BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
Summary: In Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, there are
lines that are not crossed. With the civil rights movement exploding
all around them, three women start a movement of their own, forever
changing a town and the way women--black and white, mothers and daughters--view
1. Who should tell this story? This novel has been criticized by some
who think that the author, who is white and did not grow up during the
Civil Rights era, does not have the “credentials” to tell
2. Did the author capture accurately the voice of the maids? Were the
characters authentic to you? Did you think they were too “black
and white?” Most of the blacks were portrayed as heroic and all
suffering, while the whites were cruel, negligent and clueless.
3. For the most part, the characterization of the white women we meet
in this novel is one-note. They are not interested in or aware of the
atrocities that surround them and in which they play a part. What is
it about the time and place that fosters this detachment from reality?
Did it surprise you that the whites in the novel were so blind to the
injustice of their actions? Why do you think that was?
4. Aibileen describes the brand of vengeance white women wield as particularly
destructive. “They got a shiney set of tools they use …”
Slander is a weapon of the powerless. How are the white women in the
5. How would you characterize Skeeter’s mother? Her ultimatum
to Constantine, the maid who raised Skeeter, forced Constantine to leave,
even though Constantine worked for the family for 29 years. Were her
actions in any way justifiable?
6. Is Hilly Holbrook’s control over the other women in Jackson
believable? How is she able to exert such influence over everyone else’s
thoughts and actions?
7. Who do you think had more influence over Skeeter – her mother,
Hilly or Constantine?
8. Do you think it was fair of Skeeter to involve the maids in such
a dangerous undertaking when they had so much more to lose than she?
9. Do you think that Skeeter, for all her good intentions, exploits
Aibileen and the other black women for their knowledge and for their
experiences? Do you think Skeeter inadvertently demonstrates a lack
of respect for Aibileen’s rights and feelings? In what ways?
10. On page 156: Skeeter says, “Aibileen fills my iced tea like
we were the strangers we were meant to be.” What does this reveal?
11. Aibileen’s relationship with Mae Mobley was the most compelling
part of the novel. Do you think the stories Aibileen invented for Mae
would stand up against the racism the child will encounter throughout
12. The deacon of the church that Aibileen and most of the other maids
attend makes the statement, “Mississippi and the world are two
different places.” In what ways is this true? In what ways is
it not true? Remember Miss Stein, the editor at Harper and Row, who
encourages Skeeter to hurry up and write the book, “before this
Civil Rights thing blows over.”
13. The author refers to the lines that separate blacks and whites.
But lines are, at least, not ambiguous. For instance, Minny is angry
at Celia because Celia treats her like an equal, even a friend. “She
doesn’t see the lines,” Minny complains. Comments?
14. Celia Foote is more a caricature than a character, yet she serves
as a foil for the other overdrawn personalities of the white women in
the novel. Did you think this character could have been better developed
to focus more on her strength than her weakness? Consider the scene
where Celia fights the intruder. Minny says, “I see the white
trash girl she was ten years ago. She was strong. She didn’t take
shit from nobody.” Yet throughout the book, Minny has only demeaning
comments to make about Celia. Why do you think she is not more understanding
of Celia and maybe even grateful to her?
15. Does it make you wonder what we are not seeing now? What corollaries
can we draw today -- in race relations and in other areas of human activity?
16. Do any of you have experience growing up in the Civil Rights era?
What was your reaction to the events – the sit-in at Woolworths,
the Freedom Riders, James Meredith’s enrollment at the University
of Mississippi and the ensuing violence and riots, the murder of Medgar
Evers, the March on Washington, the signing of the Civil Rights Act
in 1964? Did you realize the importance of what was happening?
During slavery, whites feared violent rebellions by black
slaves. However, such events were rare because of the conditions in
the South that made such rebellions almost certain to fail (e.g., Nat
However, slaves did engage in acts of day-to-day resistance ranging
from deliberately breaking tools used to work the crops (field hands)
to spitting in soup (house slaves). Occasionally, a house slave was
alleged to have poisoned or attempted to poison the food of the master
and his family. But, generally, masters believed they could trust the
slaves they selected to work in the big house. This, of course, worked
to the advantage of the slaves, who were often "invisible"
as they served the food and listened to the conversations taking place
at the white dining table. House slaves also were in a position to negotiate
on the behalf of other members of the slave community. However, for
slave women, particularly young, attractive women, working in the big
house also meant that they might attract the lustful gaze of the master,
the sons of the house, or other male relatives or visitors. House slaves
often had blood ties to the white family.
In the first half of the 20th century, black women were a part of the
"Great Migration" from rural areas to towns and cities in
the South, and northward and to the mid-west and west. Women often found
it easier than did black males to find employment. However, as domestic
servants, they had to decide whether they would take a job that required
rooming in the home of an employer as a "live-in" servant,
or whether they would "live-out" and go to work each day.
Either choice offered advantages and disadvantages. A "live-in"
servant could count on room, board, and having to deal with the demands
of only one steady employer. However, the “live-in” domestic
lost the freedom and privacy of having her own home, and often could
only see family members (including children) on her day off. The domestic
worker who lived out often worked for several employers during the course
of a week and had to deal with the demands of each of them.
However, she had the opportunity to go home to her family each night
or to pursue the life of a single woman. Whatever the domestic's living
arrangements, the employer exercised a significant amount of power over
the domestic's life because of the employer's power to fire a domestic
at will or deduce/withhold wages for alleged damages. An accusation
of theft ("pilfering") was one way of avoiding paying a domestic
for work done.
Employers sometimes gave their domestics cast-off clothes. The domestics
themselves sometimes took leftover food from the kitchen to supplement
their own families' meals. Sometimes the employers gave them permission
to take home leftovers.
-Civil Rights Timeline
(Charlottesville, VA) -To Kill A Mockingbird
Folksingers and the Civil Rights Movement
Writers Page- Medgar Evers
Questions and related information provided
by Frankie Bailey and Mary Cuffe-Perez
This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York
State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley
Library System and participating member libraries.