In 2018, PBS aired The Great American Read, an eight-part television series in which they showcased 100 well-loved books and allowed viewers to vote on their favorite. The winner? To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.[i] To Kill a Mockingbird has been required reading for many since its publication in 1960 but also made the American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2020 list: “Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience.”[ii] I also found an article in the National Review in which author Daniel Buck wrote: “Every year, even my most begrudging students glue their eyes to the book and actively engage in conversations about its content. The week before summer, I ask my students to rank every book we’ve read throughout the year, a mix of classics and young-adult fiction; To Kill a Mockingbird has won every year. The novel remains gripping and relevant, and my students notice. Perhaps, instead of banning it, we should all reread it.”[iii]
So, we re-read it. And what did we think?
Our first responder liked it and noted how rich the writing is. Another reader enjoyed it, especially since she previously saw the stage play, but she found a lot more information in the book than she remembered. An audiobook reader was brought back to her own memories of growing up in Los Angeles, playing in vacant lots that are probably no longer vacant. Sissy Spacek’s narration is perfect for Scout. Our reader particularly noted Lee’s use of a famous line by President Roosevelt, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” as an example of how she smoothly set the time and place.
I think we all agreed that it is a beautiful book, but should it still be required reading? One of us asked a friend who is a high school English teacher. The teacher said that they use excerpts from the book, but they do not require students to read the entire book. Not only can the language be offensive to some black students, as mentioned by another member, but the teacher wants students to read authors that reflect her students’ ethnicities and experiences. One of us felt that youth today are extremely mature, with DVDs and video games, and they need to learn about our history. He believes we need to face the ugliness of our past. This led us into a discussion about kids’ understanding of what they read, their understanding of the subtleties of the historic use of a racial slur. Another member mentioned how terribly influenced we are by our literature. How seeing black-skinned people beating their chests in Tarzan misled many to believe that black people weren’t smart or civilized. Hollywood has been responsible for so many stereotypes, such as that of cowboys and Indians.
Back to the book, one of us was disturbed re-reading the book and the description of the trial in which the black people in the upper gallery stood to honor Atticus when they should have been angry at the unjust verdict. He is glad that we now have more role models for people of color. And what of Boo Radley? One of us isn’t sure he is believable. Another read that he could have been autistic. The prank that children played moving furniture reminded two of us that they used to have pranks on the night before Halloween – one of them called it Beggars Night and the other knew it as Cabbage Night. We all agreed that we did not consider the Finches poor, even though Atticus answered Scout that yes, they were poor. The sense of segregation was actually greater, but in the end, To Kill a Mockingbird is black and white. Lee had to simplify to make a point, during a time when it was much needed.
Now, there are issues more relevant to today and books and authors whose stories and perspectives are more necessary. Previously, we read Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, which, among other things, is a brilliantly insightful exploration of the effects of childhood experiences on the adult. And An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, in which a black man is unjustly convicted of raping a woman, told through the perspective of him and his wife. Or Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, in which a young girl tells the story of her experiences during the turbulent 1990s in Colombia. I don’t think any of us question the value and beauty in To Kill a Mockingbird, but there are so many books . . . Sixty years from now, what will be our best-loved novel?
Near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus comments on Tom Robinson’s escape attempt: “I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.” So, at the end of our meeting, I showed a three-minute video from PBS’s “Brief But Spectacular” segment featuring attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson.[iv] If you didn’t see it, I recommend you check it out!
As usual, I am paraphrasing and am not reporting word for word. We always talk about more, and sometimes less, than I include here. I hope that I am capturing the essence of this very important discussion, but I appreciate any corrections and clarifications! Join the discussion. It matters.
- Other works discussed:
- An American Marriage (2018) by Tayari Jones
- The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of A Mexican Family (1961) by Oscar Lewis
- Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018) by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
- God Help the Child (2015) by Toni Morrison
- If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) by James Baldwin
- Just Mercy (2014 Book and 2019 film)
[i] Public Broadcasting Service. (2018, May 22). Show. PBS. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/about/show/
[ii] Gomez, B. (2021, April 5). ALA Unveils Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Banned books week. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://bannedbooksweek.org/ala-unveils-top-10-most-challenged-books-of-2020/
[iii] Buck, D. (2021, January 10). The necessity of to kill a mockingbird. National Review. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/01/the-necessity-of-to-kill-a-mockingbird/
[iv] Public Broadcasting Service. (2017, April 14). Bryan Stevenson, equal justice initiative. PBS. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/brief/212675/bryan-stevenson