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“‘It’s different this time,’ Atticus tells Scout. ‘This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.’”
This is not the bigoted version of Atticus Finch unveiled in 2015 through the controversial publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, but rather the one whom the millions of student readers of To Kill a Mockingbird have been taught to look up to through the adoring perspective of his young daughter. In this instance, as Atticus compares the lost cause of defending a Black man against a false allegation of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South to the “lost cause of the Confederacy,” Scout, the reader’s proxy, is sitting cozily in his lap. As we might say in a college English seminar, there’s a lot to unpack here.
This week, Sept. 18-22, is Banned Books Week, an annual occasion promoted by the American Library Association and its coalition of partners “celebrating the freedom to read.” Each spring, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom releases a list of the most frequently challenged and banned books from the preceding year. In 2021, nine of the top 10 were cited for their sexual content, especially LGBTQIA+ content. But the previous year, when the murders of Black people and the Black Lives Matter protests were in the news, the dominant theme on the list was racism.
There is a conversation among the books on the 2020 list. Two contemporary novels, All American Boys (No. 3) by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (No. 10), have been challenged from the right for being allegedly antipolice. These #BLM novels are effectively contending for the spot on the curriculum long occupied by Mockingbird (No. 7); they are the literary equivalent of young progressives attempting to primary the out-of-touch liberal incumbent. Mockingbird, meanwhile, has been challenged from the left, for its use of the N-word and its demeaning portrayal of Black characters. According to (No. 2) Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Mockingbird is “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the civil rights movement.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this comparison, too. It’s unfair to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which despite its own racism is a movement novel in a sense Mockingbird never aspired to be. If Mockingbird had been nearly as forceful for civil rights as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been for abolition, it would never have soared into the curriculum in the 1960s, and it wouldn’t appear on a banned-book list 60 years after its publication.
However, the moment is long past for Mockingbird’s anodyne appeal to basic childhood notions of honor, decency and fairness and its objection to only the most blatant instance of injustice. I agree with those parents and educators who argue that it is past time to set Mockingbird aside. I also agree with the teachers of #DisruptTexts that it’s mistaken to equate calls to stop teaching Mockingbird with censorship. There’s an important distinction between removing a book from a required reading list and banishing it from schools altogether. Times change, and text selections, however much they lag, should change too.
If Mockingbird awakens readers to racism and injustice, as so many have claimed, there are other books that can do so without resting their case on a condescending treatment of Black characters, a white-savior narrative, victim blaming (in the case of the incest survivor Mayella Ewell) and incredible class prejudice (as Nancy Isenberg observes in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America). If a rationale for assigning Mockingbird to adolescents is to foster social justice, we can do better, including with its competitors on the banned-books list.
However, if a rationale for teaching American literature to college students is to develop understanding of our history and culture, we can’t do better than to study To Kill a Mockingbird. It may be passé, but the hit Broadway adaptation, which attempts to reconcile the novel with a new era, and the novel’s election last year by readers of The New York Times as the “best book of the past 125 years” demonstrate that it is still very much with us.
All the reasons to hesitate to assign Mockingbird to young readers make it valuable for more advanced ones. It may tell us more about its intergenerational audience than it does about small-town, Jim Crow–era Alabama. It lends insights into shifting, contradictory attitudes toward race and racism, especially among white Americans, and the appeal of white-savior narratives. It’s an opportunity to investigate the volatile, negative intersectionality among race, class and gender prejudices. It connects all the dots on the tumultuous timeline of American race conflict, from the Scottsboro Nine to the Little Rock Nine to the Central Park Five to the ongoing count of victims of police violence. Today, it can be an occasion for a discussion among students who came of age with “I can’t breathe” and faculty who may yet remember “Can’t we all just get along?”
Mockingbird may be especially useful as a case study for current and future English teachers, as a means to investigate the social uses of literature. Along with my colleague Jonna Perrillo of the University of Texas at El Paso, and a group of brilliant high school teachers from around the country, I revisited Mockingbird in 2021 as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on the history of literature instruction in American schools. And I’m teaching it again this semester, in a graduate class that includes preservice teachers. We’ll be spending several weeks with the whole Mockingbird complex—the novel, the film, the proto-sequel, the play, the controversy, the curricula.
Despite its enormous popularity and influence, Mockingbird has received scant attention from scholars, especially in comparison to its senior male counterpart in the curriculum and in controversy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Perhaps its consignment to the 10th grade and under, and its authorship by a female one-hit wonder, have left it beneath our notice. But it represents a cultural phenomenon that should be of interest to scholars concerned with the role of literature in American society.
Perhaps the aspect of Mockingbird that most demands critical analysis is the life-changing power attributed to it by so many readers. With its famous insistence on point of view, Mockingbird approaches the status of metafiction. One learns and grows by walking about in another’s “skin,” or standing in another’s “shoes,” as Scout does at the close of the novel, when she finally sees Maycomb from Boo Radley’s porch, and, as the reader does throughout, seeing the world from the perspective of its first-person narrator and growing along with her. Here is a theory of fiction, and especially of literary education, that’s worth considering—and critiquing.
Rereading Mockingbird from this perspective addresses an essential question: Why do we teach and study literature? It’s a question that English teachers and students at all levels too often leave unexamined.