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To Kill ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
The latest attempts to cancel the antiracist classic.
AFTER ALL THE CONTROVERSIES about right-wing activists working to purge public school curricula and libraries of books they find objectionable—generally ones dealing with either sexual morality or the painful history of racism in America—the latest report of such a purge comes from a liberal blue-state community. This time, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a beloved antiracist classic, has been taken off the list of required books in high school freshman English classes in the Mukilteo School District in Washington State due to a complaint from four progressive teachers who regard it as racially insensitive and harmful to minority students.
While Mukilteo’s Mockingbird drama first played out almost two years ago, it is the focus of a long and fascinating piece in the Washington Post last week. The saga deserves a look, because it touches on a lot of issues central to today’s cultural conflicts in the United States: from school politics to book banning to the meaning of antiracism to literature and identity. And also because it concerns an American masterpiece that has often become a culture-war lightning rod—and a target of attacks that misunderstand and misrepresent its content.
FIRST, A PERSONAL REFLECTION: My interest in controversies over the teaching of Harper Lee’s famous novel is related to my own love for the book. I first fell for it as a teenager in what was then the Soviet Union, reading an edition superbly translated into Russian (even if some of the racial coding of the Jim Crow-era South inevitably got lost in translation: “boy” in reference to an adult black man was rendered as paren’, which is equivalent to “fellow” or “guy” and almost entirely fails to convey the degrading nature of the term). When I was 13 or 14, I spent much of my summer vacation immersed in Mockingbird’s world. About two years later, by pure serendipity, I also got to meet the two translators, Nora Gal and Raisa Oblonskaya, who taught a literary translation seminar I attended at Moscow’s Central Writers’ House shortly before leaving the Soviet Union with my family at the age of 16.
Mockingbird, whose unflinching portrayal of racism in America made it approved reading in the USSR, offered me a uniquely vibrant and three-dimensional picture of life in a different world. But it also spoke of things that were powerfully relevant to me as a baby dissident: above all, the imperative to follow one’s conscience even against the tide. For some reason, I didn’t connect its portrayal of racism to the antisemitism I had seen in my own life, or the widespread prejudice against ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union; but it certainly served as a strong inoculation against antiblack racism.
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Yet controversies around the alleged racial offensiveness of Lee’s novel have flared up with some regularity. In many cases the objections focus simply on the use of the “N-word,” which occurs nearly fifty times in the book and which rankles in particular when students are called upon to read out loud from the novel or the play adaptation. To hear such a repugnant word spoken by a classmate—or even addressed to you in a dialogue reenactment—or to have to speak it yourself is a deeply unpleasant experience; it’s not surprising that students would object.
But other objections are far more fundamental.
The complaint from the teachers in the Mukilteo School District, three of whom are white and one black, is that To Kill a Mockingbird “centers whiteness,” omits black voices, and enshrines “white savior” tropes. It may ostensibly denounce racial injustice—a black man, Tom Robinson, is convicted of a rape that everyone knows he didn’t commit and then shot dead when he attempts a desperate prison break—but the narrator and nearly all the other major characters are white, and much of the focus is on the heroic white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends Tom.
Atticus, whose heroic aura at the time of the book’s publication in 1960 was magnified by Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film, has certainly taken his share of lumps over the years—particularly after the 2015 publication of a second Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, in which Atticus’s daughter “Scout” Finch, the child narrator of Mockingbird, returns home as a grownup to find that her revered father is a cantankerous bigot and segregationist. Watchman was not a sequel but a 1957 first draft from whose flashbacks Lee eventually extracted Mockingbird under an editor’s guidance; despite the same names, many of the details are different. Nonetheless, while many fans of the first novel were appalled, some commentators—such as University of Miami law professor Osamudia James in a New York Times op-ed and writer Catherine Nichols in a Jezebel article—asserted that Watchman was a welcome wrecking ball to Atticus’s pedestal. Without its corrective, Nichols wrote, Mockingbird is a “shameful” and “racist” vehicle for white saviorism, an ode to a character who believes in “powerful white people being very polite” as a remedy for a racist system.
But these critiques rely on a highly tendentious reading of the novel. For instance, “being very polite” is an odd way to describe a man keeping watch in the county jail at night to protect his black client from a lynch mob—or risking pariah status in the town by openly confronting a white woman about her false accusation of rape against a black man. What’s more, the charge of “white saviorism” misses the fact that Atticus doesn’t save Tom, precisely because, in a profoundly racist system, a black man accused of raping a white woman cannot be saved. While most people in town treat Tom’s fatal escape attempt as evidence of black irrationality because there was a good chance of Atticus winning on appeal, Atticus’s own comment is “I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.” It’s a low-key but compelling acknowledgment that, against a rigged and oppressive system, the decency of “good” white people can do very little.
The text offers some fascinating evidence that Atticus’s understanding of this “systemic racism,” as we would now call it, grows over the course of the novel. Early on, he sometimes seems to dismiss racism as a bizarre aberration that makes “reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up.” Later, after Tom’s conviction, he bluntly tells his children that racism is deeply entrenched in their culture (“In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.”) and that “one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.”
Mockingbird also has memorable passages in which Scout, her older brother Jem, and their friend “Dill” become aware of how vicious and pervasive the racism around them is. Scout is shocked when the nice schoolteacher who deplores the persecution of Jews in Germany (it’s 1935) makes “ugly” comments about blacks at Tom Robinson’s trial (“It’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were getting way above themselves, and the next thing they think they can do is marry us”). Dill bursts into tears watching the prosecutor browbeat and humiliate Tom on cross-examination; outside the courtroom, Mr. Dolphus Raymond, a sympathetic white man who lives with a black woman and pretends to be an alcoholic to pacify public opinion, bitterly predicts that once he grows older, he will no longer “cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too” because he will come to see it as normal.
Despite these bleak passages, To Kill a Mockingbird ultimately offers a hopeful message: change in hearts and minds will make change in society possible. This message may partly reflect the book’s history: Lee’s biographer Charles J. Shields and the historian Joseph Crespino have suggested that the evolution of Atticus from Watchman to Mockingbird was due to the evolution of Lee’s father, a lawyer, civic leader, and newspaper editor on whom the character was based. Go Set a Watchman was inspired in part by Lee’s anger at her adored father’s segregationist views; but it appears that while she was rewriting her novel, he was revising his views in a pro-civil rights direction.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an intensely antiracist book; but its antiracism is rooted in liberal humanism and empathy (“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus tells his children in what is perhaps the novel’s most celebrated passage). It stands in contrast to the current progressive ideology that fixates on identity and on hierarchies of oppression and privilege.
AS FOR THE CLAIM that Mockingbird “centers” white people and gives little voice to black characters: for one thing, this charge ignores the key character of Calpurnia, the Finches’ black housekeeper, a mother figure to Scout and Jem and a strong-willed woman who is very far from being an update of the “mammy” stereotype. Lee also makes sure that the children see Calpurnia as a person in her own right, with a life outside the Finch home, with her own family and with strong connections to the town’s black community.1 It is also not an accident that the children watch Tom’s trial from the “colored” gallery, seated next to the town’s black minister and in a position to watch the black community’s reactions to the trial firsthand. And lastly, if we want to impart antiracist lessons, surely the perspective of young white people who confront the wrongness of racism must be a part of those lessons.
Obviously, if To Kill a Mockingbird were the only book on the high school curriculum dealing with racial issues or the Jim Crow era, it would be grossly inadequate as a representation of black Americans. But when read in conjunction with other authors—black, Hispanic, Asian-American, etc.—it has a vital place in American literature, both for its impact and for its value as a chronicle of its era. Yet the teachers who challenged it in Mukilteo believe that its very existence on the curriculum “presents a barrier to understanding and celebrating an authentic Black point of view in Civil Rights era literature.”
The teachers also claim that they were motivated to oppose the book because of complaints from students who disliked it, black and white. The student complaints that impressed them include such thoughtful observations as, “This is fucking bullshit,” allegedly scrawled on a homework assignment. One teacher says she “will never forget” this comment. Yet the article quotes a number of teachers and students, of different racial background, who say they love the book and find it to be a compelling look at racial prejudice.
In December 21, the district’s Instructional Materials Committee voted to remove To Kill a Mockingbird from the ninth-grade required reading list but kept in on the optional list of recommended books. Since then, according to the Post, only one teacher, Ann Freemon, “dared” to assign the book in her class; one of the students says that the class was riveted. But Freemon has now retired, and this school year so far not one teacher in the district has assigned Mockingbird. But that’s still not enough for the four complaining teachers: “Each said they think students will be harmed because the book remains as a teaching option.”
If the removal of books from school libraries and classrooms at the behest of conservative activists is “book banning” in the loose sense that term is so often used nowadays, then in that sense, the Mukilteo Four are book banners, too. The right-wing crusade against objectionable books is pernicious (even if, on occasion, the books may really be objectionable). But critics of this crusade tend to ignore pressures from teachers and school librarians with their own convictions about the “harm” of books. As the push to kill Mockingbird in the Mukilteo School District shows, sometimes the book-banning call is coming from inside the house.