Books

The Necessity of To Kill a Mockingbird

Tourists gather by a mural depicting a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird in Monroeville, Ala., in 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters)
Year after year, my students cite it as their favorite of the works they’ve read for my class.

It seems the canon wars have begun anew. Homer was the latest casualty when a Twitter movement called #DisruptTexts pushed to get the Odyssey removed from curricula across the country. I fear that To Kill a Mockingbird is next up on the chopping block. For years before the Greek bard got whacked, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has faced criticism in progressive circles; at yearly meetings among my colleagues, discussions of removing it from syllabi crop up. It may not be widely canceled yet, but it’s already facing the inquisition.

Late last year, the Burbank Unified School District banned teachers from introducing this book to students on the grounds that a white student bullied another student after reading it. #DisruptTexts represents a growing anti-canon sentiment in K–12 education, and this move from Burbank schools could quickly be repeated by other districts across the country. However, a teacher’s poor handling of a book’s subject matter is not grounds for banning the book itself. Considering that this book deals thoughtfully with America’s history of racism, to ban it is to deprive us of a much-needed corrective to the deadlock and vitriol in debates about race.

To Kill a Mockingbird — and not some online chat room — is exactly where a young adolescent ought to learn about racism, sentiments underlying it, and the consequences it brings. While the novel makes ample use of the “N” word — the main issue in Burbank — it treats the word with derision and always places it in the mouths of antagonists, used to draw the ire of the reader.

In reality, the novel is precisely what America needs as we reckon with our history of slavery and segregation. To Kill a Mockingbird is both contentious and humane, encouraging readers to confront their own hypocrisy and to feel sympathy even for those who are seemingly irredeemable. After reading Lee’s famous work, one cannot but feel humbled and sympathetic, qualities lacking in our current national discourse.

As I read Mockingbird with students every year, what strikes me most is just how accusatory it is. Few remain free from Lee’s scalpel.

Near the end of the novel, the day after a jury has convicted a black man of a crime he didn’t commit, a group of town ladies drinks afternoon tea and discusses politics in their “missionary circle.” At a height of irony, Lee describes how downcast these women feel when they consider the plight of the poor. Notably, they don’t help them, donate, or serve; they merely lament, from the other side of town.

This bewailing without action typifies so many. After George Floyd’s murder, a trend emerged on social media of posting a black square in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, only for BLM activists to castigate it as, in their view, a flippant gesture. The black square inundated the social-media feeds of those who were trying to help, the critics said, stymieing their ability to share information quickly.

Similarly, cultural-sensitivity trainings of various kinds have taken the corporate world by storm. I had to attend one for my graduate training in education; we spent a weekend in a circle much like those ladies in To Kill a Mockingbird, talking about oppression and considering the plight of the poor; but we took no action. Even progressive magazines such as Jacobin have started to acknowledge the research that finds these anti-racist trainings ineffective.

But it’s not only virtue-signaling that Harper Lee mocks in this scene. These same ladies complain about the disgruntled African Americans in their town the day after the conviction. The reader has just watched a black man defend his honor before a sneering town, his wife and children struggle to keep work, his church bands together to support him financially, and, after it all, the entire African-American community suffers slander in court. The hypocrisy drips from the mouths of the ladies’ missionary circle.

For this criticism, Lee directs her ire at those unable to understand the frustration in the face of injustice, conservatives who cannot grasp why a community might riot. In a similar vein, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “shallow understanding from people of goodwill.” It’s possible to grasp the frustration that could lead to rioting without belittling the genuine emotion felt. Lee asks the reader to sympathize. We are to weep with those who weep, not call their statistics and perceptions into question the day after another person was killed in a police encounter.

In their discussions, town ladies do mention a man, J. Grimes Everett, who leaves comfort to actually go and spend his time and money helping others. The novel asks the reader: Who are you? Someone who casts judgment from afar, or someone who sacrifices time and resources for the good of others?

It’s not just guilt that Lee asks the reader to feel. She wants us to feel sympathy — sympathy for an innocent man an entire town has cast off as a rapist, sympathy even for the false accuser who has lived her life suffering from poverty and abuse. The novel’s hero, Atticus, implores his daughter to understand that most people are kind “once you finally see them.”

Lee has even more to offer our current conversations about injustice. During the trial, the novel’s imperfect hero, Atticus, mounts a profound defense of the American court system. He defends them as the “one place where a man ought to get a square deal” because it’s the one place that makes a “pauper the equal of a Rockefeller.” He acknowledges the imperfections of the American court system, but his solution is to strengthen the already robust system and increase the burden of proof required, further ensuring that all get a fair trial. Any alternative risks further cases of injustice.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird treats racial injustices in America with care. Vitriol and personal attacks abound in our culture today; Lee’s book takes another tack, asking readers to improve themselves and feel for the other. Perhaps the novel’s utility is most evident in the classroom. Other classics often require activities to maintain students’ interest and help them draw out a book’s meaning. To Kill a Mockingbird requires no such effort. Every year, even my most begrudging students glue their eyes to the book and actively engage in conversations about its content. The week before summer, I ask my students to rank every book we’ve read throughout the year, a mix of classics and young-adult fiction; To Kill a Mockingbird has won every year. The novel remains gripping and relevant, and my students notice. Perhaps, instead of banning it, we should all reread it.

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