When I took 9th grade English, the infamous novel by Harper Lee headlined the syllabus. At that point, To Kill a Mockingbird had been published for 55 years—long enough that my mother read the same novel when she went to high school, and her mother before her did the same. In such a rapidly changing world, it’s slightly concerning to note that American curriculum has remained utterly stagnant.
First published in 1960, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1961, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is generally considered an American classic. Loosely based on Lee’s own childhood experiences, the novel takes place in the Deep South during the Great Depression. It is a coming-of-age story for the protagonist Scout Finch, a six-year-old white girl who is learning the true values and morals of the society around her. Her father, Atticus Finch, is tasked with defending the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. Despite providing ample reasoning and evidence that Robinson is innocent, Atticus loses the case and Robinson is killed while trying to escape jail.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most frequently challenged books in the US due to its themes of rape and use of profanity and racial slurs. Since its publication, it has been challenged over a dozen times. In two documented cases in the past five years, Lee’s novel was successfully banned. With book banning entering the conversation more and more in recent news, it’s worthwhile to consider what makes To Kill a Mockingbird such a contentious read.
In my experience, reading To Kill a Mockingbird was not as educational or enlightening as it was proclaimed to be. My teacher approached Lee’s novel in a completely one-dimensional manner: instead of discussing and analyzing the various flaws of the novel, we were taught that it was a near-perfect account of systemic racism. Atticus Finch was elevated as the ultimate role model, and the novel itself was preached as an accurate example of racism in the 1930s.
The Main Issues with the Novel
Such an approach fails to address the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird was written by a white author from the perspective of a white child, and perpetuates the narrative that Black people need a white savior to overcome systemic racism. Rather than focusing on Tom’s ordeal and the struggle of Black people against prejudice and racism, the novel is centered around Scout’s personal growth.
Another factor is the immaturity of ninth grade children—if the book isn’t approached by a firm didadic angle, it introduces plenty of room for problematic and damaging interpretations. For example, unless properly addressed, the frequent casual use of the n-word might give students the wrong impression about its usage in modern society. Addressing the complex history of the word in the classroom is a unique opportunity to understand how the connotation of the word has evolved in the decades since the 20s.
I remember that my teacher, a white woman, asked one student, a white boy, to read a passage that included the n-word aloud, which he did without hesitation. I remember her vaguely mentioning that we should skip saying that word in future readings. However, the event had the potential to generate a much more productive conversation about how a word that helped perpetuate the tormentation of generations of African Americans has over time become a popular term of endearment by the descendants of the very people who once had to endure it.
Controversial Conversations: #MeToo Movement
To Kill a Mockingbird also has the potential to inadvertently encourage boys and girls to believe that women lie about being raped. This is a particularly dangerous lesson in wake of the #MeToo movement, which highlighted how often and easily women are discredited when they report cases of sexaul assualt. In reality, a recent study found that only between 2 and 10% of men are wrongly convicted as a result of false allegations. However, if this issue still stands to have educational value if addressed in conjunction to the fact that almost half of false criminal accusations fall upon black men, who make up only approximately 14% of the American population.
Ultimately, many of the reasons which make teaching To Kill a Mockinbird problematic in the 21st century have to do with the way the material is approached and taught. Lee’s novel undisputedly contains vital lessons that will help future generations from making the same mistakes of the past if navigated by an excellent teacher.
However, it is still valuable to consider whether schools should continue to allow a novel written by a white privileged daughter of the Old South should still dominate the conversation about how injustice has evolved over the past 60 years. Schools may better benefit from raising the voices of Black authors who would not have been published at the time that Lee’s novel came out.
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, set in the same time period and written from the perspective of a dark-skinned Black woman in the rural south may offer more accurate and profound commentary on America’s history of discrimination. Based on Angelou’s early upbringing, it explores issues including identity, rape, racism, colorism, and living in a male-dominated culture.
Alternatively, Walter Dean Myer’s 1999 novel Monster also tackles the issue of racism and prejudice in American courtrooms. In Myer’s novel, the focus is on the young black defendant and narrator, Steve Harmon. Monster is a complex and powerful novel that does much of the same work as To Kill a Mockingbird by confronting both ethical integrity and racism.
It’s important to continuously consider the needs of an increasingly diverse student body and why certain books are taught in classrooms. Continuing to teach To Kill a Mockingbird out of stubborn sentimentality without modernizing its analysis will fail to better shape the young minds of our future. Lee’s novel is not the only book about race and injustice, and in the 21st century, it may not even be the best book to illuminate those themes, especially when it reinforces many harmful stereotypes and misconceptions.