News that a Mississippi school district has banned To Kill a Mockingbird was both amusing and concerning. Amusing, because school districts have been banning the novel that takes on racial prejudice ever since it was published in 1960. Concerning, because the need for young people to read this book is just as compelling as it was nearly 60 years ago.
Mockingbird is on the Library of Congress list of America’s most banned or challenged books, along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884; Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred C. Kinsey, 1948; The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951; The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965; and The Words of Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez, 2002.
The Biloxi, Miss., school district that banned Mockingbird didn’t give an official reason, but a school board member said: “There were some complaints about it. There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.”
That’s a shame. Making people feel “uncomfortable” is never a good reason not to talk about a subject that isn’t talked about enough. The book, according to the school district’s website, was being read in an eighth-grade language arts class to teach adolescents that caring for others should not be dependent on race or education.
That’s a good lesson for young people across America. But it has additional resonance in Biloxi, which is where Confederate President Jefferson Davis built Beauvoir, the mansion he made his home after the Civil War. I visited Beauvoir in 1994 while on an assignment for the Baltimore Sun, all the time thinking the traitorous Davis’ postwar home should have been a federal prison.
My oldest brother, Anthony, was stationed in Biloxi while in the Air Force in the 1960s. He said he and other black airmen and soldiers were cautioned against going downtown because of racism. I made it a point when I was in Biloxi 30 years later to have a meal at the finest white-tablecloth restaurant in town.
As I recall, both the steak and the service were excellent. I thought Biloxi had come a long way. But today, Biloxi middle-school students are deemed too squeamish to read a book about racism.
The word nigger is used in Mockingbird, but not in a flippant or incendiary manner. Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, explains to his young daughter why people were calling him a “nigger-lover.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?” Scout asks.
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody. I’m hard put, sometimes — baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is; it doesn’t hurt you.”
Lee became frustrated by the frequent banning of her book, and in 1966 wrote a letter to the Richmond News Leader to protest the newspaper’s praise of the Hanover County, Va., school district for banning it. Her letter references George Orwell’s 1949 novel, 1984, which depicts a land ruled by a government that never means what it says and never says what it means.
“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners,” said Lee’s letter. “To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.”
I hoped to meet Lee at the 50th anniversary of the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book. I was a guest of the Alabama Humanities Foundation at the commemoration, which included an auction of inspirational art at Wynfield Estate, a stately manor near Montgomery. But Lee, long a recluse, played to character and didn’t bother to show up.
I did have a lovely conversation with Mary Badham, who played Scout to Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in the Academy Award-winning film based on the book. The movie was released in 1962. Badham, who played only a few other movie and TV roles, seemed almost as much an enigma as Lee, who died last year at age 89. Badham was quiet, reserved, with none of the airs one might expect of a Hollywood actress.
Reflecting on that day, and my disappointment in not getting to meet Lee, I can’t help thinking that for all the progress this country has made in race relations since she wrote Mockingbird, it hasn’t come far enough — and in some respects, it has gone backward.
Some literary experts believe Go Set a Watchman, released in 2015 as the long-lost sequel to Mockingbird, was really the first draft of Lee’s seminal work, which was finally discovered after being missing for decades.
By several accounts, Lee was asked by her publishers to rewrite her first draft from the perspective of a child. That child became Scout, who didn’t reveal all the character traits of her father in Mockingbird. That was left to the adult Scout in Watchman.
“What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights?” asked Atticus in Watchman. “Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em?”
It didn’t surprise me that the Atticus Finch depicted in Watchman was not without prejudice. After all, the character was supposed to be a white man in 1930s Alabama. Many fans of Mockingbird, however, refused to accept that Atticus had flaws. They didn’t want to read anything that destroyed the fantasy they had created.
That’s where our nation is right now, with too many of us refusing to accept reality.
Even when people see grown men kneeling on a football field to protest racism, they refuse to believe that’s what they’re doing. They dismiss the protesters as unpatriotic flag haters to avoid admitting that the racial prejudice that fuels the football players’ demonstrations does exist, and that pride in their country, which they want only to make better, unites the men linking arms.
In this twisted version of America where truth too frequently is put on the shelf because it makes people feel uncomfortable, you might be labeled a racist if you insist on bringing the subject up.
Instead of using books like Mockingbird to explain to children how racism works, we pretend they haven’t already experienced it, in one way or the other.
Instead of admitting prejudice exists and confronting it, we find excuses to change the subject. Harper Lee’s banned book doesn’t let us do that, which is why more people should read it.
Harold Jackson (@harjerjac) is editorial page manager for Philadelphia Media Network.