, just as there is no immediate cure for teenage angst or deep-seated racism.
To a greater extent, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird faces the confusion of adult prejudice. Her father defends a black man who was wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Her family becomes outcasts in a racist town, and Scout, in addition to trying to deal with normal teenage confusion, struggles with the town’s hatred of her father. When she asks why they’re ostracized, Atticus replies, “Black lover is just one of those terms that doesn’t mean anything, like brat. Blacks above themselves. It’s crept into use with some people like us, when they want a common and ugly term to label someone.” This quote from To Kill a Mockingbird explains that racism is a lot like teen bullying and name calling; Children are by definition ignorant and therefore often come into conflict with one another due to identity confusion. Atticus, therefore, is in a sense saying that these adults have never grown up; their insecurity and ignorance perpetuate racism.
It’s easy to see these novels as works against discrimination in a post-civil rights society, but are they really? Do you think Mark Twain is exposing the injustice of prejudice and stereotypes, or believing them? Injun Joe is portrayed in an extremely negative light. Although To Kill a Mockingbird clearly advocates against racism, the novel still negatively stereotypes African Americans as helpless human beings who need to be protected by whites. Although both books are now recommended for AP US History students, they have been banned from schools for their own problematic interpretations of race. This ambiguity shows that stereotypes are difficult to avoid; it requires a conscious effort not to see the world in terms of the group outside the group. Often as misguided teenagers we adopt stereotypes to make sense of the world, and it is our job as adults to break down these categories to reveal the truth.