November 15, 2016
By Chase Viland, Owen Seeber, and Langston Peterson
To kill a mockingbird is to kill justice…
Who: Harper Lee
What: To Kill a Mockingbird
When: 1960s – present
Where: The United States (and Canada)
Why: Offensive language and controversial racial/sexual themes
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most iconic novels in Harper Lee’s American history and serves as a foundation for American literature in schools. Although Harper Lee started the book in the 1950s, she published it in 1960. Even though the setting of the book takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, it holds many similarities to Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, Alabama. The novel has two main story lines, which converge at the end of the story. The first deals with the siblings Scout (6 years old) and Finch (10 years old), and their fascination with the neighborhood legend, Boo Radley. The legend elaborates on how the Radley family kept their son Boo cooped up in the house for his entire life. The other story line centers around a trial that sends shock-waves through the town of Maycomb. Atticus Finch, a lawyer and father of Scout and Jem, is appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, in a case where Tom is falsely accused by Mayella and Bob Ewell (Mayella’s father), pictured in figure 2, of raping Mayella. Although Atticus proves Tom innocent during the course of the trial through a multitude of evidence, Tom is still unanimously convicted by the all-white jury.
The story is told through the eyes of Scout, offering unbiased insight on the injustice within Maycomb’s legislative system. Readers also see through Scout’s eyes Atticus’s most important lesson: always practice sympathy and understanding.
Lee uses her own town as a basis for the setting of the story, and drew from the Scottsboro boys trial as an influence on the plot of Tom’s trial. In this trial, nine young black men were falsely accused of and harshly sentenced for raping two white women. This trial shaped Lee’s perspective on racial and legislative injustice in America, and was the inspiration for her novel.
Upon its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird was considered controversial. The novel’s use of the words “nigger,” “whore/whore-lady,” the mature content of rape, and the controversy of a white man defending a black man all contributed to the novel’s controversy. Nonetheless, the book was critically successful, winning the Pulitzer prize in 1961 and being made into an Oscar-winning movie (trailer can be seen below).
Although widely acclaimed, the novel has been a victim of censorship in the US in secondary schools and libraries across the country.
When it was published in 1960, Lee felt it was important to illuminate the civil injustice of the time, adding to the rapid social change that was occurring during this decade. A gauge for how Lee’s message resonated in communities was revealed by how quickly it experienced censorship. In the mid-1960s Lee’s work became a frequent reading in various middle and high schools. However, some school boards, such as the Hanover County School Board of Virginia, removed the book from schools. According to Brian Devasher, “In 1966, Hanover schools stirred Harper Lee’s ire after banning ‘Mockingbird;’” “the decision came after a board member called the book…‘immoral literature.’”
Indeed, throughout the book’s 56-year history, most of the book’s challenges have come through from schools and libraries. These cases are similar in nature, however, it is important to note that the book caused outcry in both white and black communities. Christopher Metress provides insight in his article “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: Threatening Boundaries,” through statements from Claudia Durst Johnson, which explain that there is
‘an ironic pattern in the censorship of the novel.’ In the mid-sixties, with To Kill a Mockingbird firmly established in the secondary school curriculum, ‘the complaints came from southern conservatives. . . [and] the stated objections were to profanity, sex scenes, and immorality.’ The second round of objections, coming in the seventies and eighties, ‘took place in the East and Midwest by the religious right and African-Americans, with the latter group objecting to [the novel’s] condonation of institutional racism.’
These differing communities objected to the book’s word choice and content.
The American Library Association, creators of “Banned Book Week” across America, publishes lists of the most frequently banned books in American schools and libraries. Although this publication lists different cases and reasons for censorship, similarities can be seen. For example, in Waukegan, IL School District in 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird was challenged “because the novel uses the word ‘nigger’” (American Library Association). In St. Edmund Campion Secondary School classrooms in Brampton Ontario, Canada in 2009, it was removed from the curriculum “because a parent objected to language used in the novel, including the word ‘nigger’” (American Library Association).
The book survived the 1960s, the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. Maren Williams’ article “To Kill a Mockingbird Re-banned in Louisiana School District” describes how the book has not made equal strides in constitutional rights over the past 56 years. “After a convoluted series of events spanning at least a decade,” Williams reports, “the school board in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana last week removed Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird from classrooms throughout the district.” This occurred in October, 2013, with the book having already been censored there in the early 2000s. The book was re-banned, however, because “some parents of high school students…complained that the book contained ‘offensive language’ and ‘themes…[that] may not be suitable for children’” (Williams). locations. Williams goes on to explain how the teachers using the book in 2013 were unaware of the previous ban in 2000, and after the revival of the ban in October of 2013 “students didn’t get a chance to finish reading the book before it was pulled.” Although censorship of the book has declined in recent years, these individual cases prove that consistent concerns have been raised about the novel across locations and decades.
These examples emphasize that censorship in secondary schools not only affects students. Teachers have also faced pedagogical difficulties due to censorship. In her article “Academic Guidelines for Selecting Multiethnic and Multicultural Literature,” Sandra Stotsky points out the great challenge for teachers when she describes that “any educational program designated as multicultural seems to generate enormous controversy today” (27). This shows that multicultural course materials are more likely to garner complaints from a parent. Naomi Herriman also discusses the challenge to instruct effectively, explaining that students need to acquire critical analysis skills from studying real world, even offensive issues. Teachers, therefore, can be caught between a rock and a hard place. “Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides, states,” explains Herriman, that ‘Long ago, I learned that a bad teacher can hold a job forever; a good teacher works always in peril’” (50). Herriman encapsulates what is meant when teachers state that there is a struggle with being able to teach students how to critically evaluate diverse viewpoints without outside parties objecting. In her article, Herriman continues to explain how teachers might successfully overcome these challenges by “encouraging parents to become active participants in their child’s learning by establishing communication at the beginning of the school year” (51).
Beyond students and educators, Lee herself was personally impacted by the novel’s censorship. She shares her thoughts on the censorship of her novel are explained in an interview with James LaRue (which can be found for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association and an expert on the censorship of books throughout the nation. LaRue explains that Lee was indeed aware of the possibility of censorship before her novel was published. “Harper Lee almost certainly was prepared for the likely response of many communities, particularly in the south,” LaRue discusses, “[and] she was aware of a trial in which 9 young black men were convicted, probably wrongly, of raping two white women. Lee was 5 at the time, the same age as Scout at the beginning of the book.” Lee also made a statement regarding the censorship of her novel in 1966, reacting to the censorship of her book in Hanover, Virginia. Her short yet powerful response to the claims that her book was “immoral” can be read here. In summary, Lee claims “‘that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism’” (Qtd. in Devasher).
In Figure 4, Lee is pictured with President George W. Bush as she receives the Presidential Medal for Freedom, as her work has been recognized at the national level. LaRue also reaffirms what many have already confirmed as Lee’s primary motivation for the book, stating that “she believed the topic was important and that race relations at the time were particularly unjust.”
The censorship of To Kill a Mockingbird also reflects past and current American values. LaRue discusses the novel’s censorship, stating that “Ignorance is not a benefit. Some people may imagine that avoidance of conflict is good; but conflict—particularly as described in this book—can also be important and instructive.” He reiterates the idea that controversial books such as To Kill a Mockingbird broadens people’s perspectives. LaRue stresses this point even further, expressing that “suppressing access to works documenting and exploring the practices of racial injustice perpetuates the mindset in which bigotry and prejudice grow. If we are to become more enlightened as a culture, we must first confront the evidence of our error.”
He argues further that not reading such works can hinder the ethical addressing of troubling parts of American history; “First, the legacy of slavery is a deep trauma in our culture, and has yet to be worked through,” he emphasizes, “[and] many people continue to believe, mistakenly, that not talking about a problem is somehow akin to solving it. It’s not true for medical disease, and it’s not true for cultural conflict.” LaRue recognizes issues such as racial injustice will not improve unless people engage in informed, open, and honest discussion. Overall, LaRue stresses that this was ideas was indeed a part of Lee’s mission. He articulates, “Lee’s message was ultimately one of justice, equality, compassion, and the presentation of a profoundly ethical man. [The novel still] speaks to us because these issues endure in our culture, and still require principled action.” Indeed, for Lee, to kill a mockingbird is to kill its song, and Lee’s mockingbird was singing the song of justice.
Works Cited in MLA Format
“Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century,” American Library Association, March 26, 2013. Web. November 10, 2016.
Devasher, Bryan. “In 1966, Hanover Schools Stirred Harper Lee’s Ire after Banning ‘Mockingbird'” Richmond Times – Dispatch. N.p., 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
Herriman, N. (2001). Teaching freedom in a classroom when there is a multitude of literary options. English Quarterly, 33(1), 47-51.
LaRue, James. “Personal interview.” Conducted by Owen Seeber, 31 October 2016.
Metress, Christopher. “”To Kill a Mockingbird”: Threatening Boundaries.” The Free Library 22 March 1995. 11 December 2016
Stotsky, Sandra. (1994). Academic guidelines for selecting multiethnic and multicultural literature. English Journal, 83(2), 27.
Williams, Marren. “To Kill a Mockingbird Re-banned in Louisiana School District.” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. N.p., 13 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
Key Word Search: Racism, schools, censorship, novel, Harper Lee, teachers, issues, society, profane language, injustice