Foes of Mockingbird Have a Point


When I first heard that To Kill a Mockingbird had been pulled from a Biloxi, Mississippi school room last week, I initially assumed that resurgent white nationalism was involved. Upon further digging, however, I learned that black parents were complaining that the novel made their child uncomfortable, not white. That launches an entirely different conversation than the one I anticipated.

Opposed to censorship though I am, in this instance I support those attacking the book. At least to a point.

The Biloxi Sun Herald has the story:

Biloxi School District became the focus of a national public outcry earlier this month when it pulled To Kill A Mockingbird from the classroom lesson plan because a parent and grandparent complained it made their child uncomfortable…

 The parents complaining…told the Biloxi School Board that the teacher allowed students to laugh at the use of the N-word in the text and discussions and disagreed with the need for such a racist word in a classroom setting for 13- to 14-year-olds.

Here’s the complaint in the mother’s own words:

“Students were laughing out loud at the teacher’s response. That’s unacceptable to me,” she told the board. “Is there not a better way to teach about that era and the horrors of that era, other than having kids laughing in class when the N-word is said? It should not be required reading for all students. My child shouldn’t have to sit in that class like that.

“It’s not a conducive environment,” Yolanda Williams said. “It’s not just the book, but supplemental material that had the N-word.

 “We have to get to the point where we have zero tolerance for that,” she said. “The school board needs to take a real look at the curriculum as a whole. I think something has gone amiss. There’s a serious issue and it’s not uncomfortable, it’s outrageous.”

Jessica Williams [the grandmother] said they are a military family that came to Biloxi more than 20 years ago, and her grandchild was raised not to see herself as black.

“Is there no better way to teach?” she asked the school board. “My (grand)child should not have to sit in a classroom like that.”

Similar complaints have led certain schools to ban Huckleberry Finn, either officially or in practice. One can understand why, especially these days. If outward expressions of racism are becoming increasingly common, then seeing the n-word casually used in a novel can appear to legitimize the practice.

It doesn’t help that the likable Scout uses the word numerous times. Here’s a random example, taken from when the children are trying to build a snowman from very little snow:

Jem scooped up an armful of dirt, patted it into a mound on which he added another load, and another until he had constructed a torso.  

“Jem, I ain’t ever heard of a nigger snowman,” I said.

I’ve written several post on why white readers love the novel more than black readers. After all, the hero is a white liberal who comes in and saves the day while the virtuous blacks serve as one-dimensional foils. They are virtuous because they know their place, standing up to honor Atticus in the courtroom. This helps explain why the book did as well as it did, even in the south.

I find Harper Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, far more honest for the way it exposes the earlier fantasy. Atticus can be a benign savior only as long as the blacks don’t demand equal rights. Once they do, he joins the White Citizens Counsel, prompting Calpurnia to quit in disgust. Now that’s a discomforting vision.

In Mockingbird, the n-word is not problematized the way it is in, say, Huckleberry Finn. Huck is clearly an ignorant white kid, an unreliable narrator, and the drama is whether he will rise above his prejudices. His trashy language battles with his love for Jim, and love wins out. The crude language is exposed for what it is.

We don’t get the full humanity of African Americans in Mockingbird, however. Even when Atticus chastises Scout for using the n-word, it’s not because it dehumanizes people of color. Rather, it’s because it’s a class marker. The book is classist as well as racist, as seen in its contempt for the Ewells. Only “common” people use the n-word:

“Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” I asked him that evening.

“Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.”

I was raised in segregated Tennessee and remember once, in third grade, using the n-word. I remember this because I was told in no uncertain terms not to use it anymore, and I didn’t. Why hasn’t Atticus done the same with Jem and Scout? To be sure, this was in 1950’s Tennessee, not in 1930s Alabama, but Lee’s sequel suggests that Atticus doesn’t come down harder because it’s not a big deal for him. By contrast, it’s a very big deal to Twain how Jim is treated.

The mother and grandmother in Biloxi probably didn’t undertake an in-depth textual analysis of Mockingbird, but they sensed that their child was undergoing a version of the dehumanizing that occurs in the book. They focused on casual use of the n-word as an indication of deeper problems.

I’m interested in how the teacher handled the class’s laughter. How sensitively was the racism in the novel addressed, and did he or she supplement Mockingbird with works by black authors, say Langston Hughes or Lucille Clifton? (Both write short and powerful poems that eighth graders can grasp.)  A school system that truly respected its children of color would not, I suspect, get such parental complaints.

So no, don’t ban To Kill a Mockingbird. But take the concerns of these parents seriously and know that, if you don’t teach the novel well, it will bolster existent racism (and classism). Literature packs an explosive punch and, like dynamite, can be used for bad as well as for good.

Further thought – While I’ve critiqued Mockingbird in past posts, I’ve also discussed how important it was to my own development. Like Scout, I too was called an n-lover growing up, and seeing how she fought back inspired me. I also drew strength from this exchange with Atticus when the expression is directed at him:

“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything — like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain — ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”  

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”  

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody. . . I’m hard put, sometimes — baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you. So don’t let Mrs. Dubose get you down. She has enough troubles of her own.”

I now realize that Atticus’s large mind here is partly a sign of his privilege: he knows he’s above these other people. Nevertheless, the scene supported me in the face of similar attacks and made me resolve to be a bigger person, a good desire to have fostered in the battle against racism.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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