One of Duluth’s teachers who was brought up short by our Administration’s decision to pull Harper Lee and Twain out of the curriculum makes this argument quoted in today’s DNT editorial:
“There is no substitute. There is no novel that accomplishes what ‘Mockingbird’ does, and why anyone would deny (it) to students in a time when intolerance, violence, ignorance, and self-righteousness are rampant, I cannot possibly understand.”
I’ll bet the 88% of today’s high school students who can not connect slavery to the cause of the Civil War have read To Kill a Mockingbird. So much for understanding what took place in the past. Mockingbird simply mythologizes it.
I love both the book and the movie. I still tear up when Pandora play’s Elmer Bernstein’s theme song for TKAM. Both the novel and the movie are about human decency a subject which, when handled deftly, never fails to make my eyes water. But the story is myth. Gregory Peck is not Atticus Finch. In fact the real Atticus Finch was a man of his time and place in real life which we discovered when Harper Lee’s first attempt at Mockingbird was published a couple years ago. Her father may not have been the worst racist in her small southern hamlet but he was no Finch. Her first book Go Set a Watchman made him out to be even worse. Like a great many other lovers of Mockingbird my wife read the book and had a hard time digesting that it was a more accurate depiction of Harper Lee’s life.
I read history to learn about America’s great sin, that of setting aside the proclamation that all men are created equal for later generations to bring about. We are still working on it. I believe that depending on Harper Lee or Twain to tell the story is like expecting children who sing Jesus Loves Me to become champions against human oppression. I’ll bet every person who voted for Donald Trump can sing the first verse of that song.
I know people are tribal. Back in 1958 my five-year old neighbor made that clear to me when she told me, a third grader; “I don’t wanna go to school with no niggers.” Her father had been an MP in Italy after the Second World War and was tasked with pulling black GI’s off of Italian prostitutes. Now, before my eight loyal readers go bonkers, I must tell you that there is more to the story. Remember, the racism of Harper Lee’s father’s moderated during his lifetime. That’s true of a great many of us…….me included. Maybe that’s true of some of you as well.
Too many simpleminded people thought electing Barack Obama put an end to racism in America . It did not. That election did not suddenly mix millions of blacks who had been forced into all-black neighborhoods by red lining into the greater population. It did not end a thousand financial taxes and fines levied against the poor to pay for city governments. It did not return the franchise to vote to the excessively black prisoners who were released from their confinement. It did not guarantee that white police with limited experience with black people would resist drawing upon their stereotypes of gang-bangers when pulling over black drivers who ran a stop sign. Neither did it stop the American Public from electing an ignorant egotist President of the United States despite his spending tens of thousands of dollars on ads saying five innocent black kids should be hung for raping a white woman and getting them convicted.
Teaching history is a challenge and I agree that English classes should play a part with or without Mockingbird and Huck Finn.
There is one real crime in the way the decision was made in Duluth. The teachers weren’t consulted. Neither was the school board. But I understand why black parents aren’t happy. Kids use all sorts of adolescent excuses to throw the word “nigger” around starting with the First Amendment and then pleading innocence because they don’t know its history. If its OK for Twain and Lee to put it in their books why can’t our kids use it?
Americans, black, white, yellow and red, would like to get past the usism that divides us. Someday we will all be a nicely blended population and our grandchildren will have ancestors in each of these gene pools. Until then we can keep muddling along trying to do better and frequently falling short. One thing our Administration could have done other than acting by fiat was put black parents in the room with the English faculty to come up with new strategies to make things better. Instead our Superintendent got a dozen organizations to decry our prissy but heavy handed good works and turned them into a national brouhaha.
What should our children be reading and seeing? I’d recommend Twelve Years a Slave. And yet even this will not make everyone happy including Snoop Dog who has heaped abuse on the movie and a remake of Roots. Heck, if Dogg hates Twelve Years what does he make of Mockingbird.
All kids need books that make them feel like they can be heroes. Mockingbird may do that for the little white “Scouts” out there but it may just remind black kids how powerless they are. The movie Black Panther is probably a far better model for them.
Its been suggested that Harper Lee released her less admirable original novel because of senility. I think Miss Lee knew exactly what she was doing.