Monday 10 December 2018


The Nazi book burnings were a campaign conducted by the German Student Union (the "DSt") to ceremonially burn books in Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s. The books targeted for burning were those viewed as being subversive or as representing ideologies opposed to Nazism.                                                
Figuratively speaking, it appears that some of our schools in this current era are putting to the flame, the popular novel, To Kill A Mocking Bird, written by Harper Lee. She was born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926—seven years before my own birth. Her father was an editor, lawyer and senator. Many believe he was the model for some of the characteristics of the main character in her book—Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.

The story is set in the Deep South of the United States and is a searing portrayal of racism and prejudice as told through the eyes of a little girl alled Scout.  Filled with atmospheric evocations of life at the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and underpinned by a moral and caring sensibility, To Kill a Mockingbird is both a brilliant rendering of a specific time and place as well as a universal tale of how understanding the feelings f others can triumph over old and evil mindsets.

Published in New York by J. B. Lippincott in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern-day morality tale of how racism  and prejudice must be met, fought and overcome—no matter where it is present or how difficult that task might seem.     

I will give you a brief synopsis of the story.

Surrounded by their white neighbors, the Finches are welcomed into the black community. When the time of the trial of a black man comes around, Atticus proves that the teenage girl that Tom Robinson is accused of raping actually seduced him, and that the injuries to her face were caused by her father, angry that she had tried to sleep with a black man.        

Despite the overwhelming evidence that would prove the man’s innocence which was provided at the trial, the all-white jury nevertheless convicts Robinson; and he is later killed while trying to escape from jail. Meanwhile, the girl's father, who holds a grudge against Atticus because of some of the things he said in court, waylays young Scout (Atticus’ daughter) and Jem as they walk home one night. It is clear that he wants to do them harm, but they are saved by the mysterious Boo, who disarms their attacker and kills him.  

Scout finally comes face-to-face with the enigmatic and frightening Boo and realizes that he is just a kindly man, who has been kept away from the world because of his mental disability. The lesson that Scout learns from both Tom Robinson's fate and her new found friend Boo, is the importance of seeing people how they are, and not being blinded by the fears and misunderstandings of prejudice.

To Kill a Mockingbird is enormously touching and powerful in its simplicity. Because it is narrated by young Scout, (in the first person) we are able to grow up with her and come to an understanding about the world in the same way that she does, creating order from the chaos of her everyday life.        

The novel has a courageous and powerful political message about the downtrodden lives of African-Americans in the 1930s, and the prejudice and fear they faced every day. Tom Robinson is innocent, but he is arrested and convicted, then killed. When Scout encounters blacks in their own communities, she is amazed by the feeling of cohesion and happiness that these poor, oppressed people are able to muster.

Atticus believes in the innate goodness of human beings that pushes him to defend Tom Robinson despite the approbation of his peers. He takes on the case despite the white man’s community's objections because he believes that there has been a serious miscarriage of justice. At the same time, he implores his children to try and see the good in Boo Radley.        

The mockingbird of the title is a reference to innocence, an important theme in this book. Some of the "mockingbirds" in the book are characters whose goodness is injured or squelched: Jem and Scout, whose innocence is lost; Tom Robinson, who is killed despite his innocence; Atticus, whose goodness is almost broken; and Boo Radley, who is judged for his strange behavior.

Living in the Depression-era southern town of Maycomb, Alabama provides a backdrop for a brooding Southern racist theme. Harper Lee impresses upon her readers how poverty reinforces the hypocritical nature of a race-based class system. Beautifully written from Scout's perspective, To Kill a Mockingbird is an evocative, tender novel. but with a passionate message that drives the novel's action. To Kill a Mockingbird is thus rightfully a much-loved and a much-studied classic. It is a tale of childhood, but also a tale of how the world should be and how we can change it.  The book lives on in the hearts of those who have read it well after the final page has been turned.

In the 1960s when the book was first published, the character Atticus Finch became a strong fictional voice of moral consciousness in the United States, representing the ideals and hopes of the liberal classes who hoped to see the end of segregation and racism.

I should point out that during the era of the sixties, racism and prejudice flowed throughout the southern states. The publishing of this book was most timely.

Here are some of the statements written in the book.

“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.”

“Atticus said to Jem one day, "I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. "Your father’s right," she said. "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.”

“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”

“You just hold your head high and keep those fists down.No matter what anybody says to you, don't you let 'em get your goat. Try fightin' with your head for a change."

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

“You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family, an' they're still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge 'em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don't.”

"Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don't pretend to understand."

Due to themes including racial injustice, and sexual and physical violence, the book has been banned repeatedly by school boards and libraries around the United Sates. It was even called "immoral literature" when it was banned by a Richmond, Virginia school board. Here was Lee's response:

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 is the heritage of all Southerners. To br told that the novel is 'immoral has made me count the years between the years when I first could read books  and when I turned 85 because I have yet to come across a worst example of the description of immorality by referring to Harper Lee’s novel.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" has been honored with numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Harper Lee was also  honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush in 2007. 

Starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham as Scout and Robert Duvall in his film debut as Boo Radley, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director and would win three of them, including a Best Actor Oscar for Peck. 

I never read the book but I was really impressed with the story when I saw the movie.

There are several reasons that the content of Harper Lee's great novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is sometimes considered so controversial and inappropriate for young audiences that it is banned, challenged, as well as removed from school/library lists and shelves. 

The topic of prejudice, discrimination, and out-and-out cruel hatred is not always a topic that that many people like to discuss with their children. After all, they want their children to remain innocent and be removed and protected from the injustices, unfairness, cruelty and fear that so often prevails in this world.

Unfortunately, the children of this era are well aware of injustices, unfairness, cruelty and fear and a book like To Kill a Mockingbird  is the salve that that eases the pain of such disagreeable traits that continue to scour our landscape. Lessons can be learned by reading and discussing the book.

The book is also a historical look into the wrongdoings that took place in the past. Did you know that as many as 5,000 blacks were murdered by whites in the past. The mistreatment of blacks even continued up to the sixties when blacks couldn’t drink out of water fountains designated for whites only and couldn’t go to whites-only schools etc.

Although the novel is not autobiographical, the novel does share some similarities to Lee’s life. While the novel is set in the 1930s, the novel does touch upon issues relevant to Lee’s time.

According to an interview, Lee took about two years to write To Kill a Mockingbird.  Prior to the novel’s publication, the Civil Rights movements were in motion. During the sixties decade, the Civil Rights Movement (that included blacks and whites) brought success, seeing “the first major victories for civil rights in the Supreme Court. Among the many events, including Brown vs. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest that later concluded in declaring segregated laws of Montgomery and Alabama buses as unconstitutional, and after a group of nine African American students were denied entry to Little Rock High School, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to integrate the school.

In addition, the novel is set in the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression that left millions of families impoverished, including the family I was born into. My mother and I were actually starving in the two-room hut we lived in that was in a field. Further, the hut had no water or electricity. The novel by Harper Lee is definitely pertinent as it was a reflection of all of our lives in the years of the Great  Depression.

Along with racism, Lee discusses gender prejudice throughout her novel. Although the lies that are told related to the "rape" are not explicit in nature, there's still the fact that the so-called victim put blame on Tom Robinson for the so-called horrible violation. The indictment is completely fabricated, but even the claim of rape troubles some readers. For some parents, teachers and other Puritans, reading, the topic of sexual violation even in an abstract sense the book is unacceptable for school-age children. What rubbish.

It's difficult to feel sorry for Mayella (s character in the book)  because the readers of the book know what her claims meant to Tom and to Atticus, as he attempts to defend an innocent man. However, many readers of the book  may dislike what she's saying and doing. Those who  read the book  will come to some acceptance of the psychology of the poor, abused girl as to what she would do or say anything in her fearful and browbeaten condition brought about by her father.

In addition to the abuse that Mayella experiences at the hand of her father, physical violence are brought to bear upon Atticus and his children. In their anger and ignorance, the townspeople attempt to use violence and fear to take control of the situation.

The main character in the book, Atticus refuses to back down. He refuses to allow an innocent man to falsely convicted and imprisoned, without at least a fight. He says, "Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing that you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." 

Here's something to consider. How much would the novel be different without the controversial topics and events? Imagine what the book would be like if the novel was sanitized to please those who are prone to criticize.  The appropriate messages would be lost.

The word “nigger” was used 48 times in the novel. Keep in mind that that word was the word that whites in that era used when referring to black people. For the author to use the word “black” in the novel would be ridiculous because that word was not spoken in the era that the book is written about.

Even referring to blacks as Negroes is no longer considered appropriate. And nowadays, when people are speaking about the word “nigger” they simply refer to that word as the “N’ word.

In our current era, the words “cunt, prick. asshole” are found in today’s books and no-one really suggests that the books should be banned. We even hear those words in movies. No-one walks out of a theater when they hear those words.  And when I watched the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, I didn’t see anyone walking out of the theater because the word, “Nigger” was used on occasion.

So why are some schools and schoolboards banning this novel?  Believe me it is not the word “Nigger” that is what prompts them to act in this manner. Admittedly, the word “Nigger is an uncomfortable word for anyone to read. Most people don’t relish thinking about its use and the historical denigration of blacks in America. But Lee’s book is not encouraging the use of that word. It’s simply describing its use. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine anyone reading To Kill A Mockingbird and walking away thinking that the author is praising the use of such language. Instead the book is, in a sense, a historical document and a testament to the terrible mistreatment, injustice, and social segregation of blacks in the south prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Why is it that many people want that book banned?  The reason is obvious. They don’t want their children to become aware as to how their white grownup’s parents in the era the book is written about how much white people mistreated the blacks in their communities. White People would rather not be reminded of their own history which may have been ugly, upsetting, frightening, and at times disturbing. It recalls uncomfortable truths about human nature, with which some white people who abused black people in the past would rather not be faced with.

Historical events are not going to disappear by banning the book, To Kill A Mockingbird. If anything, the kids will be so suspicious of the banning of the book, they will probably go to a library that still has the book on its shelves and read the book. After reading the book, they will probably discuss the book with their schoolmates and eventually, they will all realize how prejudicial their grownups were in the era the book refers to and their present era in which the schools and school boards are fools who still have prejudices.

The book, To Kill a Mockingbird presents to its readers the frameworks required to educate white and racialized youth alike. That a 58-year-old book, written from a white woman’s perspective, should not be included with other award-winning stories from authors who live their racial realities once they put down the pen, is an absurd notion. The idea of banning this book and instead promoting other similar books amounts to censorship.

The current reality of racism, as far as I can tell, would be ignorant English teacher’s ignorant perspective weighed against the voices of black parents and educators who proposed to update the curriculum. The reality is white attachment to a literary relic exerting a more powerful force than the intellectual drive for more.

A teacher for the Peel District School Board in the Greater Toronto Area forwarded a board memo to the National Post, claiming that Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird was in danger of being censored in schools. “The use of racist texts as entry points into discussions about racism is hardly for the benefit of black students who already experience racism,” the memo reads. “This should give us pause for those who do use of these texts centre? Who does it serve? Why do we continue to teach them?”

The answer to those three rhetorical questions is that black students should be apprised as to how blacks were mistreated long before the current students were born and the white students should condemn the actions of the white racists who were then alive in that era  and what  is still existing in the current era.

The memo goes on to explain that black parents “detest” their children having to read the novel, and that its white author wrote it from her own perspective within a “white supremacist framework,” and for this, a teacher (who spoke to the National Post anonymously) believed lines were being crossed on censorship. That is pure rubbish. The author of the book wrote her novel while she was living in an era when racism against blacks was predominant. She was highly qualified to write about racism in the era that the book portrays. It is a dangerous thing to refer to a white writer such as Lee Harper as a white supremacist. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is a well-written book. It is a valid teaching narrative on the reality of race and should be a book that students both black and white should read and discuss amongst themselves.   

Peter Mince, Florida's Poet Laureate, read 'To Kill a Mockingbird in Tampa, Florida on July 13, 2015. Some Canadian authors believe that students should be able to see their identities reflected in the stories they learn about in English class, and they applauded an Ontario school board for making that a priority.

The Peel District School Board said it wants to expose students to texts from diverse authors on race and injustice in an effort to update its English curriculum, and it has mandated To Kill A Mockingbird should only be taught through an "anti-oppression lens. I think it should be read to teach students the effects of  racism and prejudice in any community.  However, the board sent a memo in June 2018 to English department heads that said if teachers choose to use Harper Lee's classic novel in their lesson plans this school year, it should be done with a critical eye.

Of course, English texts need to be selected based on the diversity of ethnicity and race, faith, family structure, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, ability, and mental health," said the memo. "The intentional choices made around text selection and their uses are fundamental in creating culturally responsive learning experiences.” 

Of course, many books these days are focused more on identity. politics or social justice than they are on describing the human condition, the highest calling of art—which Lee excelled at. What’s more, the rich depth of Lee’s prose ensures that her insights into the human condition, set in the context of mid-20th century American racism and prejudices that will stay with the reader long after putting her novel down.

Books aren’t necessary just for the social lessons they teach. To Kill a Mockingbird has something to say about society, race, compassion, and justice, as well as about the painful process of growing up. Even we as adults who read the book have learned that information and its attributes that we encompass in our own minds.

Oppressive systems—be they governments against it citizens, white against blacks, disenfranchisement and unequal treatment of people not just based on race but also on religious faith  as portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird, but for other reasons, such as gender abuse and sexuality to name a few.  We are still in a society that is incredibly divided and focused on power and prejudice in a way that causes us to be far from kind and respectful to each other.

Books such as To Kill a Mockingbird will sometimes make us uncomfortable because it shows us things that not only upset us, but it shows us things about ourselves that may also upset us.

Change isn’t comfortable. Change will only happen when we face the discomfort head on and actually discuss it with our children and their teachers discuss it with their students and, perhaps more importantly, with each other. Failing to do so will make  us and the children complacent in the racism that started long before To Kill a Mockingbird was published and has continued long after the book was published.

School teachers need to explain to their students about challenges they will face in the future and the need to change the discrimination that are in some of their minds.  Teachers should talk to them not out of frustration or condescension, but out of a deep respect and care for their student’s growth. Teachers have to talk to them about racism and prejudices because they know that the only real challenges in life makes human beings uncomfortable and instead of banning books that deals with racism and prejudice, teachers should want to make sure that their students are provided the tools such as books that describe racism, prejudices and challenges in order  for them to face those challenges head-on.

Atticus Finch teaches Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, that we as human beings never really understand a person until we consider what that person is experiencing from that person’s point of view. To do so, we rhetorically have climb into that person’s skin and walk around in it. The novel gives us the chance to show the students that this lesson will make it possible so that they can proudly walk alongside those who are victims of racism and prejudice.

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