In the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, one of the main characters, Atticus Finch, offers guidance to his daughter, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, about the nature of the human conscience. He says, “The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person conscience.” He explains this idea in an ideal, gentle fashion to his daughter, who does not understand why her father, an attorney, is defending a black man against the charge of having assaulted a white woman, much to the chagrin of small-town segregated 1930s Alabama.
The novel, which has sold approximately 40 million copies, has been read in English classrooms across America since its publication in 1960. This week, however, the school board in Biloxi pulled the book from an eighth-grade reading list because it makes people “uncomfortable.” On Tuesday Clairon-Ledger political cartoonist Marshall Ramsey used the above quote adeptly in a cartoon, with Scout’s imagined reply in light of the Biloxi decision: “But Atticus, having a conscience makes me uncomfortable.”
Biloxi School Board vice president Kenny Holloway told the Biloxi Sun Herald that “there is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books. It’s still in our library. But they’re going to use another book in the 8th grade course.”
According to PBS, To Kill a Mockingbird remains among the “top banned classical novels.” In a 2016 article, PBS reporter Kenya Downs pointed out that The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom attests to its controversial status. The main contention: the novel’s “racially and sexually-charged themes are inappropriate for young readers.”
Since 1966, Lee’s novel has been challenged in many school districts in states across the country: Virginia, Minnesota, New York, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arizona, California, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Tennessee, and New Jersey. It has been cited for a number of “ills,” including racial slurs, profanity, sexual content, and for “conflict[ing] with the values of the community,” as was the case in 1996 in Lindale, Texas.
Vice President of Dramatic Publishing Chris Sergel noted that every year the company gets requests to change specific words or to remove them, but the company denies them. In an ironic precursor to the Biloxi move, Sergel said in 2016: “Being uncomfortable with history is not means to change it. People need to figure out how to confront issues.”
Representatives of the Biloxi school district did not specify what specific language makes people “uncomfortable” in the book. However, for anyone who has read the novel, the implicit reference is crystal clear: it must be the n-word, as the racial epithet is used around 50 times in the novel to historically depict with accuracy how African Americans were relegated to lower status.
At one point, Scout asks her father: “What exactly is a n—– lover?” To her innocent, probing question, Atticus replies, “It’s hard to explain. Ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
Therefore, also, for anyone who has read the novel, it becomes apparent that one of the themes, or truths, of this anti-racist piece of fiction is the existence of social inequality. The novel certainly exhibits substantial, definitive merit: in 1961, it won Harper Lee the Pulitzer Prize, and Washington Post writer Michael Gerson once said that it “made the values of the civil rights movement—particularly a feeling for the god-awful unfairness of segregation—real for millions.”
Although the rationale might be slightly different, the uproar in Biloxi is not unlike the initial stir that the book caused in 1966 in schools in Hanover County, Virginia. The school system there banned the book, labeling it “immoral literature” because it hinted at aspects of sexual assault.
Harper Lee responded with a cheeky letter that began, “Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.” She closed the letter by saying, “I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”
Of course, Lee’s comment could be interpreted as an insult to first graders. I’ll surmise that many first graders are much more sensitive and empathic to issues pertaining to race than most any of the adults in Biloxi who conferred with pulling such a well-wrought novel on racial equality from its school curriculum.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and is a consultant for the Tennessee Department of Education. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)