To Kill A Mockingbird’s inspiring tale of humanity and compassion in the face of prejudice made its debut 61 years ago today. While the story remains a classic, widely read in schools across the country, the beloved character of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who so bravely defends a Black man on trial for assaulting a white woman, set the blueprint for the problematic white savior, or “a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner.”
This supposed savior frequently makes an appearance in novels encouraging equality or diversity, or even novels meant to focus on the triumphs of Black characters. But their presence communicates a less than glorious message; that Black people cannot save themselves, but need the assistance of a compassionate white character. A strange take on the bootstrap phenomenon in which the puller of said straps happens to be white.
They also can appear in contrast to a violently racist, uncouth white character seeking to punish the Black character, like a Hilly Holbrook, Paul Stafford, or Bob Ewell, making us root for the partnership of our savior and victim.
The Black character also tends to have some kind of gift or quality that separates them from the “others,” say Katherine Johnson’s mathematical genius in Hidden Figures or Aibileen Clark’s proclivity for maternal care of white toddlers in The Help. Even actress Viola Davis, who played Clark in the film adaptation of The Help, recently voiced her regret at having played into the white savior model, in which Emma Stone’s character Skeeter documents the plight of Black maids like Clark.
While exceptional and compassionate Black characters will always be welcome in literary spaces, the sense that their exceptionality makes them worthy of the white savior’s assistance remains a toxic and dangerous tenet.
This trope trickles insidiously down into real life, through trips to Africa to save the children, the use of inner-city schools as a leverage point in various elections, the appearance of young Black kids in viral videos playing basketball with white police officers. The trope expertly obscures our understanding of basic systemic functions that enforce racial hierarchy to this day, to the point of denying their very existence.
On the bright side, these novels can prompt uncomfortable conversations about the racial dynamic that existed, and still exists, in the minds and systems of much of America.
To Kill A Mockingbird has even been banned in certain schools for the very same thing that it hopes to tackle; the sticky conversation of the injustices Black people have suffered, and continue to suffer, under for decades. Novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have faced similar sanctions, usually for its use of the n-word, but also for the startling dynamic between a young white boy and the grown Black slave that frequently falls into adolescent dilemmas, only to be saved by Finn.
And yet, other novels accomplish the same principle without reducing the Black characters to an infantile stereotype of themselves. Between the white savior complex and the complete absence of Black stories lies a powerful middle ground of truthful, raw portrayals.
What’s the point of accomplishing the message of racial equality if you’re doing so through the victimization of Black bodies, minds, and characters? What is the point of projecting a message of equality only to do so through the lens of savior and saved, hero and victim, oppressor and oppressed?
The message shouldn’t be that Black Americans deserve equality because they appeal to white sensitivities, but rather because they exist in the same manner as every other human regardless of race
Black characters remain relevant to all readers, but they must surpass the level of vulnerability and helplessness that so many novels exploit for the sake of a half-formed, high horse morality.
So save yourself from the white savior and dive into these engaging Black stories instead.
Controversial adaptation aside, it’s an instant classic.
These African kings, saints, and writers were definitely missing from your history class. Not anymore.
An inspiring story of self-discovery and the joy and pain that comes from, well, liberty.
This book will have you second-guessing if it’s truly nonfiction. Follow this young, Black, gay man as he navigates his southern homeland.
featured image credits: amazon, the guardian