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.

Summer Snow

The cottonwood blossoms and casts its blooms
floating the Missouri one sunny afternoon.

A summer snow, the blooms they squall,
finding their way, the wind, abetting withdraw.

They know no course, chance the only
companion on this journey.

Much as it was when I settled down,
casting my lot to this bottom ground.

Not aware I was sowing a seed of destiny,
chance—forlorn to me;
settling instead, fear won out.

I long for chance, for destiny, to arrive,
to grab my hand and turn the tide.

Victim to my chosen circumstance,
but those days never came to last.

Still I dream of you only,
an end all too early;
was it all for naught?

Fearing loss defeated chance,
alone I watch destiny dance;

in the summer snow above the Missouri.

 

*Originally published in the February/March 2017 issue of Literary Arts Review magazine.

 

Full Spectrum

I choose not to be color blind, although
I hear, it’s the copacetic thing to do,
but why on this kaleidoscoping earth
should I choose a limit, to what I see
and how I experience everything, swimming
in and through the fluid of this optic sea.

It’s a handicap, self-imposed righteousness—

The sphere is more than a monochrome, of
black and white, the in-betweens left cast
aside, the grays, the charcoals, nothing about
them is far from right or wrong, instead they
shade the world, applying filters to appreciate
another point of view, perspective, lighting—
in any light any color is not the same
being blind to one is blind to all.

Lose the handicap, free your eyes—

Instead I choose to don the rainbow, and
bask in its Technicolor glow, wrap myself
in its warmth, accessorized with my
charcoal scarf, hands gloved with a touch of
gray, white socks, black tie, all because I
saw the allure of not being color blind.

Don’t impose, a limit to,
the beauty, of humankind.

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

 

Finding Fact in Fiction: Fathering Fears and Tending Truth

Again. It was happening again. The boy cringed and pulled the covers over his head, a narrow slit the only opening in his thin armor. The streetlight sickled the night and latched onto the faux crystal door knob, its prism shattering the beams to a million glints of light peppering the room. The door fell open into the bedroom and he felt the intruder’s feet pulling the carpet with him, the leaden steps echoing distant thunder. The boy could feel his breath, taste the bar, and inhale its staleness. He could feel his stare undress the thin veil that feigned protection, the only barrier between them. Fearing for his life, the boy found the grip of the worn steak knife, his constant companion in slumber tucked under his pillow. His white knuckles trembled at the thought, a thought that wouldn’t see its own fruition that late evening. The intruder withdrew, but his point was made: his arrogance dulled the boy’s every possibility to fight back.

But wait – this wasn’t supposed to be a fiction piece. And it isn’t. The above scenario was real, one of many violent or psychologically intimidating incidents throughout the victim’s childhood. The victim was this writer. Odd timing brings this piece to light, with Father’s Day bearing down as I write. For many years after those incidents, celebrating any parent, or even the institution of parenthood, was a sore point for me. Because, I am a survivor of domestic violence in the form of child abuse.

Why mention this? Often readers assume my writing – and perhaps any writer’s work – to be autobiographical. This in some cases would be rather pleasant, and in others – well let’s just say not so much. Whispers in the Alders is no different. Many readers have asked, “Is this based on your life?” To which I answer, no. As a writer, I take in all I have experienced, witnessed, and read, and recycle them through my imagination to create my fiction and poetry. These are all products of my imagination, although at times they can seem quite real to the reader, and even to this writer.

There were points during the writing of Whispers in the Alders where the scenes were so vivid, so painful to even write, that I questioned penning them, wondering if I was crossing a line. As has been the case for most of my life, I looked to the bookshelf flanking my desk for answers. At eye level was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which sits on my desk as I write this piece. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison recounts horribly abusive situations towards children in as tasteful a manner as can be committed to paper. Still, those scenes haunt me. I knew I hadn’t come close to crossing any line in Whispers in the Alders, as tragic and heartbreaking as some of those scenes came to be written.

So why come out about this now? Simply because it has come up numerous times in conversation following the release of Whispers in the Alders. I have always said that Whispers in the Alders is a story that needed to be told. But it’s not just my story, it’s also the story of Aubrey and Tommy, and countless other children who suffer through the cycle of domestic violence in their childhood. Whispers in the Alders is their story as much as it is mine. However, I am not a psychologist. I am educated in the Humanities. I have no true standing to explain away the psychological chaos wrought by abuse except for the fact that I survived many of those situations myself.

This is not to say that survival was any easier than losing my life to abuse would have been. For years I suffered from the post-traumatic stress of physical and psychological abuse. I didn’t even know it, thinking I had escaped, only to later learn that the past has a funny way of keeping pace with the future. In the end, you have to confront the past to survive it. Sometimes those memories were just as frightening as the events themselves. The depression was deep, an enveloping darkness that dulled the senses. It was like a drug, except there was no high.

Where did Aubrey and Tommy end up? Those answers are within Whispers in the Alders. I’d like to say I was the perfect Aquarian like Tommy, and always optimistic, but it’s not true. Like many survivors of childhood abuse, I faltered for years in all my relationships. To my surprise, the models of behavior I abhorred resurrected themselves within me. I was traveling a path to become as abusive as those who abused me. Destructive behaviors became the norm, and I hurt many people along the way, some of whom may never find the means within to forgive me. While I have always accepted responsibility for my actions, this is the legacy of my childhood. I never fully understood the trauma I had undergone from childhood into early adulthood until I was in my thirties. The pain of therapy was near crippling, but it was the first of many challenging experiences that allowed me to begin healing from my past. I am still a work in progress, and always will be. As long as I keep that in mind, I can stay honest with myself, and to those who love me.

Whispers in the Alders is a story for anyone that has suffered, or is suffering, from child abuse. It’s a story of how to weather the circumstances of an unfair childhood. It tells society why it is failing its children, if it should choose to listen. It’s a story about finding love in friendship and having the courage to place your faith in another human being even after all others have failed you. That is the most difficult position that many survivors of abuse face: placing trust in others.

This Father’s Day, I’m quite lucky to have a father-in-law that has accepted me as his own, and filled the role of father without even being asked. I no longer have fear of the man lurking outside my bedroom, wondering whether or not a rusted blade will save me. It took years of hard work to reach this point in my existence. I’m not alone in this struggle, although for many years, the struggle was lonely.

It is my hope that Aubrey and Tommy’s story will keep this dialogue going. That is why Whispers in the Alders is a story that needed to be told. It’s not one person’s story either – it is an entire generation’s story. And unfortunately, this is a story retold generation after generation. Is it getting better? Perhaps it is, but not better enough. There is a spring to the human mind, and that spring is childhood. Without it, imagination and hope wither in the winter of human pessimism. I’m certain that there are many who can empathize with Aubrey and Tommy, and many more that should learn to have empathy for their situation. Empathy that can begin to be felt in the pages of a book.

 

 

Helianthus

 

In the dialed face

of the sunflower did rest

a reflection of the sun

light giving the plant

brilliance to digest.

 

Shimmer along yellow

petals gilding the rays

feathered out in fine detail

for the wandering eye

to celebrate.

 

The flower is a palette

contrasting the glance—

light and dark balancing act—

an optic harmony

to a sun-lit dance.

 

Don’t Knock the Vernacular

I read (again) The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams. I was reminded how Williams assembled a small group of simple words. They were just words, but imported great meaning in a brief space. Williams, a pediatrician, became inspired to write the poem while making a house-call for a patient. Did the chickens represent payment for his services? Could payment even be considered as his thoughts also lingered over the condition of his patient? We may never know, but what we can infer, is that nothing in this poem is insignificant. Every word is dependent upon the other, much as the imagery in this piece is so dependent upon what happened that day—the details that none of us will ever totally know.

As a writer, I know at times that I fall short of connecting to my audience through the vernacular of common language. This is the same vernacular that bred me. I’ve experienced the same hardships endured by many other people. It’s what connects us on a human level, and it’s the connection that literature creates between writer and reader. Good writing is not meant to be a mere exhibition of fine-tuned grammar and an assemblage of words that boast of our education and prowess. It is an instrument that gives hope—something that has gone missing in recent time.

Williams’ poem is far more than a simple collection of words. These are words styled with care that demonstrate a dedication to craft tailored to keep the audience in mind. On its face the words of “The Red Wheelbarrow” are simple, but all words when singled out can be described in that way. Williams has taken these words and portrayed a scene that could evoke any emotion, or none at all. In its simplicity lies its complexity, showing that the writer’s gift is making that connection to the reader, whether the metaphor is accepted or portended to be something else.

The vernacular is lost by writers attempting to string words across the page that separate themselves from the world they interpret. It is not the writer’s cause to give meaning or understanding to circumstances, but insight. That is what words do when assembled with care and disseminated for all to appreciate. Word size and counts don’t matter. Substance always takes the prize in the literary arts.

Art can teach or alienate. The writer has failed when their art strays from the point of entertainment or enlightenment and caters only to a small fraction of society. The writer’s purpose is to take their perspective and make it accessible. When that accessibility is denied, the medium falls flat and loses influence and credibility.

We’re at a turning point, a time of great change, in history. Many are anxious, and wake to the fear of what the day will bring; security is escaping from the segments of society that need it most. Recent events have disturbed us from the comforts we knew too well for eight years. Trying as the future may seem, for the writer it is a time of opportunity, a time to connect with readers struggling to come to terms with an uncertain future filled with fear.

These are the times when the written word exerts its utmost power. Sometimes metaphor isn’t necessary, and sometimes a grammatically superior sentence stifles its own message. Simple words, crafted with care, can convey the complexities of emotions being felt across a nation turning its eyes to the future. It’s the vernacular that writers can wield with power and make a connection only few others dare to attempt.

Imagine : 2016

Ballots break the Age of Aquarius
while its perfunctory measures
greet its waiting antithesis
knelling the departure of its heroes;

Struck out was Joe DiMaggio
before a nation’s lonely eyes
raptured through political vertigo
a myth of promises lost their disguise;

Tendering chaos on axes X and Y
a generation lost to cyberspace
booming eyes with false tears cried
over children’s dreams laid to waste;

Bowled over by instant karma
indiscriminate in natural selection
from champagne bubbles’ supernova
sparkling of arrogance brazen;

Hope’s promise devastated
its concept bore suspicion
Cosell’s call unheeded
all remains forsaken—

leaving us,

still,

to Imagine.

choteau

The hills and

their sweet grasses

stood sentry

guarding time

witness to

the changing seasons

and

demolition by mankind

too stoic

to flinch

too passive

to resist

their soils

torn

riding the wind

barren plains

now sown

with

cheat(ing) grasses

purple majesty

running red

no more

does thunder

roll

unless

by

the heavens

called

 

Whispers in the Alders to be published by Blue Deco Publishing

It’s official: Debut Novel, Whispers in the Alders, to be published by Blue Deco Publishing, coming in 2017!

 

catkins-final
The alder catkin, hallowed totem in Whispers in the Alders.

I owe a great deal of thanks to all those who have shown their support throughout the process of writing, querying, and now, publishing. Soon, Whispers in the Alders will be in the hands of readers not just because this writer chose to tell a story, but also because of the interest generated by my closest friends and followers.

In 2017, readers will come to know the characters and events that make Whispers in the Alders an impassioned experience testing the emotions, and a story that will linger with them long after the last page is turned.

 

 

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