Calpurnia is the Finch family’s cook, a black woman, and a mother figure to Scout. Scout describes Calpurnia as a strict, demanding, and unsentimental “tyrannical presence.” At the same time, Scout treats Calpurnia with more genuine respect and obedience than the female members of her own family, such as her Aunt Alexandra. Scout doesn’t give much thought to Calpurnia’s personal life outside her work for Scout’s family, but the reader learns that Calpurnia has a had a difficult and painful life, rarely seeing her own children while she took care of Scout and Jem. Calpurnia also functions as Scout’s, and the reader’s, window into the world of the black citizens of Maycomb. For example, Scout is able to attend Tom Robinson’s trial because the pastor of Calpurnia’s church makes a space in the courtroom for Scout and Jem to sit. Scout also accompanies Calpurnia to church, where Scout begins to understand the differences between the blacks and the whites in Maycomb, and learns a bit of Calpurnia’s history.
To modern readers, Calpurnia may seem like an all-too-familiar variation of the southern character trope of the contented slave (sometimes referred to as an “Uncle Tom” character). In fact, all of the black characters in the novel seem, at least primarily, to serve as props for the stories of the white characters that surround them. Calpurnia, like other black characters in the novel, especially Tom Robinson, is resilient, long-suffering, and grateful to the good white people around her who are not racist. While Calpurnia serves as a positive influence on Scout, teaching her important lessons about empathy, Calpurnia is also a hugely simplified character, particularly with regard to her race and the effects of prejudice on her life. Although in many ways she represents the black experience, Calpurnia is largely silent about issues of race, possibly because she understands the danger of speaking out about her experience. To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel filled with simplified characters, so it may be unfair to single Calpurnia out for not representing the complexities of her circumstances. But in a novel so interested in the issue of racism, the treatment of Calpurnia is worthy of critical exploration.