One of the largest Ontario school boards has sent out a warning to teachers that they should steer away from assigning the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The memo rejects the book for how its “white saviour” makes less characters look “less than human.” It also cites the use of the “N word” and its violent scenes as reasons to reject the book. We have previously discussed other efforts to ban the book. This is how school officials know sin. It is when they actively seek to discourage the reading of great literary works to “protect” students from the depictions of harsh realities and dehumanizing conditions. Atticus said “remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The memo states that “The use of racist texts as entry points into discussions about racism is hardly for the benefit of black students who already experience racism.This should give us pause — who does the use of these texts centre? Who does it serve? Why do we continue to teach them?”
For one thing, it is a literary masterpiece that captures the racism and violence of a critical period in this country. Harper Lee incorporated her own experience growing up in the South to produce a powerful work against racism. As Atticus stated in the novel, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
The memo brushes aside the literary value of the work as well as free speech concerns: “The idea that banning books is about censorship and that censorship limits free speech is often decried as a poor reason to keep the novel on schools’ reading lists as its racist themes make it violent and oppressive for black students.”
The book is not violent and oppressive for black students. It depicts a violent and oppressive age that teaches future generations about the realities of racism. The book in not being kept on reading lists to avoid censorship. It is on such lists because it is an American masterpiece. The circular logic of the school board seems to be that the concern over censoring a book cannot be a reason for not censoring a book and thus you can censor the book.
While the board insists it is not banning the book, teachers have complained that the message is clear for them not to assign the book.
What is most frustrating is that all of the points raised by the board would make for a wonderful classroom discussion about the book. Instead, the school board is trying to prevent students from being exposed to the work.
When Scout later asks Miss Maudie about what her father said (and how she had never heard him speak of a “sin”), Maudie responded “Your father’s right. Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The same is true in trying to kill a great novel. It is the greatest sin of all for any educator.