“Mockingbirds … don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (To Kill A Mockingbird, page 119)
At times I wonder if I should suspend my disbelief when browsing the headlines. Last evening was a sentient moment when I realized that, no, these are not the times to let down my guard. Catching up on the not-so-prominent headlines from the past few days I read, to my astonishment, that Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird was stricken from the eighth-grade reading list by the Biloxi School Board.
In a quote to Karen Nelson of the Biloxi Sun Herald, Biloxi School Board Vice President Kenny Holloway stated of To Kill A Mockingbird: “There were complaints about it. There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.” I agree in part with Mr. Holloway—the language used by Lee in her quintessential work does indeed make people uncomfortable. When an educator completely misses the focus of Lee’s work, and how the uncomfortable language utilized by Lee is the vehicle to impart the themes of the story upon the reader, I am often left at a loss of words. But not this time.
Anyone with a basic understanding of Lee’s work can accept it for what it is: a calling out of American social injustices at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Lee wrote Mockingbird to address the ignorance and apathy of white America towards the plight of African Americans nationwide—not solely in the backcountry of the American South. A daughter of the South, Lee inked the words to her literary classic with the intention of making readers feel “uncomfortable.”
I have had the very fortunate privilege of studying Lee’s work in my academic training. I was also cast as Atticus in a stage production of Mockingbird. To say that I have an intimate understanding of this work and its characters is an understatement. As a white male, reciting the language employed by Lee before an audience of many races was the epitome of being uncomfortable in my own skin. That is the power of Lee’s work and the function of art. I pray that my performance imported that same level of discomfort upon the audience when addressing the jury of Tom Robinson: “This case is as simple as black and white.” (To Kill A Mockingbird, page 271).
There may be some who, in the style of Mayella Ewell, find that the literary word of Lee is a constant reminder of their own actions. While no crime per se has been committed in this instance, the uncomfortable feeling of the Biloxi School Board is part of the book’s desired impact, an impact that is just as difficult to accept today as it was in 1935 Maycomb, Alabama. Lee’s words were written to bridge social and racial divides; censoring her words only widens those divides.
Eighth grade students are no strangers to the issues Lee raises in Mockingbird. The discomfort of reading Mockingbird does not dwell within the students. Rather, it dwells within the society that fears addressing those issues head-on. In the end, educators have failed their students by kneeling down to the censors whose motivations are far more discomforting than the language of Lee’s Mockingbird.
I bear no animosity to the administrators at the Biloxi School Board; I do not know them personally or where they stand on the issues that have given rise to this set of circumstances. I have faith that they were misguided at best in this decision. That being said, I cannot fail to take offense at their failures as educators. Where a select few may find reading To Kill A Mockingbird uncomfortable, the true discomfort I feel is in the ignorance of these few individuals and the educators entrusted with the minds of Biloxi’s youth. It is an ignorance that censors a strong text from the classroom, and in its vacuum, leaves the social failures of the American past left to linger unchecked.
Author’s Note: The Biloxi School Board did not respond to requests for a statement at the time of this post’s publication.