Calpurnia’s Wise Words

One of the best things about (good) stories is that they tell you things without telling you.

Last night I was reading to my friend from To Kill a Mockingbird. She knows the story well enough to finish most of the sentences for me, but reading aloud or being read to is a perfect way to unwind at the end of a long day.

In the story last night, Calpurnia had taken Jem and Scout to her church and were debriefing:

That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one, to say nothing of her having command of two languages.

“Cal,” I asked, “why do you talk nigger-talk to the –to your folks when you know it’s not right?”

“Well, in the first place, I’m black–”

“That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,” said Jem.

Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. “It’s right hard to say,” she said. “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin’ on airs to beat Moses.”

“But Cal, you know better,” I said.

“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike–in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not going to change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”

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