Censoring To Kill A Mockingbird in the Classroom: Taking Comfort in Ignorance

“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.

The Writer’s Life

The writer: even in these modern times it is a designation that evokes romantic notions, harkening us back to the role of the storyteller, sage, and historian; all roles which have mended the path of human history. It is no surprise that, to this day, the perception of the writer gives rise to fanciful visions of an individual slumped over their work, head in hand, arising from self-imposed solitude to be peppered with a slew of questions to the likes of “What are you working on?” or “What have you published?” Within this imagery is the irony of the writer, seeking the shelter of their world to escape the public eye—that same eye that writers turn to for approbation.

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, by Pieter Claesz, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These are questions that stab at progress and its quantification. It is a mark of the human psyche to count achievements as the only concrete marker of a task’s performance to its ultimate terminus. It is a method to qualify the writer in terms of traditional language. But do writers care for such things? Is publication the end game to why we write, and if so, why carry on and risk reputation with the publication or rejection of another work? I put forward that the answer is no. Why writers write is an exercise much deeper than the mechanics of performing.

A writer bridges the awkward divide between artist and non-artist. It is peculiar that many writers fail to consider themselves artists, and to view what they create as art. Writers first, we put ourselves outside the very realm that gives us the breadth of discretion to exercise our creativity. We do more than string along countless words to convey thought and imagery that appeal, please, and stimulate. Writing done well is far greater than that, it is an art form that can rouse the introspective self to engage in the canvas of words painted by fine prose, the concrete structure and symmetry of a poem sculpted with finesse, or verse, when read aloud, that carries through the air as notes composed to perfection. Writing is as captivating as any art form, and likewise is borne of the writer’s essence.

The writer is far from a mythical being bent over the page, hand combing through ragged hair, consecrated before a drained coffee cup. This is but a portion of the story, the culmination of many hours spent living, reflecting, and reading. A writer’s end product encompasses all that is experienced: trauma, grief, joy, isolation; their inspiration bears those emotions onto the page. We are there: in the coffee shops, restaurants, and stores you frequent. With dedicated eye we examine the idiosyncrasies of human behavior that become the vehicle for our expression. We may be introverts by nature, but we seek to be heard. Our pens become our voice in the crowd, a voice saturated with emotion borne through seeing the world as only can be understood through the eye of an artist.

We do not possess mythical energies; we are as human as the next person. What we do possess is that uncanny power to transform emotions and states of mind to palpable form. Emotions that under ordinary circumstance defy explanation, or visions that may appreciably be too revolting to comprehend. Writers broach the taboo and bring it into the politest of company. In doing so we sometimes find the good fortune of opening doors to issues where before none existed. In this, then yes, there maybe is a certain amount of magic—and duty—wielded by our pens.

Within the mystery of the writer’s craft is where the power lies. A writer has the extraordinary ability to usher forth the reticent tear, unleash a hurricane of laughter, or bring reconciliation to a hurt. This is a power that we exert with care, without regard to deadlines or profits, as long after the page erodes into the earth the thought it once carried will continue on in the reader’s mind. A writer influences emotion and reaction by making a very personal connection to the reader through the conveyance of words. In turn, the reader grants the writer a unique invitation to occupy a corner of their mind, where influence can be powerful. This is the symbiotic existence between reader and writer.

Through that invitation we invite the reader to experience all that is the writer’s life: the solemn hours paining to find the precise word to convey meaning, the hours spent observing the human condition in order to construct our characters, and opening the door to a very intimate part of our selves that is certain to be dissected; done in the hope that perhaps just one person will understand. The writer draws on their emotional reserves like any artist with a tireless resolve to help bring about an understanding of the human condition, all the while entertaining and edifying in a manner that at its best is apolitical in appearance.

The writer’s life is a calling that knows no ethnical, political, or religious boundaries; the writer exists across all cultural divides. Unique to none and embraced by all, it emblazons the human condition extrapolated from our collective consciousness. The writer foregoes the inherent fear of exhibition to make our emotions and their scars available for all to behold and comprehend. The writer’s lifestyle is that of life rendered to the page to explain what cannot be explained, to say what was thought best to be left unsaid, and to find catharsis in what life witnesses to each of us.

Next time you read, or happen to meet a writer, forego the image of the drawn individual spilled across a keyboard. Instead, see before you the lifetime of emotion and attention to artisan craft coupled with the desire that exists within all of us to be heard. And perhaps, just maybe, you will hear your voice calling out as well.

Originally published in the October 2016 issue of Literary Arts Review Magazine.