You may have noticed there’s been some hubbub of late regarding the book To Kill A Mockingbird. And you probably know that, despite the renewed celebration of this classic piece of Americana, it remains squarely on the banned book list. Stores can sell it, but public libraries can’t have it on their shelves and it is not listed on required reading lists for grade school students.
This decision was made because the book uses the N-word — a word Atticus Finch despises as common talk. Even though the censors around us can’t make modern people stop using this slang in songs, movies, and even interviews with our President. By Jove they can make sure your children are safe from reading it. Because those censors don’t want their children to know that people ever talked that way as a matter of course.
It’s easier to ban a book than have a conversation with your children about how society has evolved.
Ironically, the two main children in To Kill A Mocking Bird have a father who speaks to them frankly about the world. Atticus Finch was a man of integrity who went the distance to make sure his children were as well.
I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book that I felt was so heinous it should be banned from reading in general. In fact, there are books on the latest banned list that I read as a child, over and over. I’m certainly not any worse for it. But this book, in particular, was banned for simply being true to its era.
To Kill A Mocking Bird may employee an extra measure of derogatory slang, but the book is describing through it’s characters the growth of racial equity as a few children try to puzzle out the causes behind racial enmity. That’s not something we should turn our backs on.
Set in the Thirties, published in 1960, the book is a bold recounting of many common issues that plagued a small town in the deep south. Racism was a part of their routine, just like humidity and going to church on Sunday. What the censors may have missed, is that the story is written from the perspective of someone who had already learned that the racism norm was wrong. Harper Lee’s not preaching to anyone in her story, but she shows you through the daily life of a child how that norm comes through like a dialect, and how one’s diction can be improved over time if one applies compassion and logic.
In one part of the story, Scout’s third grade teacher explains to the class the difference between democracy and a dictatorship. In the context of news reports of Hitler and his persecution of the Jews, the teacher tells the class that it is a terrible thing that Hitler is doing and no one should ever be persecuted. Scout is confused by this because she witnessed that same teacher remarking in public that it was a good thing Tom Robinson was successfully prosecuted because his people needed to be reminded of their place. Scout saw the hypocrisy and didn’t understand it so she took the questions home to her father and brother — her trusted sources of wisdom.
People who have not read the book may not realize that the story is not about racism, and it’s not about the mysterious neighbor Boo Radley. To Kill A Mockingbird is about social inequality as it is experienced by a child who doesn’t have the words yet to really name it.
In one poignant scene, Jeremy “Jem” Finch says to his sister,
“I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve got it figured out. There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind – like us and the neighbors – there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.” …. “The things about it is, our kinda folks don’t like the Cunninghams. The Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the colored folks.”
After a back and forth discussion touching on the differences between Jem’s four castes – things like an appreciation for fiddle playing, pot liquor, and the ability to read – his sister Scout throws in her two cents.
“Nah, Jem. I think there’s just one kind of folks — Folks.”
It is a pure and true sentiment that you would hear from a child. The kind of thing we shouldn’t lose with the last of our baby teeth. The differences between us do not need to separate us. The ranking system we employ to determine a person’s place in society is man-made (adult-made) and does not make room for the individual; nor even properly allow for those who want to break a cycle and step up to the next level.
As soon as Scout started the first grade, the realities she’d accepted as a matter of course during her first six years began to pop up and put themselves into context. One by one we see her work through them and become a little more mature. For all her brattiness at the start, Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch grows into the kind of child one would like to have around. She’s not perfect, and she certainly has more growing up to do, but she’s on a good path when the story ends.
In a way, I think Scout is a hopeful metaphor for society. At the start, she was little more than a toddler. Her world was limited to the space between two neighbors’ gates and a street. As she got older, Scout’s world widened a bit and she met new people who challenged her assumptions about the world, expanding her view of where we all fit. Eventually, Scout recognized that there was a difference between what people were born into and what they made of themselves. Scout saw past what was expected or rumored to be true and began to understand the importance of potential — that background may tell you where a person came from, but it doesn’t necessarily define who they are.
This is the message Harper Lee delivered while expertly straddling the language of an educated writer and the colloquial tongue of her youth. The book conveys such authenticity, it’s hard not to assume it is a direct accounting of her childhood. To Kill A Mockingbird is also an authentic piece of our history. We should honor it, teach it, and learn from it. It is a yardstick that shows our growth. Banning it is a denial of our own potential to overcome bigotry and be a better society. You can’t learn from something by ignoring it.
At least that’s my opinion. Feel free to share yours.
Two chatters in one day! Sorry about that guys. I’ll get back on my game.
We have a topic out there for writing that’s due on August 9th. #gowrite and elaborate for us.
We also have an opportunity for guest hosts in September. Do you have a writing prompt or theme that you are burning to share? Talk to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll tell you what’s involved. If we get four volunteers for Septemeber we will be able to proceed with a fully guest hosted month.