Biloxi, Mississippi, made news when its public school district pulled Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its eighth-grade reading list earlier this month. When pressed, the Biloxi School Board stated that the acclaimed Southern novel was pulled because some parents and students felt uncomfortable with it being taught at the eighth-grade level, given its themes of inequality and racism and the tough language that Lee uses to explore those ideas. As a Southern teacher myself, I’m really interested in figuring out why certain themes and language create this sense of discomfort for students and their parents. Let me be clear—this doesn’t mean teachers should embrace controversy just for the sake of being controversial. However, people often experience the most growth when they are in situations that make them uncomfortable. When it comes to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I think we need to embrace that discomfort in order to really appreciate the lessons of prejudice and inequality that it wants our students to learn.
Why It HappenedFirst, let’s explore what this “discomfort” really is. Kenny Holloway, the vice president of the Biloxi School Board, explained the decision to ban “To Kill a Mockingbird” pretty simply: “There were complaints about it. There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.” This mostly refers to Lee’s use of “the n-word” almost 50 times throughout the novel. It’s used mostly in dialogue, and it’s never censored. This is problematic for some school districts, and I can see why administrators are hesitant to let eighth-graders read novels with that sort of language. The language isn’t the only controversy in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” though. If you haven’t read the novel, it deals with a young girl named Scout and her coming of age in a 1930s Alabama town called Maycomb. When Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, Maycomb’s respected attorney, agrees to defend a Black man accused of raping a White woman, Scout quickly comes to realize the role that racism and inequality play in Maycomb every day. In addition to the language used in the book, these really difficult themes and situations complicate the matter all the more. It’s not hard to imagine why “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the most banned classics of all time. Even still, there are some educators like me who feel that [pullquote position="left"]“To Kill a Mockingbird” is unique in its treatment of racial inequality, and who argue that removing the book from reading classes robs students of a rich opportunity to think critically about inequality, racism and the way they affect society in ways that are not always apparent. In other words, we think the discomfort that “To Kill a Mockingbird” may cause is worth it because of the valuable lessons the book teaches.
Why It MattersIn the words of the novel’s hero, Atticus Finch, “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." I think Atticus’ statement sheds some light on a really important goal of education—to help students understand and be understood by their peers. As an educator in the South, I try to consider all the viewpoints, personal experiences and cultural backgrounds that are represented in my classroom. I strive to recognize the hard battles that have been fought for equality in our schools and communities, and I believe that there is necessarily some level of discomfort involved in that. That’s what makes “To Kill a Mockingbird” so important. If we look past its language, we see situations that really encourage readers to think critically about how misjudgments can impact the lives of innocent people, and on a larger scale, how those misjudgments might influence a society’s view of an entire group of people. In a recent interview with the LA Times, Biloxi student Sadye Saunders from the Biloxi school district puts it best: "This is important, because censorship blinds us. These books are important, because they are not condoning this word, this racial slur...They're showing the ignorance of using that word and having this bigotry." We always argue that we want education to prepare students for “the real world,” but the truth is that the real world is filled with its own share of inequalities and injustices. And for people who deal with those things on a daily basis, I bet they’re pretty uncomfortable, too.
Garris Stroud is an award-winning educator and writer from Greenville, Kentucky whose advocacy and scholarship have been recognized by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Education Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Lexington Herald-Leader. He served as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from 2017-2019 and became chair of the organization’s editorial board in 2018. ...