Study Guide

M.C. Higgins, the Great Prejudice

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Folks called the Killburns witchy people. Some said that the Killburn women could put themselves in trances and cast out the devil. Killburn men and women both could heal a bad wound by touching, although M.C. had never seen them do it. Boys scattered around the hills never would play with Ben. They said it was because he was so little and nervous. But M.C. had played with Be from the time he was a child and didn't know better. When he was older, he had been told. Now he guessed Ben was like a bad habit he couldn't break and had to keep secret. (1.34)

This the first time we're introduced to how prejudiced people—including M.C.—are against the Killburns. M.C. may be friends with Ben, but the fact that he sees the whole thing as a "bad habit" that needs to be kept "secret" shows how all that prejudice still has a hold over M.C.

He even glanced at Ben's hands. They were small and appeared almost ordinary, except each hand had six fingers. Ben had six toes on each foot. Folks said all the Killburn men had toes and hands the same. (1.78)

Is this the real reason why people are prejudiced against the Killburns—because they a physical deformity? Would people be more welcoming of the Killburns if they didn't have extra fingers and toes?

Eyeing Ben's witchy hands, M.C. assured himself that the sixth fingers weren't wildly waving and making magic. They were the same as the other ten holding onto the vine. Only they were extra. (1.80)

It's like M.C.'s reminding himself that even a physical deformity is a part of nature and can work just as naturally. But why is it that M.C. is so willing to cast supernatural powers onto a physical deformity?

Between them was an unspoken agreement. Ben was never to touch M.C. with his hands and risk losing his only friend. (1.66)

Hrm. You know what this sounds a lot like? The Jim Crow South

There she was, hurrying over the last hill facing the mountain. She always glanced behind her, never trusting the empty trail as she raced ahead, carrying something. M.C. knew the story by heart. He knew she ran for freedom. She carried a baby. (2.10-11)

Lest we forget the fundamental form of prejudice in the book, M.C.'s story reminds us about how Sarah's Mountain came to be Sarah's Mountain. His Great Grandmother Sarah escaped slavery, without any certainty, safety, or help. The question is: Why do the Higgins have no empathy for the Killburns considering what the Higgins' ancestors went through just to get to the mountain?

For the Killburn houses, sheds and barns were grouped to form an enclosure. This compound was in no way extraordinary to look at, at first sight. The sheds and barns were weathered silver, sagging and almost shapeless. The houses were not the unpainted crate construction of most hill houses, but on the order of rambling, frame farmhouses. They had been added onto at the rear each time a child was born; and they had been painted once, all the same color. A dark, deep brown trimmed in blue. There was still a thin covering of paint on the houses, although they hadn't been retouched in years.

So that what happened right before M.C.'s eyes was that the enclosure of chocolate and silver sheds and barns took on the appearance of a fairyland. Carved out of dark soil and bold, blue sky, it looked unearthly all of a sudden, and slightly sinister. (11.149-150)

Is M.C.'s reaction to the Killburn houses fair? Or is all that feeling of the "slightly sinister" houses just an extension of his prejudice toward the Killburns? Here's a thought: Is the Killburn compound a little creepy? Is M.C. describing some kind of cultish compound led by some guy who's more like a Jim Jones or a Charles Manson?

"I'm not asking you nothing about your background," Jones was saying, "but it seems to me 'Outlaw' can mean more than a single thing. It can just as soon mean your people got no protection from the law, so they was outside it, so to say. Way back when, how many black folks had any luck with law, anyhow?" (10.23)

This is one of the few subtle references to slavery and its effect on black Americans, especially their relationship to the law. It's an important one because it places Lurhetta in a long history of "outlaws" and signals her unconventional character—a person willing to think, speak, and act against prejudice.

Jones heaved the ice onto his shoulder and carried it through the parlor into the kitchen. Lurhetta Outlaw stared after him.

"Treat other people like that," she said, "like they were dirt."

She looked disgustedly at M.C. as though he had done something to hurt her. But he knew she was talking about Jones. Sounding like some stranger.

"You saw them. Not just 'other people,'" M.C. said, defending Jones. He didn't know why he felt he should. (10.117-120)

It takes guts to speak out against an injustice in front of the person to blame, and Lurhetta has ample guts. But what's interesting is how M.C. compares to Lurhetta. He instinctively sides with his father, even though prior to this moment, M.C. feels ashamed of the way his father treats the Killburn icemen.

Ben stared at him with the slightest sign of irritation.

Witchy eyes. Witchy fingers, M.C. thought meanly.

Lurhetta suddenly clutched Ben by the hand, as if his six fingers meant nothing to her. She started down into the hub, supporting herself on Ben's arm. (11.29-31)

Funny how competition over a girl can change your idea of your best friend and even turn you toward the most bigoted thoughts.

In the midst of the children, the hub bounced like a trampoline. Laughing, Lurhetta nearly fell. But there were children rising to help her.

"And who are you?" she said to one of them. "And you… and you!" Names were spoken. None of them seemed surprised by her. They were not shy or bashful. And none asked her name. Where all were the same, names had no great importance. (12.33-34)

This passage is a reference to Lurhetta's earlier, opposite experience with the Higgins kids, who weren't nearly so welcoming or sensitive about Lurhetta's name. The Killburn kids also bring up an interesting point: Are names one of the things that help divide us?

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