Sunday, July 11, 2010

warmly embrace a racist novel (to kill a mockingbird)

I refuse to go along with this week's warm, feel-good celebrations of Harper Lee's novel (published fifty years ago today), To Kill a Mockingbird. Simply put, I think that novel is racist, and so is its undying popularity. It's also racist in a particularly insidious way, because the story and its characters instead seem to so many white people like the very model of good, heartwarming, white anti-racism.

A few days ago, NPR (National Propaganda Public Radio) aired a typically laudatory piece on the novel, voiced by reporter Lynn Neary. As usual on the soothing, soporific NPR, this piece was filtered through, and aimed toward, a well-educated white perspective. These implied people are all too happy to be reminded that racism is a thing of the past, and that things are oh so much better now. The writers of this NPR segment were careful enough to interview some black teachers and students about Lee's book, but if any offered significant criticism, their perspectives were left out.

The segment begins,

Harper Lee had the kind of success most writers only dream about. Shortly after her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, came out in the summer of 1960, it hit the bestseller lists, then it won a Pulitzer Prize, and then was made into an Oscar-winning movie. Her novel has never gone out of print.

But, in a move that's unheard of in this age of celebrity writers, Lee stepped out of the limelight and stopped doing interviews years ago -- she never wrote another book. Still, her influence has endured, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.

NPR's print version (entitled "50 Years On, 'Mockingbird' Still Sings America's Song") goes on to say,

For the high-schoolers reading To Kill a Mockingbird today, America is a very different place than it was when Lee wrote her novel 50 years ago. Lee's story of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus -- a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape -- came out just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation.

That's right, dear, lily-white NPR fans. Things were sooooo different back then, weren't they? Thank God racism is dead!

Actually, that right there is the first reason I think this novel is, in effect, racist -- it allows, indeed encourages, today's well-meaning white people to think that "America is a very different place" than it was when Lee wrote her novel, and thus to think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago.

The novel came out, you see, "just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation." Back in the bad old days, when "the nation" was "fighting"; why not say that mainstream white supremacists, with the support of most white Americans, were keeping black kids out of school while bashing in the heads of their adult parents and relatives? And come to think of it, the heads of those black kids too? But nowadays, you see, "the nation" embraces its black kids.

By way of driving home that particular, comforting implication -- "Fortunately, we all pretty much get along now!" -- Neary sets her story in a racially mixed, seemingly postracial classroom:

Today, in a 10th grade English class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., students of many different races and ethnicities are studying the book together. Their teacher, Laurel Taylor, says that the story still resonates -- and with students of all backgrounds.

"Trying to find your identity and realizing that your society doesn't always tell you the right thing" is a particularly profound message for teens, Taylor says. "Sometimes you have to go against what everyone else says to do the right thing. All that kind of resonates no matter where you come from."

This part of Neary's segment clarifies the second problem I have with how the novel comes across to so many American readers -- its messages get read as "universal" -- "To Kill a Mockingbird can teach anyone how to be a better person!" I suppose that's a nice message, but when people claim that the novel's messages can be embraced by anyone, the realities of white supremacist violence, past and present, fade from view.

Neary carries on about the book's widespread appeal -- which somehow circles right back to white people:

"The story of Scout's initiation and maturing is the story of finding out who you are in the world," says author Mary McDonagh Murphy. "And at the same time, the novel is about finding out who we are as a country."

Murphy's new book, Scout, Atticus & Boo, is based on interviews about To Kill a Mockingbird with well-known writers, journalists, historians and artists. Murphy says the novel, narrated from a child's point of view, gave white people, especially in the South, a nonthreatening way to think about race differently.

Yes, "we" wouldn't want white people, the principle enactors of racism, to feel at all "threatened" when we try to talk to them about racism. I guess if we did, they'd just up and run away!

Anyway, I could go on dissecting the saccharine nostalgia of this NPR piece (and I should add that, to Neary's credit, she does get around to injecting some realism, especially by mentioning the horrific and iconic death of Emmett Till). But I'd rather turn to a more critical and insightful view, of both the novel and its effects on different readers.

In a 2003 academic article (published in Race and Class), Isaac Saney wrote about successful black efforts against Lee's novel in Nova Scotia, efforts undertaken because it's a racist novel. In 1996, "intense community pressure" by the African Nova Scotian population managed to remove the novel from the Department of Education's list of recommended, authorized books; in 2002, a committee consisting of parents and educators, seconded by members of the Black Educators' Association (BEA), recommended that the book "be removed from school use altogether."

A report (by the African Canadian Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Education) "laid out the community's concerns":

In this novel, African-Canadian students are presented with language that portrays all the stereotypical generalizations that demean them as a people. While the White student and the White teacher many misconstrue it as language of an ealier era or the way it was, this language is still widely used today and the book serves as tool to reinforce its usage even further. . . .

The terminology in this novel subjects students to humiliating experiences that rob them of their self-respect and the respect of their peers. The word 'Nigger' is used 48 times. . . .

There are many available books which reflect the past history of African-Canadians or Americans without subjecting African-Canadian learners to this type of degradation. . . We believe that the English Language Arts curriculum in Nova Scotia must enable all students to feel comfortable with ideas, feelings and experiences presented without fear of humiliation . . . To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly a book that no longer meets these goals and therefore must no longer be used for classroom instruction.

So aside from the multiple usages of the n-word, what exactly is it about the book that provoked such a strong black revulsion? (And I do not mean to imply with this question, of course, that I think all black readers respond to the book in just one way.)

After reviewing common white distortions in the media of this collective African-Canadian complaint,* Saney goes on to offer three primary and compelling reasons of his own for knocking To Kill a Mockingbird from its lofty perch:

1. A common reading of its central symbol (mockingbird = black people) degrades black people.

Is not the mockingbird a metaphor for the entire African American population? [The metaphor says] that Black people are useful and harmless creatures -- akin to decorous pets -- that should not be treated brutally. This is reminiscent of the thinking that pervaded certain sectors of the abolition movement against slavery, which did not extol the equality of Africans, but paralleled the propaganda of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals, arguing that just as one should not treat one's horse, ox or dog cruelly, one should not treat one's Blacks cruelly. 

By foisting this mockingbird image on African Americans, it does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior 'races', the notion of those meant to rule versus those meant to be ruled. What it attacks are the worst -- particularly violent -- excesses of the racist social order, leaving the racist social order itself intact.

2. The novel's noble, white-knight hero has no basis in reality, and the common white focus on the heroism of Atticus Finch distracts attention from the pervasiveness of 1930s white-supremacist solidarity among ordinary white people.

Central to the view that To Kill a Mockingbird is a solid and inherently anti-racist work is the role of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, the Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus goes so far as to save Tom from a lynching. However, this act has no historical foundation.

The acclaimed exhibition Without Sanctuary: lynching photography in America . . . documented more than 600 incidents of lynching. This landmark exhibition and study established that 'lynchers tended to be ordinary people and respectable people, few of whom had any difficulties justifying their atrocities in the name of maintaining the social and racial order and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race'. In two years of investigation, the exhibit researchers found no evidence of intervention by a white person to stop even a single lynching.

(In sum, the noble, persistent, obstinate activism of Atticus Finch -- which garners the collective respect of the town's black people -- is a soothing white fantasy.**)

3. The novel reduces black people to passive, humble victims, thereby ignoring the realities of black agency and resistance.

Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denail of the historical agency of Black people. They are robbed of their role as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation.

There's the rub! The novel and its supporters deny that Black people have been the central actors in their movements for liberation and justice, from widespread African resistance to, and revolts against, slavery and colonialism to the twentieth century's mass movements challenging segregation, discrimination and imperialism. . . . The novel portrays Blacks as somnolent, awaiting someone from outside to take up and fight for the cause of justice.

It was African North Americans who took up the task of confronting and organising against racism, who through weal and woe, trial and tribulation, carried on -- and still carry on -- the battle for equal rights and dignity. Those whites who did, and do, make significant contributions gave, and give, their solidarity in response.

Yes, in response. I put those words in bold print because when I first read them, I realized just how white-centered the novel and movie are. I think that had it not been for the movie, especially Gregory Peck's depiction of Atticus Finch, the novel would not have the status it has today. Peck's Finch, in his upright disdain for racism, fully embodied a particularly white and male aspiration of liberal nobility. But he does it all on his own; it's white individualism all over again. And, ironically, non-white people are part of that portrait, but only as props, as accouterments that flesh out the portrait. Any black unrest and activism that would no doubt have inspired and aided any such white crusader is entirely erased.

Despite these faults, and others, To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be among the top three most-taught novels in American middle and high schools (another, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tends to be taught in similarly fantasized terms). Saney makes the sensible suggestion of supplanting such white-centric readings on racism with some more honest and black-affirming books, such as Ellison's Invisible Man, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Beloved, and many others. I would add that many worthy novels were written throughout the twentieth century by other non-white writers as well.

So, what do you think? Do you have warm memories of this (white) "masterpiece," or not-so-warm memories? If you have read it, do you think your race had anything to do with your reaction to it?

Also, should teachers should stop teaching it? Or teach it differently? And do you know of other worthy replacements/successors?

* Saney writes that in the white-dominated Canadian press,

The arguments advanced by the Black community were consistently presented in a non-serious, even risible, light so as to give the impression that the Black educators and parents are ignorant of the merits of literature, mere emotional whiners and complainers, belonging to a hot-headed fringe. For example, after the decision was made to keep the books in the curriculum, the Halifax Daily News in an editorial was 'relieved cooler heads have prevailed', reproducing the racist notions of inherent Black emotionality versus the rationality of white society.

** In a New Yorker piece published last year, Malcolm Gladwell claims that Finch did resemble an actual white antiracist of sorts, Alabama Governor Jim Folsom. Even so, since Folsom was a sort of wishy-washy populist of all the people, rather than a genuinely dedicated reformer, the parallel still leaves Atticus Finch looking less than worthy of emulation. As Gladwell writes, "If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict [against Tom Robinson]. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds."


  1. I read the book when I was in 4th or 5th grade. I remember I really liked it. I thought it was an anti-racist novel. I did not read it with a very discerning eye, I must confess. Now, I almost want to read it again to see what my reaction would be today.

  2. I remember this was everybody's favorite "Race" book in my highschool english class. That and "Huck Finn." Both of these novels made me feel like I wanted to shrivel up and die, just wordless humiliation. What with the teacher and the kids all crowing about how much they loooooved the message. I could never quite put my finger on why I was so uncomfortable. The protagonists after all were AGAINST racism... shouldn't I be happy about that? I just didn't have the tools to dissect the hidden messages then.

    I'd hope that Mockingbird wuld continue to be taught in schools, but only with the purpose of analzying the way it reifies racism even while trying to decry it. Unfortunately this type of analysis is hard to come by in a classroom setting.

    Why is that anyway? Why would we rather burn and ban books than discuss why they are offensive? Me, I don't want to bury the racist past I want to drag it out for the world to see... with the message "Look at what you've done. Look at what you continue to do. Stop this."

  3. Seymour MuchmoreJuly 11, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    You should tone it down with that NPR stuff, man. "Soporific" was taking it too far.

  4. Only commenting on your footnote to the first link, but I'm not sure that's "Hindu-face" or that that's a helpful thing to say. The article itself is all sorts of skeevy, but the photo itself looks like a wedding photo. They were married in a "traditional Sri Lankan ceremony" (which I guess is a way to phrase "Sri Lankan Hindu wedding") and that's how the bride and groom dress for those weddings (just like the tux - white wedding dress that have become the traditional garb of the Christian wedding [and have expanded to secular weddings all over the world - another issue of stuff white people do and how that minority's actions have become normative or desirable]). But I'm only commenting with very little knowledge (White and not Hindu).

  5. I can't remember the first time I read TKAM, but I suspect I read it with the white liberal gaze even as a child. When I most recently read it (when my children were in high school), I had the same criticisms as this post. Even though they have some literary merit, I don't think this book (or HF) should be assigned to young people for the reasons stated. There is too much casual demeaning of Black people. Even if you read it with a critical eye, the imagery reinforces the racist imagery we already get from the mass media.

    I recently re-read HF and I also don't think Twain deserves a pass on account of his critical stance with respect to era: the book was written in the 1880s, after slavery was over. His implied critique of slavery was too late to have any social value, and his stance with respect to the 1880s was not particularly progressive that I can see.

    I agree with the criticisms of TKAM posted here. I hadn't thought about point #1. I agree especially with the importance of point #3, imagining whites as saviors and ignoring Black agency. In case anybody cares, academic research supports the claim that White support arises as a response to Black agency.

    The only thing about point #2 that may be worth discussing is that you want to teach White people about standing up against racism, and it is helpful to have examples of the behavior you want people to emulate, even if they are extremely rare in practice. "Whites always stick together" as a message makes it hard to teach White kids/adults another way. But even saying this, the image of the "White savior" is the wrong model. A better model (as implied by #3) would be White people who respond to the challenged posed by Black agency and stick their necks out to stand with them.

    I agree with the implication that children/youth all all races/cultures ought to be assigned books written by POC exhibiting POC agency. If there are exemplars of books with WP taking leadership from POC and behaving well about race, I think those would be good, too, because I'd see them as exemplifying where we want to go, even if that isn't where we are.

  6. In response to Jane Laplain about criticizing vs banning, I think it is important to think about age and context. I agree that dissecting how a book that seems to be anti-racist still enacts racism is an important lesson. But it would be the unusual high school class where this could happen, in my experience. It would have to be the right mix of kids with an unusually gifted teacher.

  7. My mother read Mockingbird aloud to my brother and I when we were young, so I've got cozy nostalgic cuddled-up-against-my-mom feelings for it. Which, I think, is a sticking-point many white people have in giving up racist books. I've heard white people debating whether to give their kids the edited-for-racism update of a given book or the original unedited version, and opt for the original text because it's what they themselves read and remember fondly. I think white people just need to deal about this: a lot of what we/they have nostalgia for is racist, full stop, don't pass it on to your kids. Make your legacy to them be their NOT having to experience nostalgia for racist books.

    Re the points above:

    #2: Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautiful response to the oh-so-noble heroism of Atticus Finch. Taylor's Mr. Jamison is an anti-racist white lawyer who is a perfectly recognizeable stand-in for Atticus; Mr. Jamison even tries to stop a lynching at the end of the book. However, because he's anti-racist, he has no social standing whatsoever among white people in the town; additionally, because he's white, he has too much power over black people (even if he's striving not to use it) to be trusted or loved by the black people in town. They respect him, in a distant sort of way, but they cannot afford to be caught out trusting him, and they don't. The scene where Mr. Jamison tries to stop the lynching is night-and-day from the scene in Mockingbird: because of Mr. Jamison's anti-racism, he does not have the social and moral authority in the town to be able to turn a lynch mob back by looking them in the eye. He's able to slow them down, but that's about it. (I won't tell you what or who stops the lynch mob; just know that you don't have to read a lynching scene in this book.)

    Another good antidote to #2 is Daisy Bates' memoir of the Little Rock High School desegregation crisis. In it, she discusses how difficult it was to find any white people who would help, and she also details how most of the few who helped were socially and/or financially destroyed by white society afterwards; one of the white people who helped even ended up committing suicide. She and Taylor are pretty much in perfect agreement on this: Atticus Finch would not have been as depicted in Mockingbird, even if he had existed with the morals he was depicted as having.

    #3 I'd recommend everything Mildred Taylor has ever written. Her books are about resistance, agency, and the choices black people in the Depression South had to make about what to push for, and at what costs. The first two books especially (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and May the Circle Be Unbroken) are like rotating the world of Mockingbird in your hands and looking in through a different window.

  8. I remember really liking TKAM when I first read it, and not just because of the supposed "antiracism". I was attracted to other themes as well (the loss of innocence, etc). My teacher did actually mention the controversy surrounding the book and gave us the option to opt out of reading it. Yet he didn't do a good job of dissecting why the book is problematic beyond just the use of racial slurs. I actually saw the movie on television for the first time a few weeks ago, and remember having a similar feeling of discomfort, particularly during a certain scene in the courtroom, after the trial is over, when all of the black people in the gallery stood up in respect of Atticus. It was just too much hero-worship to handle. The fact that we are feeding this myth to our white high school students is very telling. It reflects the general way in which racism is treated in high school, like a problem of the past which we've all grown out of. It's pretty ironic, in wake the the Oscar Grant trial, that we're meant to believe that judicial discrimination against black men is an artifact of a dead era.

    Of course TKAM does have other literary merits, but ultimately the mental health of black students and other students of color is much more important. There are certainly other great American novels to be read. Maybe TKAM could be kept on the curriculum if it were taught alongside a novel from an author of color that does a better job of depicting the antiracist struggle. Then a teacher could compare and contrast opposing points of view and show how TKAM is problematic.

    But sadly it would be rare to find a teacher who would be up to that kind of task. My general experience with high school literature classes has been that most of the time is spent on edifying the literature, and very little time on criticizing its weaknesses. As long as that continues to be the case, it might be best to put off reading TKAM until university, where more detailed critical analysis should (hopefully) be happening.

  9. @macon

    Can you comment on why you thought that was a hindu face?

    I am not Hindu or Indian. I have taken one class in Hinduism taught by Indian women. I have also been to an ashram run by a white women ( and all the live-ins were white even though they got many visitors who were Indian)...

    IMHO, it seems that you are confusing Hindu with being solely for Indians. Which perhaps some Indians would agree just like some Asian Buddhists have problems with white western Buddhists.

    However, Hinduism is a religion ( in fact a variety of religious traditions that were limped together under the name Hindu by western people). Therefore, if you go to a Hindu ceremony there is not wrong with wearing traditional outfits even if you are not Indian( in fact I would say it's being respectable)...

    As far as wearing the face of a hindu... At the ashram we all had sandalwood placed on our heads ( sometimes a dot, sometimes fully covering our foreheads), we also at times wore traditional Indian clothes ( in fact girls are required to at the least wear a skirt). We were *invited* to do so by the ashram people.
    I think that dressing correctly in a religious setting is respectful and not the same as Brown-face... If someone does this outside of a religious event who isn't Hindu then maybe that hindu-face.

    I am open to disagreements ( for a I said I not Hindu even though I respect the faith)

  10. I would think this is an April Fool's post.

    It'd be different if I hadn't read this book recently, but I have. And after reading it dozens of times in my lifetime and another half dozen in the past few months, I disagree with every point made above.

    I wasn't introduced to this book in a classroom. I went to a predominantly white school and you best be damned sure this wasn't on the reading list. This book challenges white hypocrisy and default supremacy. To turn around and call it racist is a bastardization of everything that is true and honest about it.

    No wonder Harpe Lee stopped doing interviews. I would have too if I had thought I could be taken so far out of context.

    1. To a certain degree I agree with Deborah. I think translating the mockingbird symbol as only representing black people isn't really what Lee is saying with the novel. The mockingbird is anyone that society has chosen to shun and who are unable to defend themselves against society's bullying. This includes Boo Radley (a white person), the Cunningham's (white people of a lower class/income), AND the black characters in the story.

      I also think that it's contradictory that the "white knight hero" doesn't exist, but then to believe in individual white men who make a difference. Isn't that what Atticus was trying to do? Be an individual in a society that didn't agree with him? There's not really much of a distinction there.

      It may be true that a book littered with the word "nigger" may be outdated, even if the word is being used to make a point about the insidious force of racism that is "learned" by small children from misguided adults.

      I agree that Harper Lee's book shouldn't be used as an example that "racism is dead" and that "life isn't like that anymore," because I don't think that is true at all. But I don't think that's Harper Lee's fault. Or that the book is low-key racist as a result.

  11. I was young and immature when I was assigned this book, so I never read it. But in middle school drama class, we did reenact the entire story. I'm glad that you've posted this, because those criticisms are valid and I hadn't thought about the book in a long time. I agree with ''olderwoman'' that delving into the subtleties of the reification of racism in books that address race is too much to ask of a middle school or high school class, which is where this book is usually assigned. I'd rather they read some of the other books you suggested, or any other book that addresses racism in a realistic and poc-positive way.

  12. Nathaniel and Sisou,

    Thank you for challenging that part of the post -- I've decided to delete it. I now see that it's unhelpful, and a distraction at best.

    For the record, there was a footnote to the part of the post where I complain about the whiteness of NPR that said this:

    * Want your eyebrows raised? Try this bit from today's "All Things Considered." (Hmmm. . . is that Hindu-face?)

  13. I read this in High School and it was touted as a great anti-racist novel. I remember really liking it and when we analyzed it a big point was made about how Atticus was "such a good man and look at how bad and racist everyone else in that town was against these poor, defenseless black people, etc." We were taught to believe that he was a hero and by proxy Harper Lee was a great, visionary woman. I wonder how my black classmates felt. Did they see him as a hero or just another racist lie?

    I haven't yet read the whole article that you are referencing so it may speak about this but I'd like to point out that I vividly remember Scout discussing the mixed children in her town and they were pegged with the "tragic mulatto" stereotype. I have no idea why that point stuck.

    Perhaps the book should be taken out of the reading curriculum but to ignore the book wholly could present problems. It has affected and shaped a large portion of white thinking in North American society. It could be taught (but not required to read) to show how white racism is still pervasive and institutionalized. It is an excellent example of the white race fantasy. Using that as the example students could be taught to recognize subtle racism. Current legislation in the US, though, makes any hope of discussing such things with students dim.

  14. Re: what sanguinuity, olderwoman and Jane LePlain said,

    I am wondering what a lesson plan that involved tandem readings of TKAM and Let the Circle Be Unbroken (the sequel to Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry) might look like. The two books have a few overlaps (strong female narrator; a trial as a central part of the drama, although it occurs at a different point in the two books; protective older brother) that serve to highlight the racism of TKAM. That might make things easier for a teacher.

  15. @ThatDeborahGirl, hey, it's been a while since I read it. just wondering what are your thoughts on the New Yorker article?

    My first impression of this post is that it's issues are more with the presentation and simplistic analysis of the novel than with the novel itself, but the New Yorker article struck me as more damning. Of course, I ought to re-read it soon.

    I think it would be useful in teaching the book to show how some of the attitudes expressed are still present today (the judicial discrimination, the liberal "forgiveness" of virulent racist attitudes, shaming the alleged victim, etc.)

  16. Yeah this book did please every white person in my high school English class a bit too much for it to be legitimate. It's another one of those myths that gives some (white) people an opportunity to feel better than most other white people, and like you said it is only a myth.

  17. I have a few disagreements with their interpretation of TKAM. First of all, the idea that the mockingbird represents black people... the interpretation I was taught (and the conclusion I came to after reading the book) was that the mockingbird represents innocence of youth - all youth. I really can't imagine it representing black people; I don't know if it's whitewashing or if I've grown too close to my interpretation of the novel, but I don't think I ever would have come to the conclusion that mockingbird = black people (clearly, other people did).

    My second contention is that a book with ethnic slurs should not be used. I understand the reasons why they think that and I do sympathize with them. However, it's important to realize that people were taught this way (and are still being treated this way now) and just ignoring it won't help anyone.

    I do agree with the point that the black "worship" of the white hero, Atticus, felt... off. Reading through the book, I thought it was weird when Atticus came to visit Tom's family and all the neighbors seemed totally cool with him being there. I understand that Atticus is, I guess, the only "ally" there, but the way they just seemed too respectful to him. White savior, I guess.

    I agree that it would take a good teacher to show how even when you intend to be anti-racist, you can still end up sending out racist signals. Of course, a wider variety of required reading would be great, too.

    On a related note, I've noticed a common white tendency to complain that black people "only write about race" in books. It really freaks me out. Never mind that black authors can and do write about a multitude of non-race topics (hey - just like white people!), there's this idea that black people are "just whining" and even that they "deserve it" for whining so much. The idea that the black people writing these novels may have, you know, experienced this racism, doesn't seem to dissuade them from the idea that black people "moan too much about race." I guess this is another STWD: hail white authors who write about race as revolutionaries; look down on black authors who write about race as "too whiny"?

  18. If I had to teach TKAM I'd...

    1. Use the Innocence Project to show how innocent black men STILL lose their lives and freedom due to racism.

    2. Ditto for Oscar Grant and other instances of police brutality.

    3. Analyze the similarities between Mel Gibson's recent racist statement and the way the defendant is framed in TKAM.

    4. Show how treatment of blacks as animals in the media (i.e. Obama monkey toys) ties into dehumanization of blacks in TKAM - to Atticus blacks are mockingbirds, in the courtroom the defendant is referred to as a "buck.")

  19. @Macon re: Atticus as a historical figure

    An interesting note: many aspects of the novel are actually semi-autobiographical. Lee's father was a lawyer who defended a pair of black men who had been accused of murder. They were hanged, after which he refused to take on another legal case. However, he was apparently still a proponent of segregation at that point, which just goes to show how white people who were "sympathetic" to black people could still be blatantly racist, even unknowingly.

  20. I just read that book this year. As an African American i thought it was a good book on racism. of course we skipped the "n" word, but now that i think about it...

  21. and on a side note The Land also a great book by Mildred Taylor. (which acutually starts the series off with Paul Logan)

  22. TungstenMouse said...
    “It is an excellent example of the white race fantasy. Using that as the example students could be taught to recognize subtle racism. Current legislation in the US, though, makes any hope of discussing such things with students dim.”

    It depends on who’s doing the teaching, as most whites I would think wouldn’t recognize ‘subtle racism’ if it bit them on the ass. Comments from whites on the recent Oscar Grant tragedy seem to bear this out. That’s why these books are still romanticized at present; works of fiction to show white people ‘the way we used to be.’ “Course we’re much better now, ‘and that race thing?” heh…a thing of the past.”

    Holly Steel said...
    “I do agree with the point that the black "worship" of the white hero, Atticus, felt... off. Reading through the book, I thought it was weird when Atticus came to visit Tom's family and all the neighbors seemed totally cool with him being there. I understand that Atticus is, I guess, the only "ally" there, but the way they just seemed too respectful to him. White savior, I guess.”

    In real life, during the Jim Crow South there was a certain decorum between whites in power and their black subjects. A black man didn’t look a white woman in the eye, and always had to tip his hat or lower his head in a respectful- submissive manner. No matter his age, he was always referred to as ‘Boy’. Here was a white lawyer working on their behalf (unheard of to most blacks) to clear Tom Robinson, and I guess with that type of subjugated mindset (after yrs. of oppression) the behavior would be just about right. John Howard Griffin wrote of the same behavior in his observations while posing as a black man in the Deep South.

    And just as with Tom Robinson in "To Kill a Mockingbird," it was a white woman’s account that did Emmett Till in. The same could be said for the Scottsboro Boys as well.

    “Carolyn Bryant told others of the events at the store, and the story spread quickly. When Bryant's husband returned from a road trip a few days later and was told about the incident, he was greatly angered. Till's cousin, Wheeler Parker, Jr., who was with him at the store, claims Till did nothing but whistle at the woman. "He loved pranks, he loved fun, he loved jokes... in Mississippi, people didn't think the same jokes were funny." Carolyn Bryant later asserted that Till had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date. She said the young man also used "unprintable" words. Roy Bryant decided that he and his half-brother, John William "J.W." Milam, 36, would "teach the boy a lesson".

    See? Her honor (and the honor of the south) was a stake, so she embellished the incident between her and this young black buck. Not that much different than the novel in terms of racial attitudes.

  23. I have a fuzzy memory of channel-surfing one time and coming across a talk show (don't remember which or when) that was doing a piece about the controversy around the choice of TKAM as the first book in the Chicago Public Library's city-wide book "club." I clearly wasn't listening very well (SWPD!) because I assumed that the controversy came from two camps
    1 - stupid white people who believe that talking about race makes you racist (we need to be colourblind in this post-racial world!) and
    2 - stupid white people who were still unprepared to accept an anti-racist white hero/race-traitor.
    I was still firmly indoctrinated in the belief that TKAM had a clear anti-racist message that even a 9th-grader (when I read it) could understand. The first criticism of TKAM that I really listened to (some years later) was something along the lines of "Isn't it just a little suspicious that the ONLY book in your entire highschool curriculum that deals with race has a white narrator, protagonist, and author?"

  24. Yes! I'm so glad to learn that I'm not alone in thinking this about about TKaMB. I remember reading this in 10th grade English class, and I kept getting a creeping feeling that there was something wrong with this book. My fifteen year old mind concluded that the book was racist (or at least offensive) because ALL of the Black characters were stereotypes. Thank you for clearly and cleanly outlining all of the other ways that this novel "gets it wrong".

    As a sort of aside, I truly hate it when Black characters or any characters of color have their dialogue spelled out phonetically by White authors. It immediately creates a divide by making their dialogue difficult to understand at a glance. In fact, I'm sure if anyone's dialogue was written out phonetically it would look absurd. ~end aside~

  25. I hope that this is not a part of my required curriculum. I appreciate Bingo's ideas for teaching it should it ever become.

  26. I don't live in the US - and so I can tell you that people outside the US don't believe that things are "not like that anymore" - either in the US or anywhere else in the world.

    Essentially you are blaming the book for people's reactions to it (i.e. we're not like that anymore) and that is not the book's fault.

  27. I'm definitely putting my vote in for "teach it differently". The work is incredibly flawed as has been pointed out (can we add 'boring as shit' to the list as well?), but because of its influence it needs to be taught. I agree, though, that picking apart the subtleties is probably beyond middle- and high-school students (maybe AP English classes in high school could do it, with the right teacher as olderwoman said). It should only be taught in high-level classes, to lessen the chance that it will be simplified until everything wrong with the book is downplayed or ignored.

    I'm trying to remember exactly which grade I read this in, but my big thought back then was "Hey, this is set in the South in like 1930 right? Shouldn't Atticus be getting a cross burned on his lawn the minute he treats a black man as something other than scum?"

  28. TKAM has always been problematic to me as a "race book". The more that I have learned about that period of American history (both from books and listening to my elders), the more it reads like a white liberal fairy tale. However, I think that it deserves a place in the American literary canon and that it should be read in schools. As a work of literature, it absolutely works but it's limited view should be used to illustrate how Scout is not a reliable narrator. Considering that the book is semi-autobiographical, I think that you can certainly teach the book as a specific perspective and what that perspective says about the author and the narrator within the context.

    I like the idea of teaching to book in tandem with Let the Circle Be Unbroken. The thing I really love about Mildred Taylor's books is that where Harper Lee invites you to accept what Scout sees as fact, Taylor lets you know that Cassie's POV is limited and constantly expands past her assumptions to give you glimpses of what is really going on around her. The reader is invited to expand their perspective as Cassie does.

  29. Why yes, how dare Harper Lee take real life events that happened in her town when she was ten and depict them (let alone clean them up, as she did, by leaving out the true unhappy ending). And how racist of her not to portray every single African-American character as a Rhodes Scholar and MLK-type activist, despite a century of institutional racism minimizing to the point of atomization the ability of most African-American southerners to be such.

    I certainly hope every writer living today will learn a lesson from this, and write their novels with an eye to pleasing readers decades in the future instead of writing what they know. Heaven forfend we should have anyone portray their experiences in the here and now without taking into consideration future generations who need to be bubble-wrapped in order to be protected from the odious lessons if history.

  30. I think removing the book from the curriculum is a good idea, given how few books can be taught in any year and given that TKAM is mostly selected because it's a "message" book rather than for lyrical beauty or complex structure. (Not that I'd support reading a racist book because of its lyrical beauty or complex structure; but that's not even a potential justification for reading TKAM.)

    For a white kid like me, who grew up in an overtly racist and very ignorant town, TKAM was politically important--but Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry would have been much better and I would have liked it more. TKAM was important to me because I felt that something was wrong in my town and that book was a rudimentary start at naming that thing, although that book mostly inspired me to go on and read Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and the rest of my town library's limited selection of books by black authors (On the minus side, I definitely felt that this made me a special snowflake).

    However, my english classes were all white (in the "honors" track, there were maybe five kids of color surprise in my town) and I was not socially astute enough to wonder how you'd feel as a student of color in the class reading that book.

    If a teacher had time, though, it would be interesting to do a paired reading--TKAM and Roll of Thunder for example. I bet students could get a lot out of that, if it happened later in the year in a class where the students really clicked so that the language in TKAM could be dealt with appropriately.

  31. librarian here, not a fan of banning books period. although TKAM certainly has racist elements, it is fiction, and classic modern lit, and i don't think that it should be tossed in the garbage. we can't eliminate the books/ideas we don't want our children to internalize and emulate, but rather we must let them be exposed to the past and develop the critical thinking skills to understand that, though autobiographical, this is a piece of fiction written by someone with bias in a turbulent period. maybe i am giving high school kids too much credit, but it's not like they haven't grown up with racism (it does still exist), and i don't think that understanding that there are racist elements in the book which are not artifacts of a time long past is past their comprehension. i'm sure a lot of that has to do with where you are and who is teaching high school english. i'd go for teaching it differently and think contrasting it with a Taylor book would be a wonderful idea. maybe i am wrong about the comprehension levels of kids, but i do think that if you wait until college, you may have a more receptive and comprehending audience, but you are missing out on the population that doesn't go to college, and those are sometimes the most ignorant and racist people who need the aforementioned critical thinking skills the most.

  32. @ryking You are so missing the point...freaking hilarious. LOL

  33. @ Holly Steel

    Re teaching books with ethnic slurs: I used to argue similarly to you, that since ethnic slurs were the ugly reality, the classroom shouldn't shy away from that, nor try to tone it down. However, my thinking on ethnic slurs in the classroom has changed.

    A good part of the problem with ethnic slurs in the classroom is that white society mostly doesn't feel the potency of ethnic slurs. You get to a point where a white-dominated classroom considers being able to say a slur during a discussion without flinching as a sign of the sophistication of the speakers. For the white speakers in the classroom, the assault inherent in the word quickly fades; for people of color in the classroom, the assault takes much longer to fade, if it ever does. Which means that you frequently get to the situation that what damali ayo describes in this clip: white people repeating the n-word over and over and over, as a sign of their sophistication and their supposed ability to transcend racism, without much awareness of or concern for the assault inherent in the word itself.

    Consequently, the presence of ethnic slurs should definitely be a factor in considering whether or not to teach a given book, as well as how to teach a book.

    An alternative way of thinking about this (because, as I said, these slurs are emotionally muted to white ears), is to consider a hypothetical book that uses the word c*nt and other similarly vicious misogynistic slurs. Would it get taught in a high school classroom? Would people hesitate when considering teaching it? How reasonable would their hesitation be? If the book was taught, would classroom discussion likely bandy those misogynistic slurs about freely (as happens with ethnic slurs), or would there likely be expectations requiring restraint and discretion when quoting those slurs in class?

    Basically, I think that n*gger should be treated with the same in-classroom wariness and respect that c*nt would be treated with. Unfortunately, it generally isn't.

  34. I wasn't going to comment -- I just wanted to read what white commenters thought, but I'm so glad sanguinity mentioned Mildred D. Taylor's books.

    For any group that argues there's no book that can be read to bring forth what is discussed in TKAM or HF, Mildred D. Taylor wrote quite a number of books that do just that. I have almost (if not all) all of them and I read them now just as I did when I was younger. I'm glad I had them to read to contrast what I was reading in school.

    I'm of the opinion that book just shouldn't be read in any K-12 class. On the whole the true way it should be taught would most likely fly over the heads of most white students and maybe even the teacher. Not to mention, students should be exposed to non-white writers (who aren't Frederick Douglass) before college, and too few are

  35. @ryking

    What's especially sad about your post, ryking, is that you don't realize--or don't care--that Harper Lee was judged; my parents and teachers had nothing good to say about the book or the movie, at least. Because, you see, TKAM was only good at one thing: making white folks feel good about themselves. It never mattered how black folks felt about the book because TKAM was, at its heart, not about black folks or their experiences--as usual they were incidental.

    And white writers definitely should learn if ever they feel the overwhelming need to idealize and glorify white folks at the expense of poc they will be judged accordingly.

  36. The movie came highly recommended by several of my white coworkers. I told them I'd read the book and therefore did not need to see the movie but they insisted as if it was going to be some great awakening to the reality of race in America.

    I do agree with those who said the mockingbird does not refer to black people but to innocence in general.

  37. While I agree about points 2 (hero worship) and 3 (portraying Black people as submissive), I'm not so sure about point 1. I don't recall ever hearing that the "mockingbird" was a metaphor for "Black people". From what I remember from 7th grade English class, the mockingbird was "innocence", and killing it was the loss thereof. While this included the literal killing of an innocent person (Tom Robinson), it was also about Scout's loss of innocence in her transition from childhood to adulthood. Boo Radley was yet another "mockingbird" in the book. Now, the obvious response would be that Lee is equating Black people with a developmentally-disabled White recluse, which doesn't improve the situation. But I really didn't get that out of my reading of it at all. In my curriculum, the book was portrayed as being as much about "coming of age" as it was about racism. (The movie, on the other hand, is very much about racism, and I think a lot of the criticism applies more to the movie than the book -- the courtroom scene with the Black townspeople in the gallery standing up is much more poignant in the movie, for example)

    One issue the Saney article overlooks is Atticus' dismissal of the KKK as a "political organization" that "couldn't find anyone to scare". That's kind of a crock. There was still a lot of KKK-related violence between 1915 and the mid-30s. And the "modern" KKK was already doing their crap by the time Lee wrote the novel, so to ignore all that history and portray the Klan as harmless is pretty disingenuous.

    @Willow: Interestingly enough, my class did read it back to back with Roll of Thunder... (which also has themes of coming of age and loss of innocence) and did compare and contrast Scout and Cassie, and talked about how they lived in two different worlds. I don't recall at the time whether we made the leap from that to "racism as viewed by White people" and "racism as viewed by Black people". Of course, we were reading these in April of 1992, so we had a lot to talk about that year on the subject of racism (Rodney King)!

    I'll throw in a "Me too" for the Mildred Taylor books, some of which are even suitable for younger than junior high. (We read The Gold Cadillac in 5th grade). And Saney's recommendation for Beloved, too (not that a Nobel and Pulitzer winner should need any more recommendations) though I think that's more high school level than junior high.

  38. Wow ThatDeborahGirl and ryking, way to ignore every single point made in the post! I love it (well, not really) when people who have their bubbles popped deny and defend with little more than vague wavings of the hand. (Is that what "pearl-clutching" means?)

    I noticed below that macon's post was reposted entirely (and without permission, I imagine) at a LiveJournal comm. LOADS of comments, almost all full of precious fail. There's a lesson in them, somehow, about white people:



    I also like how this article comes from a blog called "Stuff White People Do"

    and that's not racist HOW?

    And check this one -- TDG's got a fan!

    Anyway, sorry if this is derailment. But, really, swpd: respond to having their cherished racist fantasies exploded with vague, defensive hand-wavings.

  39. Um, am I missing something? Where exactly did the OP or any of the comments advocate banning TKAMB?

    All I see is people suggesting a more compressive reading or teaching it in tandem with Mildred Taylor or removing it from the curriculum and replacing it with a more appropriate book. None of which = banning.

    Even if it is not taught in K-12 it will still be available in book stores, online and in libraries.

    I swear I don't know why I bother with this place.

  40. modest-goddess,

    The post talks about how good it would be to not teach the book, and to teach other books instead that deal better with race. Near as I can tell, some equate that with "banning" the book -- straw man or something if you ask me.

    With time limitations in the classroom, most books have to be kept out of the curriculum; that doesn't mean all books that don't get included have been "banned."

  41. For the record I did not read TKAMB in school. I got it from the library after hearing what a classic it was. I also attended public schools that were 50% black so maybe that is why our teachers did not feel the need to include it in our curriculum to "enlighten" us.

    So is the movie more problematic than the book?

  42. @ ztastz:

    I talked to my mom about this last night. She majored in English, has read a lot of literature, and is generally highly educated and intelligent. But one of the counter arguments she made in defense of TKAM was ''Why not invent a noble white character? How can we know that no one intervened in lynchings?'' There's a lot to say in response to that, but I think the most important point is exactly what you said, and you said it best:

    ''....TKAM was only good at one thing: making white folks feel good about themselves. It never mattered how black folks felt about the book because TKAM was, at its heart, not about black folks or their experiences--as usual they were incidental.''

  43. @modest-goddess and AE:

    Macon's post does say "... Isaac Saney wrote about successful black efforts in Nova Scotia to ban Lee's novel..." However, the actual article keeps using the phrase "remove from school use". It's not clear whether this is school-board-speak for "stop teaching the book" or "stop teaching the book and remove it from school libraries". The quote from the 2000 report suggests it was removing it from the curriculum, but the article also says that it can't be purchased from the provincial government by schools, so I would assume that affects libraries too.

    To me, banning is problematic, because by making the banned item taboo, people will seek it out for the wrong reasons. Whereas if a teacher says "Here is what's wrong with this book, and here's another book that's an example of how to do it better", then the kids might actually learn something. It's a double-edged sword, I guess.

  44. @ryking

    Hegemony is a powerful influence, but it has never been powerful enough to make a grown man actually BELIEVE he was a boy.

    Just because blacks lacked influence over institutional racism doesn't mean they lacked individual agency. And it seems to me that one shouldn't have to be portrayed as a "Rhodes Scholar" to have such individuality recognized. The truth of the matter is that Ms. Lee's views on race are just as valid a topic of analysis as the views she wrote about.

    Same for today's writers. There is no guarantee that they WON'T be judged racist in regards to how and what they write about race. Simply put, it's not up to us. For all we know, future generations just might decide that 2010 was also an "odious lesson" of history.

  45. Your claim that the focus on Atticus's heroism distracts from the white-supremicist solidarity among "ordinary white people" is bullfeathers.

    I'd say Atticus's heroism mirrors that of Jessie Daniel Ames. In 1930, she founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. Her group got over 40,000 signatures to her pledge against lynching.

  46. @bullfeathers,


    What white people in Atticus' town rally to publicly support him? (A: none do.)

    And how are readers supposed to pick up a reference to someone almost no one has ever heard of (Ames)?

  47. I agree w/ Jonathan's mom- black readers were never the intended audience for the book. I never had to read it in school- my ms was mostly black and my hs was barely integrated- so no surprise there. I read TKAMB in college, but w/ non-critical eye so I missed a lot regarding the depictions of the black people.

    My daughter did just read it- 8th grade honors track class, very few black kids. I feel like I let her down by not remembering all the negative stuff- so I could have better prepared her.

    While I don't think the book should be removed from the curriculum, I do think how it is taught should be improved. Also, I think it should be read by more mature students 11-12th grade. BTW- my daughter had a white teacher who truly believes black kids are less than. I know the old biddy relished them reading the negative descriptions of black folks.


    actual anti-lynching activist / journalist who is never taught in K-12 or general intro to America History courses

    perhaps because she is both black and female and we all know only men have agency

    no no, don't read her autobiography, better to invent a white hero

  49. TKAM was required for 10th graders at my school, I remember it's one of the only required books I didn't actually finish, and at the time I didn't understand why it was such an "important" book since I had read other books about race that had a much bigger impact on me. Looking back on it now the problems are absurdly obvious.
    I feel VERY fortunate to have a great 11th grade English teacher who had our (almost entirely white) class read Autobiography of Malcolm X and Richard Wright's Black Boy.

  50. @ modest-goddess

    "Um, am I missing something? Where exactly did the OP or any of the comments advocate banning TKAMB?"

    You missed a whole paragraph talking about afro-canadian efforts in Nova Scotia to ban TKAMB. Behold:

    In a 2003 academic article (published in Race and Class), Isaac Saney wrote about successful black efforts in Nova Scotia to ban Lee's novel, because it's a racist novel. In 1996, "intense community pressure" by the African Nova Scotian population managed to remove the novel from the Department of Education's list of recommended, authorized books; in 2002, a committee consisting of parents and educators, seconded by members of the Black Educators' Association (BEA), recommended that the book "be removed from school use altogether."

  51. Great thought-provoking post. As I was reading it I kept thinking of modern versions of the "white people to the rescue of the oppressed" story such as Avatar and The Last Samurai.

  52. Interestingly, I was just about to read the book for the first time (somehow I grew up in the only place in the country where it is apparently not required curricula). I still plan to read it, but this time with this blog post at hand.

    Since I haven't read it, I can't speak to any of your points (yet), but I do find myself uncomfortable at this one, generally:

    "Actually, that right there is the first reason I think this novel is, in effect, racist -- it allows, indeed encourages, today's well-meaning white people to think that "America is a very different place" than it was when Lee wrote her novel, and thus to think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago."

    I think I'm uncomfortable with that because it suggests that a novel written 50 years ago should be in some way responsible for our collective failings to understand the context.

    Also, generally, I don't think the answer is to straight up give up on reading these books. Recognizing that they will continue to be pushed and read regardless, we should be armed with knowledge of what exactly is going on inside such novels, and be prepared to discuss them.

    Just my two cents.

  53. Macon, I think that if you changed "ban" in your summary (which isn't actually supported by the article you link to) to "cease to include in the curriculum" (which is what they did) you would get a lot fewer knee-jerk answers here in the comments.

    I am 100% against banning books. But not every book deserves to be included in high-school or middle-school curriculums, either.

    Another thing about TKAM, which I think is a book that has many merits (especially in scenic description and in the characterizations of Scout and Boo) is that, in addition to the central problem that it's a racist fable of Worthy Black Man Saved By Saintly White Man, it's incredibly classist against poor white people.

  54. I think I'm uncomfortable with that because it suggests that a novel written 50 years ago should be in some way responsible for our collective failings to understand the context.

    I think the issue is that a novel written 50 years ago is still presented to children as one of the central documents on the horrors of institutional racism in the US.

    The answer isn't to ban TKAM; the answer is to replace it in the curriculum with books that provide more accurate and nuanced views of this critical issue.

  55. Thanks for the suggestion, JMS. I'll take it.

  56. For y'all's edification...the mockingbird is Tom Robinson (the Black man). So sayeth the publisher's foreward. I looked up the Amazon preview--that's a screengrab of it.

    That is in the book, note. That means that anyone picking up the book outside of a classroom--and kids reading it for school who don't pay attention in class--will be smacked with the "Black people=helpless animals" message.

  57. Good catch, Willow.

    I suspect the tendency to read the mockingbird as "innocence" and so on is another common white effort to "universalize" the book's messages.

  58. I think I remember reading it in middle school. However, after reading the comments I'm at the point that perhaps there has to be a need for schools to add books that deal with racism in the current time to the curricula. While I was in school I haven't seen many books that deals with racism after the 1960's.

    The books I remember reading are Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Of course someone could make the argument that those types of books haven't been written, but I'm sure there out there. Books that specifically deal with subtle forms of racism, white privilege, etc. I agree with the OP, especially about how there's this air of "see everyone, racism is gone!! We can stop talking about it." Discussions of racism these days don't seem to move beyond the I Have a Dream speech and how "we shouldn't judge people by the color of their skin."

  59. Julia/the other JuliaJuly 12, 2010 at 3:07 PM

    But hang on, Willow and Macon, that's just the publisher's take, is it not? Since symbols are largely about interpretation, I'm not convinced by this. And I'm uncomfortable with a view of literature in which A symbol=B concept absolutely.

    Unless Harper Lee has written "the mockingbird stands for X" {which perhaps she did--it's been a long time since I've read the book}then it can symbolize BOTH innocence and Tom Robinson and probably some other things as well. And it can do all of that at the same time.

    So, could we talk about the various readings and what they indicate about the reader, rather than arguing about What the Mockingbird Stands For? Because only Harper Lee really knows the answer to that question {unless, as I said above, there's a passage of text that is absolutely unambiguous...}

  60. When I read that Harper Lee's own father was a defender who lost a similar case and who still supported segregation, it became clear to me that TKAM is at least partly a product of Lee's desire to remake her father through Atticus into something her actual father was not. In doing so, however, she also created a fantasy of the well-meaning white person: the principled WP who isn't influenced by race, only by a sense of justice.

    On another note, I'm pretty sure that some of the white complaining about this issue on other blogs and here is due to the misconception that something needs to be hateful to be harmful, that it's not racism if Harper Lee doesn't believe in white supremacy. We WP so want our intentions to be the only thing that matters in terms of whether we do harm to other racial groups. The real-life harm of a well-meaning book like TKAM makes it clear that we are living in a fantasy world to think that good intentions preclude racism.

  61. @Julia/the other Julia,

    Actually, getting Lee to say what it symbolizes would settle the question for me. I think if artistic metaphors and/or symbols work, in that saying they represent this or that makes sense within the context of the rest of the artwork itself, then it's valid to say that the symbols do represent this or that. Commonly interpreted and accepted symbols often exist through no conscious effort on the artist's part.

    So, could we talk about the various readings and what they indicate about the reader, rather than arguing about What the Mockingbird Stands For?

    Sounds good to me. That's what I was trying to do when I said that I suspect the tendency to read the mockingbird as "innocence" and so on is a common white effort to "universalize" the book's messages.

  62. Just to play Devil's advocate here.... (as I do not remember the book very well, so I cannot really comment on the ACTUAL meaning of the symbol.) If the mockingbird IS in fact, Tom Robinson, does that preclude the idea that the mockingbird represents innocence? After all, Tom Robinson is an INNOCENT man. Also, if it DOES represent Tom, can we REALLY extrapolate from that interpretation to say that the mockingbird represent Black people in general?

    Another general question I would like to pose.... now, personally I have an issue with "white savior" stories (even when based on a true story) simply because THEY ARE TOLD much to frequently in relation to their actual occurence, while stories of POC DOING THE SAME EXACT THINGS for other POC are VIRTUALLY ignored. So, IF, for example the movie "The Blindside" was BALANCED by ALSO telling the more frequent stories of POC helping POC, would that make the type of storyline exemplified in The Blind Side, or Dangerous Minds, or TKAM more palatable?

  63. @ Julia,

    Yes, certainly alternate meanings are possible--I actually read TKAM as a whole in a way that does not seem to resemble how anyone else, ever, has seen the book--but I am concerned about how this interpretation is presented to the reader as THE One True Meaning. Especially for a fourth or fifth grader picking up the book independently of class, having that interpretation at the beginning of the foreward makes it seem pretty authoritative.

    I don't know...I read TKAM in fourth grade, and I was definitely still in the "the things it says in the foreward are Unqualified Truth!" stage. (Fortunately, I read TKAM the exact day I finished Let the Circle Be Unbroken, so I don't actually have warm fuzzies for it.)

  64. Joanna: your question seems akin to asking whether the story would be more palatable if racism were not a problem. But racism is a problem and that's the whole point of the discussion. Sort of like asking "so if global warming were not a problem, would I have to worry so much about driving an SUV?" This does not seem like a very productive line of discussion.

  65. @ Joanna,

    There is no implication in the book that the mockingbird, or Tom Robinson, represents Black people/POC as a whole. However, that's how my 8th grade English teacher presented the symbol to our class. (Yes, peoples, he made TKAM even more White Savioriffic. Atticus Finch Saves The Black People). So I just repeated here my, personal, frame of reference.

    Apologies for the confusion.

  66. olderwoman... I am not sure if my original question was clear... are you speaking of racism in that specific story (TKAM) OR racism in society as a whole? I was referring to the entire genre as opposed to this specific book. But, I guess it is really impossible to seperate the two... Using the example of the Blind Side again... is the STORY ITSELF racist OR is the fact that it is THE ONLY STORY that Hollywood decides to tell racist? But, I guess you are right, it is kind of pointless to even pose the question

  67. I read it and loved the book (well, parts of it). There was plenty that left me deeply disturbed, however. I do see your interpretations though. But this notion of people reading it and thinking that racism is dead due to the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird confines racism in some sort of time capsule? That never occurred to me. As a non-white person, I know first-hand racism is not dead. The novel did however, make me disgusted that we consider modern thinking (or post-modern thinking) is actually very outdated, as evidenced by Harper Lee's novel. It made me realize even more that our progress wasn't really progress, just dressed in different clothes. But literature is as literature does. You can use literature to condemn or condone anything these days. If I wanted to read something with authentic authority on the black perspective during that era, I would pick up something from the Harlem Renaissance, not To Kill a Mockingbird.

    I did not equate Atticus Finch with the rest of the racist town that suffocated the Finches and the black community there. He was a misfit. I hope more misfits are able to stand up against the mob. It wasn't white people saving the black man. It was one nonconformist saving him.

  68. Joanna: what I meant was that the problem with the Hollywood stories is all intertwined with the problem of white supremacy. TKAM depends on white supremacy to have any meaning at all as a story, so to talk about what it (or any other story with a white savior of POC) means outside of the context of white supremacy is meaningless. The only meaningful way to analyze any story about dealing with racial hierarchy is within a context of racial hierarchy.

    The first thing one confronts is that the implicit audience and subjectivity of the story in "mainstream" media is always white. And that, itself, is part of the hierarchy.

    If by some chance we had lots of inspirational stories of POC fighting white oppression read by WP, then we'd be discussing the problem that WP identify with the POC in those stories and, in so doing, distance themselves from the reality of their own complicity in racism.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm in favor of WP reading stories and histories about POC standing up to racial oppression, but it won't make the issue of criticizing Whites relations to the texts go away. It's not unrelated to the issue folks have brought up about "hip" WP thinking they/we are cool because they listen to political hip hop and believe they understand the Black experience.

  69. Julia/the other JuliaJuly 12, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    Willow and Macon,
    Got it. Sorry I jumped to conclusions--I thought I heard an argument for an absolute interpretatioh. I agree that it's often taught that way and that there's a whole host of problems there.

  70. @Willow:

    Interesting! Unless I missed it, that's not in my older edition (paperback, printed some time in the late '80s early '90s. It has a purple cover). I wonder when it was added, and why. Not disagreeing with the interpretation, but I think it's interesting that the publisher felt the need to explicitly point it out on the back cover.

  71. @bullfeathers

    In the 1890s Ida Wells (a black woman) began to write about & fight against lynching (after 3 of her friends were lynched). She continued this fight for many years--during which the only whites that openly supported her were Europeans. She even had to leave her home & family after white run newspapers printed calls for her to be lynched/murdered for speaking out against lynching. Ida Wells was a Civil Rights activist & feminist.

    Book Recommendation: "Ida: A Sword Among Lions" by Patricia Giddings. Proof that blacks never were poor passive sheep waiting for a white savior, but actively fought for their rights as equal human beings.

  72. I remember being bothered by one line in particular. I can't remember the exact quote but Atticus is talking to Scout about racial injustice and says the white race has committed crimes and eventually, the tables will turn and white people will have to pay for that. He then says "I just hope it doesn't happen in you children's lifetime". I thought this was really interesting. It'd be easy to dismiss this as just affection for his children (which I won't deny is part of it). But really, he may not believe in sending Tom Robinson to jail but he still wants his children to have white privilege. I think that says a lot.

  73. I disagree that the "innocence" reading is some kind of false generalization. The mockingbird theme is deliberately repeated throughout the novel, and there is textual evidence that there are several "mockingbird" characters, not just Tom Robinson. In my reading, Tom Robinson is a mockingbird because he's innocent of the crime for which he is convicted. The children of the novel (Scout, Jem, Dill) are mockingbirds as well, due to their naivety. Another notable example is Boo Radley, who Scout actually compares to a Mockingbird near the end of the book, if I remember correctly.

    I never thought of it this way before, but I suppose you could extrapolate the symbol such that it represents all BP, who are being wrongly persecuted by racism. In a vacuum, that might not seem offensive, because it shows that racial prejudice has no foundation or justification. But then you start to associate BP with an animal and with childhood--two very widespread and dehumanizing stereotypes. It's easy to see how that is offensive, even if it wasn't "intended" to be interpreted that way. And as bloglogger said, effect is more important than intention.

  74. M.said about fear of retribution: You can see this theme in a lot of places. A lot of White fear of Blacks historically was grounded in a recognition that Black people had a reason to hate Whites. This fear, in turn, becomes the justification for repressive practices and/or segregation. It's a very scary and depressing dynamic. I agree it says a lot.

  75. Great post and comments. I saw this book with new eyes. There is always a new awareness to learn. Thanks for your thoughtfulness. I linked to this from my own blog too.

  76. A lot of the posts have addressed the content of the book, and I think the most dangerous thing here may be the ignorance of white teachers who cannot see how the biases of their own perspectives play out in the classrooms. I don't think that the book should be taught in a school setting for many of the reasons above, but I wonder if the 'white savior' portion is due to white teachers/admins putting their idealizations of whiteness into the book through how they teach it. When I read the book, I actually thought Atticus was NOT a great character and that Scout's perspective was biased. First, M.'s line stuck out to me too as showing that Atticus was not really that committed to fighting racism. At the end of the book, Atticus also lets the sheriff talk him into lying about how Bob Ewell dies. I saw him as getting caught up in his own mythology of being a race-traitor rather than being actually interested in justice, and Scout only being dimly aware of this. Did anyone else read it this way? My point is that I think that ANY book we read can be harmful to students if cultural education is not made central to teacher education programs and racial diversity is not central to the hiring process of school systems. White racial framing tints all of our curriculum.

  77. I loved this post, though I have no feelings whatsoever about this novel.

  78. I'm not sure why racism in TKAM is such a revelation. Every book ever authored by a white person is racist. Period.

  79. @Willow:

    Dude, that text was not authored by Harper Lee, and probably not by any skilled literary critic either. Even Sparknotes does a better job of explaining the mockingbird symbolism:

    The title of To Kill a Mockingbird has very little literal connection to the plot, but it carries a great deal of symbolic weight in the book. In this story of innocents destroyed by evil, the “mockingbird” comes to represent the idea of innocence. Thus, to kill a mockingbird is to destroy innocence. Throughout the book, a number of characters (Jem, Tom Robinson, Dill, Boo Radley, Mr. Raymond) can be identified as mockingbirds—innocents who have been injured or destroyed through contact with evil. This connection between the novel’s title and its main theme is made explicit several times in the novel: after Tom Robinson is shot, Mr. Underwood compares his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds,” and at the end of the book Scout thinks that hurting Boo Radley would be like “shootin’ a mockingbird.” Most important, Miss Maudie explains to Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That Jem and Scout’s last name is Finch (another type of small bird) indicates that they are particularly vulnerable in the racist world of Maycomb, which often treats the fragile innocence of childhood harshly.

  80. I think the book captures the author's sentiments well.

    About the "white savior" portrayal - she is writing literature, not objective history. She's writing from the perspective of a young girl who idolizes her father, and when she sees Tom and other black people being obsequious and in her mind, it's because her father is this noble ideal of a man when in actuality they're probably acting that way because black men then were expected to be exceedingly deferential to white men.

    I think the spirit of the book is anti-racist, and while there's nothing wrong with critiquing it through a modern lens, I don't think it should be dismissed because the perspective represents the anti-racism movement of a different time. The author wrote what she knows, what she lived.

    I also read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry in school, and I think the two books would be good to put together on a reading list.

  81. I'm not American and read the book outside school, but one of the things that stood out to me as a white reader rereading it in adulthood was the way Atticus is at pains to teach his children to remain on good terms with their neighbours and not judge them too harshly - even when their neighbours are people who will kill a perfectly innocent man. He wants his kids to understand and sympathise with everyone, which sounds fine in principle, but in that context it means some messed-up priorities. He defends Tom Robinson in court, but he defends a lot of racist people at home.

    Plus all that about how being racist is a sign of lack of 'background'. Racism is treated as bad partly because it's unjust, but also because it's not ladylike or gentlemanly. Using the n-word isn't racist, it's 'common'. Poor whites are racist, middle-class whites are gracious to inferiors, and the ideal seems to be to preserve a harmonious paternalism.

    It's something I've gotten from other Southern authors as well: the idea that obviously one shouldn't be mean to black folks, but more because it's vulgar than because it's oppressing an equal. (And in some cases, with the corollary that it's vulgar to get too worked up about racism as well. Peaceful inequality is where the gentility is at.) Racism becomes a matter of noblesse oblige, and if you're not racist then you're a knight in shining armour rather than, y'know, a minimally decent human being. Non-racism becomes the height you can rise to rather than the floor you shouldn't fall below. Basically it's using black people as an opportunity to show yourself better than other white people. Throughout the book it seems like the really pressing issue is how to get along with your white neighbours; black people are a bone of contention rather than fellow citizens.

    I think the book is well written and, not untypically for a white Southern novel, is more perceptive when it gets off the subject of race and onto other things, but I think it's got that nostalgia for a fundamentally evil social system that requires a lot of blindness to enjoy without some serious reservations. If Lee's father was a lawyer who defended black people but still favoured segregation, it's too bad she couldn't have shown that; it would have made for a much better book.

  82. Kit--

    I think this is a pretty common tendency, even today. You hear a lot of white people latching racism onto "rednecks" and their nominal disdain for racism seems akin to a disdain for shopping at Wal-Mart--an attempt to distance themselves from the lower classes. I'm white and attended a rural, almost all white public high school where most people were significantly financially worse off than I was. I and my little AP buddies did this shit all the time and I think it was more about our personal embarrassment to be attending the school (there was a big perception that once we got out of the area, people would look down on us for our geographic origins) and an attempt to distance ourselves from the "free lunch kids" than anything else. Racism is so not in, people.


    Thinking about this book, for me, anyway, the crux of the problem is that we're seeing this whole thing through the eyes of a white six year old and yes, this is the realistic way a white six year old would view things (leaving aside how realistic the events themselves are for purposes of this argument) but it never steps beyond that. The black woman who doesn't want them in her church is above herself and "mean" (and unlike the many racist white characters, there isn't a nod of forgiveness for her), Atticus is a hero, etc. The black characters are thin and stereotypical in part because of genuine ignorance on the part of the author and in part because no black person of the era is going to let their guard down in front of Scout Finch (and considering how autobiographical it's supposed to be, these two are probably linked). And yet I'm not entirely sure how to step beyond that, considering it is from Scout's perspective. Perhaps the construction of this book is a flaw in itself.

    Feel free to pick at this argument/modify it/throw it under a bus. Just one analysis.

  83. So could a spinoff of this post be . . .

    SWPD: force students of color to read Great Literature that demeans them


  84. I think it's important that children be exposed to books from other time periods, ESPECIALLY if said books contain ideas and perspectives that are problematic today but were accepted or seen as progressive at the time.

    Racism is an element of many older books. I was shocked by pretty much everything the titular character in Robinson Crusoe did (every time I thought he couldn't get more racist, HE DID), and H. P. Lovecraft, a favourite of many nerds, was essentially a white supremacist, even for his time.

    The majority of books on the average reading list are also extremely sexist. Dickens had a clear preference for weak, pretty, braindead women, and women were traded, raped, and even given as prizes (valued at 4 or 5 oxen, as I recall) in Homer's epic, The Iliad. I seem to remember a lot of objectification and very offensive sexist language in Catcher in the Rye as well.

    Children are not stupid, and any teacher of average or above average skill can help them benefit from these glimpses of other ages, other ideas, and other perspectives... even if they (be they POC, women, homosexuals, disabled people, none of the above, or all of the above) are mocked, stereotyped, or insulted in some of those works. Even if we ignore these works' literary merit and the huge impact they have had on society, it can be valuable to see how things have changed, and also how they haven't.

    I like the idea of teaching more books by POC, but there is no reason to take a book like TKAM off the reading list.

  85. @ eri,

    I'm well aware that's the publisher's foreward, but it's still printed in the front of the book. That means that for a kid who picks up the book independently and reads it, front to back, the first thing ze is going to see is, "Black man = helpless animal."

    @ Mensch,

    Derailing much?

    The difference with sexist, and to maybe a lesser extent homophobic, "classics" is that schools *generally* (not categorically) do a good job of presenting lit with strong female characters and by female/LGB(T? maybe not) authors. I don't see the same progress happening with respect to race.

    >> "but there is no reason to take a book like TKAM off the reading list." might want to reread Jane LePlain's first comment on this thread. That ALONE should be a good enough reason.

  86. Makes sense to me, RVCBard. Comin' right up!

  87. I know RVCBard and Willow already said it, but I still want to echo the gripe that too many commentators are ignoring the standpoint of POC kids when thinking about the meaning of requiring a book like TKAM in public school. Also, criticizing a book for its implicit assumptions is not some kind of demeaning attack on the author, for heaven's sake.

  88. I read this book in the UK, in a classroom that was completely white. We could escape some of the racism not by making it 'back then' but instead 'over there', so I'm not sure most of the class got much out of it.

    I do think, though, that Atticus as white saviour is somewhat questioned. Scout (I thought) understands the contradictions in her father's behaviour. As I remember, this is smoothed out by the end, but I thought his bid at omnipotence is subtly undermined at points.

    I 100% agree that the book denies agency to the black characters, but I feel this is part of the power of the book. Scout and Atticus have to recognize their own agency over the course of the story, and Scout (I thought) comes to understand something of her own role as oppressor.

    Reading tkam did make the 13-y-o me think a little about my role in racism and therefore does have some warm memories, although I agree that its role as the go-to book on race should be contested. Thanks for this post!

  89. EG, those aren't very well-supported feelings, and they're also mostly kind of dismissive of points made in the post. For crap's sake, depicting black agency in simplistic, hollow terms so that white agency can be portrayed more fully is a really white-artistic thing to do. It's racist.

    Maybe you should let go of understandings you formed at the age of 13?

  90. "Maybe TKAM could be kept on the curriculum if it were taught alongside a novel from an author of color that does a better job of depicting the antiracist struggle. Then a teacher could compare and contrast opposing points of view and show how TKAM is problematic."

    R.A., that reminds me of how my AP Lit teacher taught Heart of Darkness, which made me squirm in horror even before I became a social activist. We read Chinua Achebe's indictment of Conrad (which was anthologized in our edition of HOD) and then we read Things Fall Apart. I think it worked fairly well for our class, and I think such counterpointing is the best way to teach and correct the attitudes in racist literature if one feels that such literature must be taught.

  91. AE, thanks for your comments, sorry if mine were dismissive. I wanted to share my own experience, so I hope you can understand my 13-y-o perspective. Within the context of an all-white classroom, this book raised the issue that I myself could perpetuate racism and had my own agency to change that.

    Those understandings were just baby steps, and like you suggest I did let go of them over time. Hollowing out black agency is racist, as you say, but within my specific experiences tkam's use of white agency did have some power. Time and place makes such a difference in reading.

  92. I was probably only 12 when I read this - maybe younger. I am sure I would read it differently now, but my recollection was of being delighted that the main character was a little girl and that the story was told from her point of view.

    I always thought that the portrayal of the "white hero stopping the lynching" was intentionally over-the-top and read, not as "what happened", but as what a little girl who adored her daddy wanted to believe. I could have been WAY off because I was just a kid, but I never thought I was really supposed to BELIEVE that was really what happened in the context of the story. In fact, I recall thinking the lynching actually DID happen, and Scout "rewrote" the events.

  93. As Oscar Wilde said, "All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."

  94. @Willow,

    I have to apologize, Mensch's post was derailing and this one won't help, but I'd like it if you'd reveal your sources on the alleged progress against sexism and heterosexism in schools. Rarely have I heard of high school lit focusing on feminist material, and I've never once run across an insinuation that high schools promote queer-positive materials in school. You're referencing a *general* wave of progress I've never heard of. Again, sorry to get off topic, but I'm interested.

  95. @ Eustace,

    Reread my post. ^_^ I didn't say feminist lit, or queer-positive lit, or even "lit with strong LGBT characters", just: strong female characters, female authors, and LGB authors. (How carefully I had to choose my words should tell you exactly how much this situation pleases me overall, right?) I would LOVE to see actual feminist/LGBT positive lit in high schools, and would more love to have read it; my point is simply, they're doing a better job with respect to gender than race.

    The fact that the majority of HS English teachers are white women may have something to do with this.

    Oh, and I have no "credible" sources--this is entirely me ripping off the experiences of several friends who teach HS Eng. :o)

  96. Willow, perhaps I am reading things incorrectly, but you seem to be saying that Jane Laplain's first post elucidates clearly the reasons to take TKAM off the HS reading list... but from reading her post several times, my perception is that she is saying not that TKAM should be removed from the curriculum, just that they way it is taught needs to be restructured.

    Actually, I am sorry, I should address this to Jane, since you and are I reading the same words and interpreting them differently. Obviously Jane is the one who knows exactly what she is saying. Jane, am I misinterpreting your words by thinking that you are saying there IS a place for TKAM in schools? Do you believe there IS a place for it, or do you mean you WISH there was a place for it, but there isn't because of the inadequacies of those teaching it?

    From Jane's post:
    I'd hope that Mockingbird wuld continue to be taught in schools, but only with the purpose of analzying the way it reifies racism even while trying to decry it. Unfortunately this type of analysis is hard to come by in a classroom setting.

    Why is that anyway? Why would we rather burn and ban books than discuss why they are offensive? Me, I don't want to bury the racist past I want to drag it out for the world to see... with the message "Look at what you've done. Look at what you continue to do. Stop this."

  97. This post was reposted at Racialicious today. That's cool, but the convo in the comments is going, er, less well than I thought it would:

  98. @ Joanna,

    Indeed; entirely my bad with the lack of clarity. The reason opposed to reading it that I draw from her comment is:

    Dehumanizing. Demeaning. You know what? It's high school. Tailor-made to be the most miserable four years of your life, right? There's no reason for adults to make it worse!

    (I would be in favor of a tandem TKAM/Let the Circle reading, as I suggested above, but the problem that comes up here is, there isn't that much time in the school year!)

  99. @Joanna

    Yes, Joanna. I am in favor of continuing to teach TKAM and other classic texts like it, but only with the caveat that discussions about its impact on POC readers be framed unambiguously and the racist subtext discussed honestly rather than glossed over or dismissed out of hand.

    If you gave me a time machine and told me I could go back to when I first read TKAM and either A) convince the teacher NOT to assign it or B) speak up about the things that troubled me about it, with the better "tools" I have for discussing race today... I'd choose the latter.

    I think the real problem is that students and teachers alike are rarely if ever taught to deal with Race head on. Few teachers back in my day had any "sensitivity training" when it came to spotting Racism. If teachers were more skilled at mediating these kinds of discussions fewer kids of color would have felt as silenced as I know I did.

    Mind you if I WERE ever to ban a classic for being too racist it would probably be Heart Of Darkness. But TKAM, not so much.

  100. I read this at Racialicious. I just plain don't agree. Here's why:

    1) As pointed out by other commentators, it's pretty unfair to use the NPR coverage to claim that the book itself is racist.

    2) The excerpt from the Nova Scotia report is pretty weak, frankly. Just because a text uses the word "Nigger" doesn't make it racist. In that case, we would need to strike Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison from literature curricula as well. The word needs to be analyzed in context.

    3) "Mockingbird=black people": In a word, no. The metaphor also applies in the novel to characters such as Boo Radley. The metaphor is put forth as an admonition against needless, unjust ostracism of anyone, not just black people.

    4) "white-knight hero": Atticus Finch is clearly an idealistic figure. But, as stated in the footnote that references Gladwell, it's not like the character's attributes were spun out of thin air. There were definitely white allies of the civil rights movement. The NAACP, which was founded in large part to address lynching, had white founders as well as black ones. Several people at Racialicious brought up Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which happens to be one of my favorite books. It also features a white lawyer, Mr. Jamison, who consistently helps the Logan family and is willing to defend T.J. Avery when he is falsely accused of murder. So is Mildred Taylor, a black author whose works were inspired by the stories of her Mississippi-native father, a racist for imagining this character? I guess so, according to your reasoning.

    5) "black people as victims": This particular novel may not have black people as the main characters, or primary pursuers of justice, but that does not mean it's denying the entire existence of such figures. And, frankly, there were plenty of black people who were timid and unwilling to stick their necks out. There was a lot to lose in fighting for basic liberties back then. And there were some blacks who felt white allies had more leverage to fight for civil rights than they themselves could. (I'm reminded of a passage from Melba Pattillo Beals' Warriors Don't Cry in which she recounted how some black men in Little Rock felt they couldn't protect their families, following the hatred unleashed after the integration of Central High. Later, she mentions how Danny, the soldier responsible for her safety at Central, symbolized for her the protection her father and other black fathers could not offer.) There were--and still are--communities in which black activism was extremely stifled. Now, if Harper Lee had written a series of novels that purported to document race relations in the South, and none of them ever included actions by blacks to defend their own liberties, I would have a problem. But I don't think you can put the onus on one book to document the spectrum of race relations. Not every black community was passive, but not every black community was militant, either.

  101. @ Willow Thank you for clarifying....
    @ Jane That was what I thought you were saying, but I did not want to assume

    Thank you both for responding to my query

  102. AE, I said Atticus's heroism equaled that of Ames, not that the actions were one and the same or that the town's response was one and the same.

    I also didn't say that Atticus represented Ames. I bring up Ames to disagree with the OP's argument that ordinary white people were all standing in white-supremacist solidarity. White people, like Ames and others, stood up against racism, stood up against the Klan, stood up against racism. Was it the predominate attitude? Hell no. But is Atticus a fantasy figure? Well, kinda. He's exaggerated, a characture if you will, but one firmly rooted in history.

  103. I wonder if Harper Lee originally meant "To Kill a Mocking Bird" to be an anti-racist book. When I first read the book, I got the impression that the book was not mainly about race relations, but about a woman remembering a portion of her childhood (particularly one hot summer) and the people that played important roles in her life during that period. Sure, those elements were there, but IMHO the book was about the many lessons learned by her and her brother during a particular period in her life.

    We must remember, that everything is told from Scout's (Lee's) perspective. A perspective in which even as an adult looking back, Ms. Lee would have been living in a different era (than the one we live in today) in which she may or may not have taken a critical look at her position as a white woman (with the drawbacks or privileges that such a position would entail) when telling her story.

    So, of course it would seem that blacks were just a backdrop to the story; the girl lived in the segregated south. Indeed, aside from Calpurnia, blacks do not feature significantly in the story for the first half of the book. It's more about Scout spending her days with her brother and her best friend.

    Of course, Atticus Finch fits the (white) Savior archetype. What does one expect though? we are talking about the girl's (woman's) father. What else would a father be to his only daughter? There are times that Atticus Finch seems so upright, patient, understanding, and pure that he doesn’t even seem human (much less a white person from the segregated south). It is an idealized portrait of a man that only his child could draw for him.

    Atticus didn't volunteer to help this poor black man out of a pinch because he knew that the black man couldn't help himself and he wanted to assuage his white guilt (at least, that’s. Hell, Atticus didn't volunteer at all (he was appointed by the court). And lest we forget, Atticus did not save anyone. Throughout the trial portion of the story, everyone (except for the kids) knew how the whole thing was going to turn out. The whole town was aware that Tom Robinson was “guilty” (read "dead man") the moment he was accused of raping a white woman.

    The last half of the book is portrait of the children coming to the several startling (for them at least) realizations; that nice town that they lived in was not so nice, and the justice system that they thought was so fair (possibly only because their father was a part of it) had failed to protect the innocent, and the mad Boo Radly, was not so crazy and even ended up saving their lives (to name a few).

    As for the mocking bird metaphor, I had always thought of it representing the innocent (or rather those who have done others no harm). So it being “a sin to kill a mocking bird” really meant it would be a sin to harm the innocent (endangering their lives). Now, of course Tom was the ultimate example of this, but that metaphor could have applied to other characters (black or white) at different parts of the story.

    In summary, I don’t believe that TKAMB is an evil book masquerading as anti-racist literature. If anything, it is a coming of age tale with many themes coming to play within in its story (racism, classism, and inequality in the justice system to name a few). To berate the book solely because it fails many of the modern anti-racist standards (which it naturally would)is perhaps a result of expecting too much from it.

  104. Kinda sucks that being treated like a fully fledged human being is a "modern" idea when it comes to how society treats people of color.

  105. @Mr. Noface:

    Nicely put.

  106. @ Mr. Noface:

    I echo your sentiments exactly.

    I am not American, and neither "black" nor "white" (I find it interesting that people who so vehemently oppose the racist pejorative "nigger" have absolutely no qualms using the term "white", which, in my opinion, is an equally racist term).

    However, I am a student of literature who has studied TKAM, and one thing about this article and many of its readers' comments which disturbs me is the obsessive fascination with the treatment of the book, rather than the actual text itself. "The view that" is a phrase used several times in your criticism of TKAM, and forms the basis of almost all your arguments against it. Such criticism is completely moot. If you wish to convince me that the book is racist in nature, show me evidence from throughout the text which you can use to justify your point. Don't clip snatches of commentary from NPR or some foreword by the publisher. Give me the text - by this I don't mean a single sentence, but a sustained analysis of the book - and I'll agree wholeheartedly with you.

    What I do agree with you, however, is the alarming fact that TKAM has been promoted in the literature syllabus as an "anti-racist" text, a proposition which colors students' perceptions of the text even before they begin to read it. In my opinion, your argument could be better supported by showing how racism is not the only theme of import in TKAM, and then criticizing the common presentation of the text in schools as a text about racism.

    A debate on the literary merits of a text must be grounded in its words, and nothing else. I applaud your decision to take on this commonly canonized work of literature head-on, and invite sensible discourse over its supposed value, but I cannot accept your argument because it does not represent the text in its objective entirety. TKAM is more than a "racism" book; the widespread failure to recognize this is a failure on the part of educators and readers, not the author.

  107. @Colin Bowden

    It indeed does suck. What sucks even more is that it's a modern idea that hasn't really caught on in popularity yet.

  108. People! The objections to TKAM are not just "it shouldn't be taught as The Great Race Novel"! Commenters who happen to be POC have stated that the portrayal of Black people in the book made them feel like crap.

    It's high school. We don't need to give kids in high school any more reason to feel like crap.

    Also, not everyone reads this book in school. We can't shove all the blame on to teachers.

    Mr. Noface's long dissertation on TKAM was essentially, "Well, I wasn't offended, therefore the book is perfectly fine and all of you are oversensitive." He hit five or six items that are covered on Derailing for Dummies.

    There are a limited number of days in the school year, and a limited number of texts you can teach. Why waste time on teaching books that will make some students feel like shit?


    @ tauto,

    You just equated "white" and the n-word? That, um, is a joke, right?

  109. tauto said "(I find it interesting that people who so vehemently oppose the racist pejorative "nigger" have absolutely no qualms using the term "white", which, in my opinion, is an equally racist term)."

    To quote Flavor Flav...."waaaaaaaaw!!!"

    This is obviously crazy talk ^^^ but it does remind me of a white tendency. The impulse to approach and argue racism from a technical standpoint, which just doesn't work.

  110. When I did the book in school-

    To berate the book solely because it fails many of the modern anti-racist standards (which it naturally would)is perhaps a result of expecting too much from it.

    @Mr. Noface:

    Nicely put.

    @ Mr. Noface:

    I echo your sentiments exactly.

    I am not American, and neither "black" nor "white" (I find it interesting that people who so vehemently oppose the racist pejorative "nigger" have absolutely no qualms using the term "white", which, in my opinion, is an equally racist term).

    I see this place hasn't changed at all. Never mind. Carry on.

  111. @ tauto

    "I am not American, and neither "black" nor "white" (I find it interesting that people who so vehemently oppose the racist pejorative "nigger" have absolutely no qualms using the term "white", which, in my opinion, is an equally racist term)."

    Fail. Let's lay this out for you elementary school style.

    1) white = color ... black = color. Both are used to describe and represent the skin tones of people.

    2) "Nigger" is NOT a color... It has a LONG history (one you're absolutely ignorant of) of being used AGAINST African-American people. It is NOT a descriptor! It is slung directly as an insult, spit off the lips of white people just moments before beatings and hangings, screamed at houses before crosses were burned in front of them, and more. It has been used to replace and even negate the first names of people.

    You want me to carry on with how immature it is to be offended by someone pointing out white as a skin color? Honestly, your post sounds like someone who can still call to his ethnicity, yet come here to the US and enjoy the white privilege. The reason you're offended by the use of the word "white" is BECAUSE of this sort of history. Every time you hear it, you're reminded that white people DO have a race and that race has a very long history of destroying people's cultures, lives, religious beliefs, countries, etc. I noticed you didn't use Black as an example of what offends your sense of what is racist ...surprising.

  112. I could probably go on and on about how I think TKAM is racist because of such an such part of the story or word useage, but I think that's a huge waste of time. My charge of racism against TKAM isn't for ANY of the reasons that have been listed in this article.

    For me the problem is in Harper Lee's choice of narrator and her construction of this story arc as a rite of passage novel. By choosing a white child narrator she conveniently evades the deeper complexities of Segregation culture, a theme that is central to the story but constructed as incidental.

    Growing up in such a culture is a "given" for loss of innocence after all... The harsh realities of race relations were unavoidable in the Jim Crow South... but by telling a story set in the Jim Crow South thru a child's perspective, you don't get a sense of how or why this was so. Just that it happens to be that way. Because, of course a child sees everything as just happening to be that way.

    White mob violence against black communities wasn't merely just something that "just happened" from time to time. By the 1930's, the time of this story's setting, lynch mobs were huge consumer oriented spectacles, drawing crowds of thousands from far and wide. Real life cases of black men being accused of rape and being murdered either by individual white vigilantes or by angry white mobs were both historical record AND current events news for Harper Lee during the time she composed TKAM. White on black violence was considered an act of southern patriotism in the 30's of the story, and Segregation was the reigning political controversy at the time she wrote the book. All of these deeper racial truths Lee was well aware of before she ever sat down in front of her typewriter. There is simply no way she couldn't have been aware.

    So how does she decide to incorporate such heavy themes? In the easiest way possible... thru the eyes of a plucky little white girl who doesn't know any better and is only just barely beginning to understand her changing world.

    So for me, the story came off a little too convenient for all the inconvenient truths it implied. Every child HAS to have a coming of age story... Scout's just happens to involve the town scapegoating of an innocent black man. I do declare!!

    I didn't hate reading this book. (I hated discussing it in class, that's another topic). But reading it, it was a good story, a real page turner. Nevertheless, the WAY she chose to build this story, considering the themes and characters she used, left me feeling manipulated in a specifically racist way. I couldn't put my finger on it quite then, but I can now.

    I also remember thinking that TKAM did a very good job of making me believe that the narrator WAS the author of the story. I don't remember getting a sense that the author was interrupting the story to make the narrator say something or the characters DO something. That's one of my huge pet peeves in books, when authors clumsily intervene into the character's lives to make the story go in a particular direction. None of that in TKAM (from what I remember). It has great "voice continuity." But again one might easily end up seeing Scout as the author, rather than as a deliberate, painstaking choice by Harper Lee to tell a politically loaded story thru a character nobody can really speak against, for who can speak against the innocence of a child? Who would root for the persecution of a demonstrably innocent man, for that matter? Even a 6 year old child knows thats wrong! And if her storytelling comes off a tad simplistic or crude, what reasonable person will blame a 6 year old for that? You can't so you don't. And so you swallow that "waaaait a minute..." feeling and immerse yourself into this wonderful fictional account of growing up in a small Southern town and losing your innocence, blah blah.

  113. Jane Laplain: wow, I really learned a lot from your comment.

    I appreciate other people fielding Mr Noface and tauto's comments; I just sighed when I saw them because I thought the discussion had already been over all that ground. I think new commenters must have been attracted by the cross post or the traffic and didn't bother to read the thread.

    Let me offer a way of thinking about this. A book can be both a good book and a racist book. A book can even be a racist book that is a valuable book for people who care about racism, because it is possible to dig into it the way Jane Laplain did to show how standpoint etc are working in a novel. (Lit crit is not my field, so I'm not going to try to stay in the game with the experts here.) I, as a white person who can identify with that standpoint, find it very enriching to get a perspective like Jane Laplain's (and others) on the text, because then I learn a lot about my world and myself. The reading the text is enriched, not diminished, by identifying its racist elements alongside the coming of age story.

    But not all books should be required reading for high school students. People of conscience ought to be able to empathize with the readers of books who bring different experiences to them and to care about making public school classrooms places that promote learning and common understanding and equality, rather than places that isolate and alienate some of the students.

  114. Victoria said...
    "Nigger" is NOT a color... It has a LONG history (one you're absolutely ignorant of) of being used AGAINST African-American people. It is NOT a descriptor! It is slung directly as an insult, spit off the lips of white people just moments before beatings and hangings, screamed at houses before crosses were burned in front of them, and more. It has been used to replace and even negate the first names of people.”

    I am reminded of a segment on PBS concerning the The Lynching of Emmett Till. The Black Press being removed to the far reaches of the courtroom, seated around a bridge table, along with Emmett’s aggrieved Mother. The rest of the room was occupied by white spectators putting you in the mind of a scene from, “To kill a Mocking Bird.” James Hicks (executive Director, Amsterdam news) relates a tragic anecdote about the Emmett Till trial. He described a segregated, “circus-like” atmosphere that did not put you in the mind of a real courtroom.

    He goes on to relate how he had to vouch for Representative Charles Diggs; for the local authorities (Sheriff H.C. Strider of Tallahatchie County) would not grant him access to the Courthouse. The sheriff reportedly asked his deputy to come over (trying to substantiate the Congressman’s claims) and I quote:

    “This nigger here, (referring to Mr. Hicks) said there’s a nigger outside who says he’s a congressman (hicks begins to giggle as he continues) and he has corresponded with the judge, and the judge told him to come on down and ah he would let him in. So he’s sendin his car up there.” The sheriff asked inquisitively, “a Nigger Congressman?” And the deputy responded, “That’s what this nigger says…”

    Later on at a press conference you have the sheriff of Tallahatchie County playing solitaire, while pledging ‘on National Television’ that the defendants in the case would receive a fair and impartial trial; not needing the assistance of the NAACP. Then continues by uttering, “we never have any trouble until some of our southern niggers go up north and the NAACP talks to them, and they come back home.”

    Just like “To kill a Mocking Bird,” D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” has been acclaimed by some as being one of the greatest movies ever filmed. Yet unlike TKAM, "Birth of a Nation" was never touted as an anti-racist vehicle. Some of the groundbreaking techniques and camerawork are still being used today. However, most non-whites know it to be a racist movie of the worst sort; even while countless whites praise the film for its technical innovations and social commentary. Having no natural empathy for blacks, whites find it easy to laud a literary/cinematic work based on the technical merits, while being totally blind to its racial connotations. Not much difference with regards to most real-life events if you ask me.

  115. @olderwoman:

    Well, that's a pretty impossible position for anyone creating a curriculum. Just about every text will alienate somebody. I think attempting to determine what's "alienating"--or the more commonly used term, "offensive"--opens the door for a small but vocal group (usually parents) to be able to get rid of anything they just don't like. While TKAM has been on ALA's list of the top 10 "most challenged" books, so have The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved.

    Also, as I mentioned in the other post on this topic, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that To Kill a Mockingbird alienates readers of color. As a black woman, I would beg to differ. I will add that my mother, a black woman who has taught English for 30+ years and has been in charge of developing curricula for nearly 20 of those years, told me that not once has she ever heard a complaint relating to this novel--and she's in a majority black district. So I think it's wrong to presume that the POC here share the viewpoints of all, or even most, POC readers.

    Lastly, I don't think sanitizing the curriculum does much to "promote learning and common understanding and equality." TKAM is a commonly taught novel. So is Huck Finn, which I do find problematic. I would say most educated people are expected to be familiar with both. (Why that is, and why other works aren't on the canon, is a whole 'nother discussion.) So I think it would be a disservice for a school district to take them off the curriculum. If that had been the case in my school, I would have resented going off to college not having the same preparation as other students--especially by someone guessing at what I, as a person of color, would find "alienating." I think, as Jane Laplain said, that it would be better to have an open, honest discussion about the historical and social context, especially if there are students who feel there are problematic elements in the text.

  116. @Jane Laplain:

    So is it racist for any white author to examine race relations or racial injustice through the eye of a child? I ask honestly.

    It seems to me that Harper Lee sought to convey the story of TKAM through the eyes of someone whose impressions of society are not fully formed precisely to point out how injustice is perpetuated through stasis--because wide-eyed children grow into adults who resign themselves to it. To me, the takeaway is not only "even the cute, plucky little girl recognizes injustice," but also, and more importantly, "how did/do these people grow up from Scouts, Jems, and Dills into Tom Ewells?" It paints a picture of a community in which racial injustice is so common, as you point out, as to be banal (at least to its white adult members), which is chilling. You're right that it does not get into the why and how such a community came to be. But I'm not sure that it needs to. (Just as in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," you never find out the purpose of the titular lottery.) Yes, there was a complex of economic, legal, and social factors involved in the system of segregation that ruled the South. It took attacking all of those elements to pave the way for civil rights enforcement. But there's a reason children were enlisted in the Birmingham protests. The images of kids being fire-hosed and chased by dogs were horrific, and they helped change the opinions of many people who would otherwise have been unmoved. At a gut level, the legal/social/economic arguments were moot. I view TKAM in a similar vein. I don't think Lee was wholly dismissive of the larger factors at play in the existence of Jim Crow, or letting white people off the hook, as others here have argued). I think it's the opposite: she presents a society in which legal and social absurdities are fully entrenched, unquestioned by just about everyone, and left to rob whole classes of citizens of their humanity.

  117. i haven't read this book since i was in school, and i frankly don't remember more than the gist. i don't remember it as being well-written from a purely literary standpoint, i don't remember any of the black characters at all - but hey, it wasn't about them, was it.

    i think jms said it best, and no one has effectively refuted him:

    I think the issue is that a novel written 50 years ago is still presented to children as one of the central documents on the horrors of institutional racism in the US.

    The answer isn't to ban TKAM; the answer is to replace it in the curriculum with books that provide more accurate and nuanced views of this critical issue.

  118. also, what the hell does atticus have against blue jays?

  119. @April: "Well, that's a pretty impossible position for anyone creating a curriculum. Just about every text will alienate somebody." This is true, of course, and as I pointed out on the other thread, it does not matter what you teach, there are risks of hurting students. In teaching, there are no shortcuts or sure things, just doing the best you can and trying to speak to all the students. But this is not a license to teach whatever you want without thinking about the impact on different students. A White teacher who has read the debate in this thread and its companion would teach the book in a very different way from one who had not, and that would be good. As a White teacher (but not a literature teacher) who teaches about race, I find it very helpful and a great privilege to be allowed to hear from POC about how classroom experiences affect them. My own background and experiences give me insight into the various ways that a White person can experience TKAM. As a White person who talks a lot to other White people, I KNOW we often forget to consider the subjectivity of POC when we teach. It has been very interesting and enlightening to be allowed eavesdrop on a conversation between different Black people about how they have experienced the book. I agree, really, that there is no easy answer for a book like TKAM about whether or not to require it, but I definitely think that anyone (or at least any White person) who teaches the book should read and reflect on the kinds of comments and criticisms advanced in this post and the comment stream, and that all children would be better served thereby.

  120. @April

    So is it racist for any white author to examine race relations or racial injustice through the eye of a child? I ask honestly.

    I think that's a fair question. No, I don't think it's fundamentally racist. I don't necessarily think Harper Lee had racist intent either. I think her book was an important book and it demonstrates all the complexities that you describe. I also think that her white privilege may have FORCED her to adopt this approach in the attempt.

    I think of other ways she could have chosen to write the book. Through an omniscient 3rd person perspective, a white adult narrator, a black adult or child narrator, eveb a mixed bag of narrators including Boo Radley... she doesn't. She picked Scout for a reason and I think she did that because she HAD to. Her whiteness and her being an adult at the time of intense political and racial unrest made it so that speaking on race straightforwardly, particularly if the character was going to be compared to herself, she would have been accused of drawing a line in the sand. Instead of hitting that "universal" note of uplift she struck with TKAM, she could easily have been condemned as a radical desegregationist. Choosing Scout as a narrator sort of bypassed that... but it only could have worked by choosing a WHITE child. White feelings and white childhood being "universal" and all.

    So in a way maybe Lee was indeed trying to present all these questions like you say. But she did it having to manipulate society's racist expectations of that which CAN be universally accepted. Perhaps it is unfair to blame her for first having to accomodate racism in order to question racism... as a person of color myself, I sometimes have to do the very same, much more frequently than I care to admit.

  121. @April...
    true.. an imposasible situation.
    So Lets teach mein Kampf in schools.

    Why do black folk always have to be the ones to 'just recognise its a book'

    Since, its an impossible position for anyone creating a curricula not to alienate someone.. how about for a change, we focus on demeaning other folk than the usual demeaning of black folk?.

    I think many other black folks are kinda tired of it, maybe you won't mind reading a book demeaning women constantly.

    We can stand in class and make a women read the word ' whore, fucking c*nt, whore, whore, whore, whore, 'c*m bucket* over and over again.

    I think we should go forward with this.

  122. M. Gibson, that's exactly what comes to mind when I hear/see the word. It's meant to be oppressive, and it is. In the examples you provided that one word took away respect in calling human beings by their names and made them sound like a breed of dog instead, and then made it sound ludicrous that one of them might hold a job as a city official. Collectively, white people know exactly what that word does if we use it. We've always known it.

  123. I managed never to read this book. I do remember a high school english teacher telling me it was one of her favorite books of all time and complaining that people wanted it banned, but it sounded from the conversation with her that the discussion had only been about use of the n word.

    What I did read in American Lit in High School, among other things, was Native Son, Beloved, and Huck Finn. (I feel like I'm forgetting another book that dealt with racism, actually) I don't think I would assign Beloved or Native Son to a middle school class but I think I did fine with them by high school. For the record, I we did a fair amount of criticism in many of my hs classes, so with the right teacher I think we could have dealt with discussing racism in TKAM or HF if my teachers had been more ready to bring it up.

    This essay reminds me of how ineffective the the white idealists in Native Son are, and how important a message that was for me. The story is about how Bigger tries to get out of trouble after accidentally suffocating one of the anti-racist white characters with whom I sort of identified. And even though we did discuss "how much better things are now" briefly, I don't think it's as easy to play that game with this book.

    As for Huck Finn, after reading two books actually written by black authors even my class of upper middle class white kids could see the difference. I kind of enjoyed the writing style and the story itself since it was so much easier and fanciful than anything else we read for the class, but most students came to class complaining about it and couldn't be persuaded it was worth much.

  124. @soul: "Since, its an impossible position for anyone creating a curricula not to alienate someone.. how about for a change, we focus on demeaning other folk than the usual demeaning of black folk?." Yes, I had been thinking about that point, too, and forgot to say anything about it, so thank you for stressing it.

  125. @soul:

    First of all, I am a black woman. I think it's telling that for some folks here, it seems to only be acceptable to take into account the views of POC who agree with them. Because I do not, I *must* be on the side of the people who would also extol Mein Kampf. How very mature of you.

  126. @otherwoman:

    Agreed. I'm personally against just taking things off the curriculum based on the opinions of a few people, because as I've been trying to stress, for all the POC here who found TKAM problematic, I know just as many who felt it was meaningful and well-written. I also think literature should be challenging. I recall in my college American lit, there were white students who said they felt they were being "attacked" by the many works we read by POC that depicted whites unfavorably. Someone else brought up Native Son, which has actually been off the curriculum in my hometown's school district for years in part because of similar sentiments. I don't agree with either. Many important works are also uncomfortable ones. The key is having good teachers who will not only address those elements, but allow students to engage with them. I always think of Things Fall Apart, which was written in large part as a response to Heart of Darkness. How different might the canon be if it was decided that HOD was simply a racist text that shouldn't be studied?

  127. @April

    My opinions on TKAM aside, that's the feeling I (also a black woman) usually get as well. So I just don't post much anymore.

  128. @April..
    I know you are a black woman. You've said it in this thread before.

    Here's what I said:
    'I think many other black folks are kinda tired of it, maybe you won't mind reading a book demeaning women constantly.'

    In your haste, you might have overlooked it, so I've highlighted it for you.

    re: Mein Kampf..

    I asked why it can't be read in high school. Didn't say you extolled it. I think yiou are being defensive and it is unnecessary.

    Anyway, Whats so bad about Mein Kampf? it's on my reading list
    along with Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Spirit of the Laws by Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, Essays by Michel de Montaigne amongst others.

    I don't get it?.
    I know the book demeans some a few people, but its one mans view. It was written at a point in time where many people adopted that. Its ancient history, I can seperate the man from the madness and I look forward to reading it. It will be an education.

    Why not?
    Why can't High School kids be exposed to it? Surely if they are taught by teachers like you had, then it would be cool. No Jewish person need fear simple literature. I heard the prose was good too.

  129. @April...

    Where you do find the part where I accused you of extolling Mein Kampf.. please let me know. Either that or withdraw the accusation because as you can see.. it simply didn't happen.

    I respect your right to like the novel, to love the language, and your ability to seperate the 'literature' from the times and all that stuff.

    I did not mention your blackness, I mentioned the blackness of other folk. Feel free to disagree, make your point and all but don't start pulling stuff out of thin air to do so.

  130. I remember having to read that book in school. I only got so far before I burned it. I was 15 yrs old and got the message loud and clear.

  131. So we should ignore the documentation of a sentiment in history?

    Perhaps the popularity of the novel is due to the fact that it preserves everything that you're analyzing.

    Yeah, it's a bitter pill that someone gets rewarded for doing the obviously correct thing, but a southern white female from alabama documenting what she saw and an anti-racism sentiment is still noteworthy.

    So while it is full of grating, obvious racism there are still those first notes of enlightenment from within the heart of the south.

    It's transparent in its bigotry, if you treat the characters as founts of wisdom and the embodiment of pure correctness.

    But if you treat the book as a confused, racist author starting to piece together how incorrect and unjust they are, it is valuable.

    I think it's even *MORE* valuable that it has those racist sentiments in it when attempting to not be.

    Would it have been more accurate and valuable without it? Would it have been widely accepted?

    It is a simple and fair question to point out the racism in the book, and to take Lee's point of view and how it could be considered a radical piece of work at the time.

    We're putting a LOT of stock into a story where an 8 year old girl is the voice of truth when assessing other cultures and races. Perhaps Lee intentionally built in the ignorance?

    What if the entire book was meant to document the shortcomings of well intentioned sympathizing? That would render all of the major points made 1, 2 and 3 up above intentional showcasing of it all.

    If you cannot see the groundbreaking occurring when upgrading an ignorant view of a race from mongrel beasts to a mockingbird, and how that is a huge step in a backwards, ridiculous society... I think you're missing the point of the importance of the shift from other sorts of propaganda to this sort of propaganda.

    Lesser of two evils, of course... still evil.

  132. WIW, in my experience, Atticus has never been a comforting portrayal of a white person that assuages any white guilt I might have -- Atticus was a *rarity*, a social misfit, not a typical white person at all. I didn't find comfort in the fact that one halfway decent person tried to confront injustice, while so many others either sat mute or actively perpetrated injustice. I certainly never knew any Atticus Finches in my own life, and my teacher referred to him as an "aspirational" figure in American literature -- perhaps an unrealistically good father, good person -- but a character with personal qualities to which many people aspire. (Yes, "aspire" was one of the vocabulary words that our teacher had us learn as we read TKAM!)

  133. TKAM was and still is one of my favorite books, and I say that with a great awareness of both its limitations and of my own white privilege.

    I first read TKAM in 7th grade, in a "gifted" program in a public middle school in 1984, in a working-class suburb of Manhattan. About 40% of our student body was white, 40% African-American and maybe 15% Hispanic and 5% Asian. But 9/10 students in my "gifted" program were white or Asian.

    TKAM, and the teaching unit built around it about racism and social injustice, awakened my awareness of social justice issues like nothing before. Before TKAM, racism and other shameful realities in America were taught as unfortunate parts of our country's past. My unabashedly liberal 7th grade teachers NEVER let us get away with thinking that TKAM touched only on historical racism - we were challenged to see and confront racism around us.

    Before we opened TKAM, we had an explicit class discussion about the controversial presence of the word "nigger" in TKAM. As a class, we came to an agreement that we would not say the word when reading aloud, not wanting it to become in any way more acceptable to hear or use in any setting. But it was the first time we openly discussed the racial balance in our class and the problems of hosting the discussion with so few black students present.

    Later, when we reached a part of TKAM when Atticus talks with Scout about why she should never use "nigger", we took a written, anonymous 10-question survey about racism. Had we ever seen something ourselves that we would classify as "racist"? Had we ever been called a racist slur? Had we ever used "nigger" or another slur ourselves? Had anyone in our family ever used such terms? Did our parents have close friends of a different color. Had we ever witnessed racism in our own school? If yes for any, we wrote examples.

    The next day, our teacher gave us the results she had compiled and typed. Every student had at least one family member who had used "nigger" as a slur. And very few of us had parents who had close friends from a different racial background. That was eye opening for me. In elementary school, racism was presented to us as something that was long past. I thought I was the only person who had some openly racist relatives, and to find out that I was not alone was NOT comforting. It was sickening and scary. But what struck all of us when we discussed these results was that while our school was evenly split among black/white students, our gifted program was almost all white. Suddenly I felt my own place in an ongoing system of white privilege, as real as if we had stepped back in time into official segregation.

    After we finished the TKAM unit, our self-governing student council for the gifted program voted that the gifted program should be abolished because it was racially imbalanced and thus promoted racial disparities in education. (This was a result our teachers had never envisioned, but they were very proud of.) We made a bit of a stink at a school board meeting about it. But perhaps it, like TKAM, was a lesson in the limits of the zeal of new converts, since it wasn’t successful. But some of the “gifted” parents later joined with a group of mostly African-American “mainstream” parents who worked together to end the academic “tracking” system in our district, an ongoing battle.

    We later studied issues about incarceration in the US and had a guest speaker who had been incarcerated talk about his experiences growing up with pervasive racism. We interviewed African-Americans who lived before 1964 (20 years earlier) for a Civil Rights oral history project, published a collection of oral histories in our local library, and discussed the silence of black voices in TKAM.

    I credit TKAM and my teachers with beginning to open my eyes to present-day racism and with fostering a belief that we each should be active in confronting and ending injustice in our own communities.

  134. I don't agree at all with this article. I think a lot of macon's point are based on assumptions and over simplifications, not the actual text of the book itself. I never found To Kill A Mockingbird to be a racist book, and his practice of reading books based on his own personal beliefs rather than what the book actually says is dangerous. By doing that he is condemning good literature in a harsh and unnecessary way in a public forum which can convince people to stop reading and/or stop teaching a book that is actually very anti-racist and well written.

    1.) The symbol of a mockingbird is not offensive in and of itself. My understanding was that the mockingbird was more innocent than helpless, painting african americans as undeserving of the persecution brought on them, like the character in the novel. Any "helpless" imagery I took to mean that, in the system of the society in the story, many times African Americans were helpless to advance their station in life and protect themselves because of the prejudices around them and the unfair structure of the system in which they live, built by white men. This does not mean that no one was fighting against this unfair system or that african americans were helpless to change it, because eventually they did (note: I don't mean to say that our current society is perfect and racist unfortunately still exists, but I think we can all agree that it has been improved from the society depicted in to kill a mockingbird and the society in which it was written.).

    2.) Atticus Finch is fictional. This is not a real account of a white man standing up for african americans, but a fictional story that is told to convey an idea, which, read by most people, is that racism is wrong. Therefore, I don't see how you could claim that his depiction is a "soothing white fantasy", when there is no evidence to support that a man like him existed. Harper Lee makes it clear that this is a novel and a fictional story, which should not actual shape any educated readers depiction of history. Anyone who is able to separate fact from fiction could see that historically, men like Atticus Finch are the exception, not the rule. Also, to suggest that everyone during a time period was racist, with no exceptions, is a little closed minded and a sweeping generalization. While I'm sure most white people during that time were terrible, racist pigs, it seems unfair to assume the worse of EVERYONE during a time period you only know about through second hand accounts and history books, which always offer a biased slant.

    3.) Again, I never saw this book as even suggesting that there wasn't any black resistance or that african americans are/were ever helpless. While, yes, there is no mention of black resistance in the novel, this novel's job is not to give you an accurate depiction of history, but just to tell you a made up story with fictional people to convey an idea.

    With all that said, I don't expect everyone to have interpreted and read the novel the same way as I did because every piece of writing can be interpreted multiple ways. However, my issue with your interpretation is that you don't base it on the actual text or on actual facts and make extremely harmful accusations that you fail to back up. Your main issue with this novel seems to be that it doesn't accurately describe real events, but that is not what novels are meant to do. The whole point of writing fiction is that you can discuss very real themes and ideas using fictional characters and setting.

    If you are looking to be offended, you will always find some reason to be, but I suggest that if you are looking to find something racist/sexist/prejudiced/offensive to cure whatever white man guilt you are feeling, you choose something that is actual racist/sexist/prejudiced/offensive so you can be of better use the rest of society instead of just creating more anger and hate over something harmless.

  135. I am teaching this book right now in my classroom as part of the required curriculum for 10th grade. When I read this book over the summer, I felt the same frustration about themes of a white saintly savior stepping in to rescue poor defenseless black people as I feel about films like Dangerous Minds. What message, after all, does this teach us? I would like to engage my students in a discussion about the racism in this book. Does anyone have any suggestions about materials I could use in my classroom?

  136. @Sarah - I'm going to use this post. And especially the summary of Saney's three main points. I might pull out some of the comments here for and against and use those to stimulate discussion too. Howver, since I teach 8th grade... we'll see how deep we can get into it. Seems like it might be a better book to teach in high school so I might not teach it next year (it's my first year of teaching and it's what most teachers teach at my school).

    There is also a full text version of Isaac Saney's article available as a .doc Look for it on google.

    Good luck!

  137. @e w s: I would be ashamed, not proud, of engaging in book-burning.

    Anyway, I disagree with this article, but for the reasons outlined by earlier comments, and I don't really have much to add. I am also iffy about removing it from the classroom entirely. I feel like it can be taught in a way that is more progressive, but the problem is that far too many teachers use books like it to make some incorrect point about "Aren't we glad our society isn't like that today anymore?" When actually, we still have a judicial system that is biased against Black people.

    I also think that while it's a book that is eye-opening for a lot of White people, its point is one that many Black people already get. It doesn't really need to be taught in schools that are majority-Black and it's definitely an issue of White privilege to assume that they should learn it, too.

  138. Very late comment, but...

    Reading it from outside the US, at about 10, I always assumed the "mockingbird" was Tom Robinson in particular rather than Blacks in general, as well as Boo Radley. But then, I come from somewhere with its own racist history, different from that posed in the book. I was actually stunned at the divisions between the races, as I had not known anything about it.

    TBH, my love of the book came from the fact Scout was a tomboy like me. She reminded me of me - and she was proud of it. Up until then no character had reminded me of me.

  139. I also read this book living outside the US (as an American, though) at about age 13. The main thing I took away from it is that it was really funny for a kid to cuss uselessly, i.e."Please pass the damn ham." Now that I've lived most of my adult life in the South as a non-white person, I do get this post, though. It's an uncomfortable book to read for many black students, especially when white teachers think that somehow everyone should love it. Uncomfortable isn't always a bad thing, but in this case it's not Flannery O'Connor uncomfortable. O'Connor was trying to make Everyone feel uncomfortable, including herself, which is why students don't read her until college (the white parents would flip). She was one of those rare Southern writers who was able to critique her own culture in a thorough, unflinching, but unreactionary way. That isn't what you see in a book like Lee's, which O'Connor pretty much dismissed as a fantasy. (And don't get me started on that book-movie The Help, no doubt written by someone very influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird. There's a reason it was super popular w/ white women.) Liking To Kill a Mockingbird as a wp in the South is sort of like listing MLK as one of your heroes (or maybe just quoting him on your facebook page). It's a way to say to your 2 black friends "I'm not racist!" and makes you feel better about being a wp in the South. I think it's worth having grace for these friends, though, especially those who are really trying, and who are open to discussion. The annoying thing, though, is as you point out, when something is used to make everyone feel better about themselves and when I'm not allowed to say something because it might make someone uncomfortable (and I appreciate that you recognize this). I mean, I have to feel uncomfortable all the time. But there is an entry point for everything and I think grace is good. As long as someone is willing to put aside defensiveness, they will find that I'm really not trying to attack them and their entire race. I just believe in dialog.

  140. I remember reading this book in High School, and I absolutely hated it, partly due to being the only black student in my class and having the , but also because of the message, which this post reviewed. As my class discussed the values of Atticus I was left feeling as if I was the only one that felt he was insultingly racist. Seeing black people as harmless victims that just let bad things happen to them was possibly a liberal view in that time *for white people*, but I didn’t consider it progressive or good enough simply because it happened a long time ago.

    My mother would often tell me stories of growing up when schools were being desegregated, and I did not get the impression that “that’s just how people were” and "it's fair for its day" regarding all forms of racism. I did get the impression that she was scarred from her experiences and she knew what was happening to her was wrong. It’s really not enough to let people give themselves a pat on the back for thinking of black people as humans with the brains of puppies in need of white guidance. I imagine it makes white people feel heroic, but it doesn’t help anyone.

  141. The author of this piece needs to go a little further in to the history of this country before expecting this novel to read as a perfect early 21st century morality piece. To expect a novel of this period to not have prolific use of the n word is simply to not want books about this period to be written. To see Atticus as an image of perfection is to completely misunderstand--he's far from perfect and a useful conversation today would be why. But not in a way that writes the novel off as racist

  142. The book is not about racism. Harper Lee has said that herself, its about her life growing up in part but the main "message" of the novel was supposed to be anti prejudice - OF ANY KIND.

    It shows that there should be a change in the way black people were treated by the country because that is what she found most shocking growing up. It does not demonize the racist characters and instead tells his children to give ALL people respect, even their racist old lady neighbor who was fighting an addition. Because by not giving into her addiction, even though she was dying, he thought that showed a huge level of bravery that deserved some compassion.

    How can you possibly say a book written in the past allows people to think there are not racist issues anymore? The book even touches on that. If you had read it properly you would realize that she criticizes Americans for not realizing there are problems with racism within the novel. Which shows how deeply embedded it is within american culture.

    The reason Atticus is white is because he is based on HER father, the fact that she doesn't include other races is not a problem. The book is about equality and compassion for all. I think its the most ridiculous thing that you think she should have included more races just in case an idiot like you read the book and didn't apply that yourself. You cant be spoon fed everything. This is not MTV. I suggest you look up positive discrimination.

    The reason Tom is disabled or "weak" as you put it symbolizes his position within the american law at the time. She was not and has never been prejudiced. Her whole novel was inspired by her life growing up and her fathers job as a lawyer (who represented a black father and son - who were both hung) and a lot of other heavy publicized trials that were going on at the same time that involved African-American men and white women. I also think its racist to say the fact that he is weak is racist - so if a white woman writes a novel a "weak" character in it cant be a black guy?

    She wrote about things she knew, things she had experienced and did not set out to write a book about racism. It is about equality and wisdom, not accepting social norms without rejecting your community. This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read, and that's coming from a journalist. I read shit every day.

  143. I mostly agree with the second and third claim about the novel's patronizing attitude to blacks, but have problem with the first claim about the symbol of the mockingbird being degrading to blacks.
    While this novel falls into the common trap of having a white-knight "rescuer" of a distressed black man, I think that the way it portrays much of the events through the eyes of child is delightful and helps raise it above much other literature that falls into the same trap.

  144. I interpreted this book to be about people helping other people understand that wrongly accusing someone of doing something without having full proof or evidence is wrong in general. Also, it was set in a time when people did not automatically trust black people, due to the racism of that time. It is a fictitious story, and yes the whites helped expose a white criminal. Take it for what it is, and remember the time frame setting the story. Nobody is perfect, but we must teach our children to love everyone, every color, and to be kind to others. Remember the Golden Rule? :) One thing I could say about this book, however is, can we please stop using it in school curriculum? It is getting very boring. Maybe it can be used as suggested reading, or for summer reading choices, but not to have to write papers on, or take tests over.


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