‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is Still Relevant Because it Forces Us to Confront Ourselves 

 
 
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.  


 
She writes


“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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Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized

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I made my classes cry today.

That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.

I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.

Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.

“What the heck happened?” he asked.

Other students in the room murmured their agreement.

“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”

“I hate this book.”

“This is so freakin’ racist.”

I let them go on for a moment.

Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.

It happens every year around this time.

Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.

But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.

For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.

There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.

In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.

It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.

Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.

So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.

“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.

“The late 1950s,” I said.

“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”

And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

At a certain point, conversation ceased.

My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.

There might have been a few tears.

I knew it would happen.

Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.

However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.

It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.

It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.

A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.

I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.

Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:

“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.

The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.

Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.

You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.

Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”

Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.

Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”

My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.

And when class was over, a few of them had come around.

“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.

“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.

Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.

“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.

I looked at him and swallowed.

“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”

He nodded.

I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.

You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.

Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.

They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.

Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.

We all do.

Why You Should Thank Harper Lee for Tearing Down Your Childhood Hero

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It’s been more than 50 years since Harper Lee published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In that time, a lot has changed and nothing has changed.

Our schools are still highly segregated and unequal – but we justify that with standardized test scores. Our prisons are still disproportionately filled with black and brown people – but we justify that with the War on Drugs. Racial minorities are still gunned down in the street while their killers get off scot-free – but we justify that with a dysfunctional justice system.

Yes, we have our first black president but most people of color still live under the shadow of white privilege and a government sanctioned caste system.

Now comes “Go Set a Watchman” a book Lee wrote before “Mockingbird” but that works best as a sequel.

Does it matter? Is it still relevant?

I’d say yes.  After all, the original was written as people across the nation were struggling to overthrow the old racist system. And today many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still engaged in that same struggle.

In a world where the majority cling desperately to colorblindness, it’s refreshing to read a book that proclaims black lives matter – even if it was written in the 1950s.

The most striking thing about the new novel is its portrayal of Atticus Finch. In “Mockingbird” he’s described as the quintessential hero – a white lawyer putting himself at great personal risk in a doomed attempt to defend an innocent black man. In “Watchman” Atticus is… well… a bit of a racist.

He’s 20 years older, has joined a neighborhood committee dedicated to keeping the races separate and we learn that at one time he had even been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

How can we reconcile THIS Atticus with the one we remember from our childhoods? Is it even worth trying? Is the book worth reading?

Let’s start with the book’s literary value. Questions abound about its publication. Lee, 88, lives in a nursing home and is reportedly in ill health. After all this time, did she really want this book out there now or is that the result of overzealous publishers who know any book with her name on it will be a best seller? Moreover, her sister, Alice, served as a protector of Harper’s legacy but almost as soon as she died, the book was slated for publication.

And when you actually crack it open, it’s clear that certain passages are almost identical to others in “Mockingbird.” You can see how the one book lead to the other. Moreover, there are places that could use expansion and others that could use a bit of editing.

However, despite its shortcomings, from the first page to the last “Watchman” is like returning home to Maycomb County.

In the first chapter, we share a 20-something Jean Louise’s excitement on the train from New York south to visit her family, because we want to see these people again, too. Unlike a simple rereading of the classic “Mockingbird,” this time the characters have grown, changed and act in unexpected ways. Like our protagonist, though, we’re in for many a rude awakening.

Scout’s brother, Jem, is dead, and his absence is felt throughout most of the book. At first, I was angry about this. I thought it was simply bad writing, trying to artificially limit the characters. But then I realized Lee had already set up Jem’s demise back in “Mockingbird.” After all, their mother died around the same age from a heart attack – a congenital defect on her side of the family.

Jem’s absence is irksome because it’s real. Too many times in life people who mean so much to us just disappear leaving a hole never to be filled again.

Likewise, Dill is hardly to be seen. However, this shouldn’t be surprising. Both books are semi-autobiographical and his character is modeled after Harper’s childhood friend – Truman Capote. In the novel just as in life, our heroine, Scout/Harper, and Dill/Truman grew apart.

In his place we get Hank – a character never mentioned in “Mockingbird” but who apparently was around – somewhere. He serves as Scout’s boyfriend. Though he’s drawn a bit vaguely, through him we get to see the kind of woman Jean Louise has grown into.

The Scout of “Watchman” is different than her 6-8-year-old self, too. But it’s easy to see how the little girl of the previous book could become the intelligent but restless woman in this text.

Calpurnia is much changed. She no longer works for the family. In fact, she seems to have enclosed herself in the Quarter – the part of town where only the black people live.

With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education,  Maycomb’s black folks seem much less inclined to smile and nod and serve every passing whim of white people. They have an inkling that maybe things could be different, that maybe they’re entitled to equal rights, after all. And these new possibilities come between Jean Louise and the woman who raised her more than any other.

Calpurnia is the one who explained to her what it means to be a woman. She explained everything from menstruation to sexual intercourse. Yet these new possibilities in social justice make it impossible for the two women to have a proper homecoming.

I wonder: would Jean Louise really not begrudge Calpurnia all the rights and privileges she so easily expects as her own right? It’s hard to say but still very sad.

On the other hand, Aunt Alexandra hasn’t changed much. She’s still disapproving, tyrannical yet emotional. Likewise, Uncle Jack is much the same. He’s grown more eccentric but it’s easy to recognize the friendly doctor who bandaged Scout’s hand after she punched her cousin for calling her father a racial epithet in “Mockingbird.” And neither does Atticus seem drastically different at first. He’s older and suffers from terrible arthritis. But at first glance he’s the same caring, wise paternal figure of our remembrances.

For about 100 pages the book is a mostly meandering return to a world we never thought we’d see again. Then everything changes with the bombshell of Atticus’ recent pro-segregation activities.

How can it be possible? Can this really be Atticus Finch? Or is this just bad writing?

We know the character is based on Harper’s own father, Amasa Lee. Is this really more of a portrait of the real man than the fictional one?

It’s hard to say. But as we read on it becomes clear that, yes, this is still the Atticus we remember. But we didn’t know him as well as we thought.

(WARNING: Limited spoilers ahead.)

The heart of the novel is when Jean Louise confronts her father about his seemingly new attitude. In typical Atticus style, he argues with her almost like he was defending himself in court. Some of his defense makes a weird kind of sense. He says he briefly joined the Klan just to see who was behind those hoods. He wanted to know whom he was dealing with. Moreover, his participation in this segregation society was to serve as a moderating influence. He wanted to make sure they didn’t get up to too much trouble.

But this is only half an answer. As he continues, it becomes clear that Atticus actually does believe some of the racist rhetoric of his times. He really doesn’t want black people and white people to be put on an equal footing. He justifies this by saying black people aren’t ready yet. They haven’t been prepared for the rights and privileges of white folks. Maybe some day they will be, but not today.

It’s a disgusting and patronizing argument – infantilizing an entire people. And hearing this out of Atticus mouth – it’s like seeing a spider crawl across a gorgeous face.

Similarly creepy is his appeal to state’s rights – an argument we still hear today from our Tea Party friends. Perhaps it WAS Southern white people’s responsibility to raise up the people of color in their midst – but if they weren’t going to do it, it was past time that someone did!

Scout doesn’t let her father get away with any of this. She does her best to verbally destroy him and run away forever.

But before she can escape, she runs into her Uncle Jack. What he does is equal parts rationality and sexism. I can’t imagine any modern author resolving the story this way. Perhaps that’s for the best. In some ways, Uncle Jack’s actions are more disturbing than Atticus’ opinions.

In the end, Scout learns to accept her father for who he is. Yes, he is dead wrong about black people, but most of the time he’s still the same loving Atticus. It’s a good point. How many people do you love who believe reprehensible things? Probably a lot. That doesn’t mean you stop loving them.

I’d say that’s the central point of the novel. Each of us is responsible for creating our own conscience. We can’t rely on any value system that comes to us prepackaged. We have to examine every facet of our worlds and decide what it is we truly believe. And in doing so we’ll probably reach divergent opinions.

The only way Lee could do that was by showing us the heroic Atticus as nothing but a flesh and blood human being, full of the same frailties and mistaken thinking.

In the end, Scout’s thoughts seem more modern than anyone else’s in the book, more in line with our own views about social justice. But her conclusion only goes so far. We’re still left with questions. How do we reach loved ones who disagree with us? How can we tell if our own ethical intuitions are correct? How can white folks best help people of color secure their rightful place in society?

None of these have answers, but Lee is still asking the right questions. More than 50 years later, we’re still searching for solutions.