If there were ever a book for America to read in 2016, it’s To Kill a Mockingbird, written by the venerable Harper Lee. In a year ravaged by war, corruption, and a catastrophic election, this story’s moral of kindness and humanity is desperately needed. And yet, in our latest installment of 2016 turning back the clock, another school district has banned the use of To Kill A Mockingbird in its curriculum.
Accomack Country School District of Virginia has temporarily banned the use of this classic in the classroom after a parent of a student of color voiced concern about the book’s derogatory and racist language. A decision about a permanent ban has not yet been made.
As a former high school English teacher, I taught my fair share of controversial literature. A Handmaid’s Tale. Native Son. Still I Rise. A Raisin in the Sun. I taught them all, sometimes with pushback from parents. But by far the book that had the greatest impact on me, the book that I believe most touches the hearts of kids and teaches them about true humanity, is To Kill a Mockingbird.
Yes, there is abuse. There is violence. There is racist injustice that leads to an unfair guilty verdict and subsequent murder of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man. And the n-word is used multiple times.
No teacher or administrator or advocate for the use of this book in the classroom will deny any of these facts. But what else is in this book?
The theme of fearing that which we do not know.
The entire town is terrified of a kind, gentle man named Boo Radley, though they know almost nothing about him. White residents of Maycomb fear innocent black people as potential threats, though they rarely interact with them at all. What is prejudice born out of? FEAR. Fearing the unknown. Fearing the uncomfortable. Critics of To Kill a Mockingbird assert that it spreads racism and prejudice. I say shying away from it, and avoiding it because it makes us feel uncomfortable, spreads racism and prejudice.
The theme of seeing life from another person’s perspective.
At the end of the novel, Scout, the main character, stands on the porch of the man who saved her life. The same man everyone feared. The same man who showed her, her brother, and her best friend kindness. The same man who was just lonely and different and not sure how to be in a world that judged him. She stood on his porch and saw her street from his point of view—how different it looked. Imagine if we did that, especially this year?
The parent who sparked the ban in Accomack County says, “We are a nation divided as it is.” I could not agree more.
I have never felt more trepidation entering a new year. More than ever, at least in my lifetime, our nation is divided—politically, socially, economically, and racially. What if we stopped for one minute and looked at life from our neighbor’s point of view? From a Trump supporter’s side? From a black person’s? From an immigrant’s? From a conservative Christian’s? From a gay person’s?
Because the truth is, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Maybe we could begin to bridge the divide.
The theme of non-stereotypical gender roles.
Scout breaks just about every rule of what it means to “be a girl,” and I love her for it. She doesn’t sit quietly and look pretty. She makes noise. She gets dirty. She questions that which she doesn’t understand or agree with. She fights back against society (including her own teacher and aunt) telling her what she cannot do, what she should not do, because she is a girl. Now more than ever, we need our girls to read about and be inspired by Scout—all of our girls, of all colors, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The theme of judging people based on their character, not their skin color.
Atticus Finch, a white lawyer, endures threats upon him and his family and potential ostracism from his community, simply because he defends an innocent man to the best of his ability. Because our constitution states that every man deserves a fair trial. This man just happens to be black.
Also, much to his neighbors’ and family’s dismay, Atticus allows his children to attend a black church and visit the home of their black maid and caretaker, Calpurnia. He and his children love her like family because she is good and fair and kind. And he teaches his kids that those qualities are all that matter in a person.
This is not an easy book to read. Or teach (I promise you). But every year I was in the classroom, I pledged to never avoid confronting issues that mattered. I vowed to get uncomfortable at times.
Our country is in a state of distress. Are you comfortable? Do you feel safe? So what should we do? Read about rainbows and butterflies and stick our heads in the sand? Or expose our kids to this incredible work of art—a story of a black man, whose life was unjustly cut short?
Tom Robinson was innocent. And he was shot to death. If that alone isn’t a reason enough to read this book, now, in 2016, I don’t know what is. Because I’m pretty sure when Harper Lee published it in 1960, she thought (or at least hoped) things would change over 56 years. Have they?
To the Accomack County School District and all other schools banning books that are “hard to read” and “uncomfortable,” please know that you are doing your kids a disservice. The world is hard and uncomfortable, and if 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that we still have a lot of work to do.
We can start by having a discussion, in our classroom, with our kids. And we can start with books like To Kill a Mockingbird.
Other posts by Karen Johnson: I Am a Feminist for You