To Kill a Mockingbird has long been considered a major piece of American literature, and has accordingly been taught in schools throughout America for decades. It is so much a part of American literature and common curriculum that it hardly feels necessary to describe the book or its plot--if you haven't read the book, you are likely to be familiar with it from film or stage adaptations. This novel is a work of fiction, but many of the characters and places are inspired by Harper Lee's own life. The protagonist, Scout, is modeled after Harper Lee; Atticus Finch is directly inspired by her father; and even Jem is inspired by Harper Lee's real-life brother. The book follows 6-year-old Scout's experience and loss of innocence as she begins to recognize the racism (as well as some sexism and classism) within her small Southern town. The most well-known element of the plot is that Scout's father, Atticus, acts as the defense lawyer for Tom Robinson, a local Black man who has been accused of raping a White woman.
This novel includes various racial slurs, and is centered around the difficult topics of racial injustice and of rape. However, Lee approaches those topics via the humor and innocence of her six-year-old protagonist's perspective. In 2018, PBS's The Great American Read announced that To Kill A Mockingbird won the title of American's #1 Best-Loved Novel (more about that here). Harper Lee's first--and, for most of her life, only--novel is undeniably a significant contribution to American literature and culture.
Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the first publication of To Kill a Mockingbird--a book which has rather remarkably seen continuous publication throughout the full 60 years since its initial release. The combination of the recent publication of Harper Lee's second book Go Set a Watchman (which is an earlier draft of the book that became To Kill a Mockingbird) in 2015, To Kill a Mockingbird's 60th anniversary, and the heightened awareness of racial injustice and issues of systemic racism that arose in 2020, brought a fresh focus on this classic novel. While the book has been frequently challenged ever since its publication in 1960, this fresh focus brought it up to be the 7th most challenged book of 2020.
Why is this book being challenged?
According to the ALA, To Kill a Mockingbird was "[b]anned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a 'white savior' character, and its perception of the Black experience." Over time, our perception of To Kill a Mockingbird--and the objections to it--have shifted; whereas when it was first published, it may have been a progressive piece of anti-racist literature, it is now an outdated work which rather problematically centers White voices and experience.
While I do not think that To Kill a Mockingbird should be banned or otherwise censored, I do think that it's time the book was replaced in our curriculum with more contemporary works written by BIPOC authors. As Lisa Hoover put it in a post on the Intellectual Freedom Blog in 2018, "[T]here is a significant difference between choosing to stop teaching a book because it has become outdated and banning it because it makes us uncomfortable." It is good to read books which make us uncomfortable, which challenge us; that is how we think critically about our opinions and examine our inherent biases--it's how we broaden our experience and deepen our understanding of and empathy for others. However, To Kill a Mockingbird is no longer a book which makes racists uncomfortable--it is instead a book which apologists for racism use to pretend that racism is a thing of the past, to justify that 'intellectual' White people are, indeed, a class above Black Americans, and even to compare the investigation of the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh to the treatment of Tom Robinson. We have romanticized Atticus Finch into a White savior and that fact, along with the classism and the infantilization of Black people which Atticus Finch represents, now comfort those who should be made to feel uncomfortable.
If your gut reaction is to object to pulling To Kill a Mockingbird from schools (or at least de-prioritizing and better-contextualizing it as it is taught), I highly recommend reading the following articles and considering the points made within them:
To Kill a Mockingbird holds an important place within the history and context of American literature. However, there are better books which should take its place in middle- and high-school classrooms today. Although it has been lauded as anti-racist, it is not so, and it centers the voice and experience of its White author and White characters over the marginalized Black voices which our country needs to hear. Putting Atticus Finch up on a pedestal as an aspirational, heroic figure is a mistake, and it very much can--and does--perpetuate a harmful narrative wherein a superior-but-compassionate (or simply superior-but-'just') White savior paternalistically condescends to 'protect' the more vulnerable and lesser Black American population. It is an injustice towards Black Americans that does not truly see them as equal. As much as people have largely wanted to deny it, the overtly racist Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is, indeed, very much the same character as the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. His has always been a character which is classist, elitist, and racist--his has always been a character that supports a position of people being 'equal under the law' and 'separate/segregated/unequal in capacity and within society,' with class, race, and intellect irredeemably categorizing people--putting them in their place.
Banning this book isn't the answer, but teaching it as we traditionally have been similarly isn't appropriate. When To Kill a Mockingbird is taught, it should be contextualized and discussed in a way that doesn't make Atticus Finch out to be an anti-racist hero and that doesn't imply that racism is something that we have overcome--a thing of the past. Just as Scout grew up and began to see her father for what he fully was in Go Set a Watchman, so do we need to set aside the childish view of a heroic paternal figure--embodied by the likes of Gregory Peck--from To Kill a Mockingbird and acknowledge how deeply problematic it truly is to view Black Americans as naive, helpless mockingbirds rather than as people, the equals of any other humans, who have been systematically oppressed. Black Americans do not need to be infantilized and protected by some White paternalistic hero, and we need to do better at promoting and truly listening to Black voices.
A Challenged Books Challenge
This is the seventh installment in the series of 10 book reviews I will be doing as part of my challenge to read and review all of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Read more about this challenge, including the other books involved, here. The first installment (my review of George) can be found here, the second installment (my review of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You) can be found here, the third (my review of All American Boys) can be found here, the fourth (my review of Speak) can be found here, the fifth (my review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) can be found here, and the sixth (my review of Something Happened in Our Town) can be found here.
The next book I will be reviewing is Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Look for that review here on my blog on August 6.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.