We have previously discussed efforts to ban classic books, including To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Lee’s book has been banned in states from Mississippi to California. The work, which exposed the deep-seated racism in our society, has been denounced as “violent and oppressive for black students.” I have opposed such efforts. Now, Loudoun County teacher Andrea Weiskopf has publicly called for the book to be banned in my neighboring county of Loudon. The reason? The character Attitus Finch is white and therefore the book is nothing but a “white savior” tale that traumatizes black students. The remarks reflects a harmful but growing movement to ban such books in public schools. The attack on this book in particular has left many of us dismayed. As Atticus himself said “remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Weiskopf told the board that not only is this classic work harming students but that, if any member does not accept that premise, they should not be making any decisions on book selections.
ANDREA WEISKOPF: It’s funny how they are so afraid of having their children seeing another view of sexuality, gender or religion…If you want to talk about books that are assigned, let’s read To Kill a Mockingbird together. If you aren’t able to consider the racial trauma this assigned book causes black children with its white saviorism, then you have no business discussing any books.
Her diatribe reminds me of the observation in the book that “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.”
Weiskopf has become a flashpoint on both sides in the debate. She is unabashed in her activism. Her Twitter site features the quote from Lerone Bennett, Jr. that “an educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor.” She mocks the parents who appeared at the meeting to object to books with profane language and doubled down on her own position, declaring “Call me a Commie or a Marxist if you want, but I think working to form a more perfect Union makes me a patriotic American.”
Weiskopf added a suggestion that she has been told to be quiet by school officials:
Loudoun County Public Schools: We call for all staff to engage in the disruption and dismantling of white supremacy and systemic racism.
Me: Black lives matter! also
@LCPSOfficial: If you keep shouting, we’ll put a letter in your file.
Me: BLACK LIVES MATTER!
My concern is that this movement is successful because board members and administrators are risk adverse. Rather than dealing with such dubious attacks on the book, they avoid the issue as quietly as possible.
In Fairfax county where I live, A Tale For Two Cities was removed as required reading in favor of a more diverse set of literature. Many students mocked and complained about the substituted readings as shallow and boring assignments. As a result, students lost the opportunity to read a riveting, classic work that is referenced in countless other works. It would have allowed for an engaging exploration of not just class struggles but historical events. Yet, it was replaced quietly by administrators to satisfy critics.
Lee’s book is a powerful indictment of racism and a glimpse into how it impacted the lives of this family. It uses the language of the time, including the n-word, in a raw and gut-wrenching account of how an innocent black man is lynched despite a lack of evidence against him. It is a tale of blind hate and rage in the South. It speaks to racism from the perspective of a privileged white family: “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it…Whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
As a teenager, “To Kill A Mockingbird” was one of the most influential books in my life and contributed greatly to my interest in becoming a lawyer. I wanted to like Atticus Finch. Indeed, I often reference his character in classes with my law students, particularly the image of a lone lawyer standing in front of a jail in front of a lynch mob. He refused to move because to step to the side would be to walk away from what means to be a lawyer. The man in that jail, Tom Robinson, was his client. Whatever his race or his actions, he remained a man entitled to the protection of the rule of law. At that moment, the legal system was represented in a single man and the mob represented everything we stand against as lawyers. He could not step aside and still be a lawyer.
We cannot step aside as parents for much of the same reason. To do so would be to abandon what is essential in being a parent; to yield to a mob of a different kind.
I welcomed public statements by people like Weiskopf precisely because it is public. These decisions are largely being made without public debate. In Missouri, Natalie Fallert, the 6-12 Literacy Speech Coordinator for the Rockwood School District, advised principals to go “old school” by being less transparent in changing the curriculum to add social justice and critical race elements.
This is a departure in that a board is faced with a public airing of the basis for banning a book and the views of the parents on such actions. Weiskopf and other activists want to emphasize what divides us and reject the notion from the book that “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” This is obviously one perspective of racism. It is clearly from the view of this white family, but it is an account of how racism inundated every aspect of our society.
In the end, Lee herself may have seen this coming when she wrote “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” That could make for a wonderfully intense and passionate discussion in class . . . if we let students read the book.
A version of this column also ran on Fox.com