Parris is peering into a crumpled paperback with a huge smile on his face.
“Mr. Singer, I love this book…” he says.
He stops, pauses and adds, “I hate what’s happening, but I love the book.”
In my middle school classroom, that’s a pretty routine reaction to Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
My 8th grade students approach the climax and resolution with equal parts dread and delight.
But it doesn’t always start that way.
No book I teach has gone through a greater change in cultural opinion than “Mockingbird.”
It used to be considered a bastion of anti-racism. Now some folks actually consider it to be racist.
The story is about Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama during the Great Depression. Most of the drama centers on their father, Atticus, who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, in court against trumped up charges of raping a white woman.
Ever since its publication in 1960, people have tried to ban the book from school libraries and from school curriculum.
And that’s still true today. However, this used to be the work of the far right. Today there are almost as many objections from the far left – though for very different reasons.
For 50 years, the biggest complaints came from conservatives about the book’s strong language, discussion of sexuality, rape, and use of the n-word. Though today you’ll find almost as many on the left proclaiming that the book actually perpetuates the racial intolerance it purports to be against.
Republicans have become more extreme than ever. They see any discussion of race as “Critical Race Theory” – a conflation of a legal framework not actually taught in K-12 schools with any substantive discussion of racial inequality. It’s really just a simple dog whistle to try and shut down any discussion of the racial status quo.
Teachers have become accustomed to conservatives hyperventilating that discussing racism and prejudice might mean having to admit these things still exist and therefore requiring us to do something about them. They’re terrified their kids might come to different conclusions about the world than their parents, and instead of confronting their own views with the facts, they prefer to sweep reality under the rug to preserve the fictions underlying their ideologies.
These sort of complaints are typified by the Biloxi Public School Board in Mississippi which in 2017 removed Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from its curriculum because, “It makes people uncomfortable.”
What they don’t seem to realize is that the discomfort is part of the point.
On the other side of the coin are people on the other pole of the political spectrum. Writers like Kristian Wilson Colyard don’t object to a discussion of racism and prejudice. They think “Mockingbird” doesn’t go far enough – or at least that the discussion it has is framed incorrectly.
Colyard doesn’t think the book should be banned or removed from libraries, but instead insists it isn’t a good teaching tool.
“Lee’s is not the best book to teach white kids about racism, because it grounds its narrative in the experiences of a white narrator and presents her father as the white savior.”
While I think Colyard has a fair point of literary analysis, I don’t agree with her conclusion.
At first glance, there is something strange about approaching racism through the lens of white people, but that doesn’t make it invalid. In fact, racism is a product of whiteness. In this country, white people are the ones doing it. Therefore, it makes sense to speak directly to and from the experience of white people.
Oppression, after all, is relational. It takes both the experience of the oppressed and the oppressor to fully understand it. And if we want to help end the cycle, it makes sense to show the oppressor how to bring that about.
Moreover, the book sneaks up on its themes. There’s very little about outright intolerance on the first page or even the first few chapters. The idea creeps up on you as the narrator slowly becomes aware of the prejudices around her and the trial comes deeper into focus.
As to the question of white saviorism, I think this is more often a buzzword than a legitimate criticism. White people are not heroes for attempting to put right something they put wrong. It is their responsibility, and seeing someone do that in fiction is a really powerful thing.
Atticus doesn’t think he’s saving his client Tom Robinson. He doesn’t think he’s special for doing so. He’s doing what he thinks is right. Now Scout certainly views this through rose-colored glasses and lionizes him for it, but that’s a character’s point of view. It’s up to the reader to look at all this critically and come to your own judgement about it.
Frankly, I think that’s one of the real values of the book. It provides a deep narrative, well told, for readers to examine and discuss very complex issues.
If you think Atticus is given too much credit for what he does, that’s something you can discuss with other readers. I don’t see how doing so cheapens or hurts the cause of antiracism.
In addition, the problem of centering the story on the white people is rectified by reading more widely in the literature. “Mockingbird” shouldn’t be the only book on the topic you read. To be well-rounded, you should read more from the point of view of people of color subjected to white people’s intolerance. And there are so many wonderful books to choose from – Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” etc.
However, teachers shouldn’t be made to feel like they’ve wasted an opportunity by using “Mockingbird” in the classroom – even if it’s the only book that year they read on this topic. There must be more opportunities in years to come. Racism and prejudice should not be a one-and-done topic in US schools. It is too important for that.
In my classroom, this book is far from our first discussion of the issue.
We talk about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. We talk about the 1968 Olympics Black power fist. We talk about Black cowboys like Bass Reeves. We talk about Bessie Coleman, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and so many others.
When we read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” – a book that almost entirely eschews the topic – I make sure to point out that the narrative takes place in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we discuss Black Wall Street and the massacre of Black people perpetrated by their White neighbors.
And so when we get to “Mockingbird,” the discussions we have of the text is rich and deep. Students of color feel seen because of the book’s portrayal of the kind of racial injustice they experience in their own lives. Likewise, white students feel empowered to join in the struggle against it.
When the verdict of the trial comes down, there are real tears and stares of disbelief.
One of my students this year, Mya said, “I shouldn’t be surprised, but I thought it was going to turn out differently.”
Me, too. Every time I read it.
The book confronts students with the world as it is and challenges them to do something about it.
White or Black, it holds up the reality of injustice and demands we take a side.
And that’s why this book remains relevant and just as important today as it ever was.
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