Edit: According to the Washington Post, as of October 29th, the Biloxi school district has allowed To Kill A Mockingbird to be taught in eighth-grade classrooms. However, Biloxi eighth-graders will have to get signed permission from their parents in order to participate in class discussions about the novel.
Last month, To Kill a Mockingbird was pulled from the eighth-grade curriculum at a Biloxi, Mississippi junior high for, “language in the book that makes people uncomfortable;” according to school board vice president Kenny Holloway.
What Holloway is undoubtedly referring to, the reason that Mockingbird remains one of the most banned books in America—ranking number four in the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned & challenged classics last year—is for the novel’s frequent usage of the n-word.
In case you weren’t aware; the novel is set in 1936, a time of segregation predicated on racial prejudice.
The novel follows Scout and Jem Finch, in their quiet town of Maycomb, Alabama as a black man, named Tom Robinson, gets accused of raping a white woman, named Mayela Ewell. In the midst of it all is Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem’s father and the defending attorney for Tom Robinson.
As the trial goes on, Scout and Jem start to realize how deep the hatred for one man, simply based on the color of his skin, runs in this predominantly white community.
The Biloxi school board says that while To Kill a Mockingbird, “teaches students that compassion and empathy don’t depend upon race or education,” the same lesson can be taught with other books and with this truth.
In seventh grade, I read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor; the year before that I had read The Cay by Theodore Taylor; and in my junior year of high school, I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
‘Huck Finn’ and ‘Roll of Thunder’ contain multiple uses of the word, n****r.
The Cay does not but does contain the following passage, wherein, the main character, Phillip Enright, describes the black man that has saved him, after a ship which their both traveling on has been bombed.
“You say what you want.” It was just that Timothy looked very much like the men I’d seen in jungle pictures. Flat nose and heavy lips.”
In just a few words, none of which are racial slurs, an 11-year-old conveys a horrific racial stereotype. But, he doesn’t say the n-word so that’s okay, right? A parent of one of the eighth graders at the Biloxi junior high school told local news station, WLOX:
“It really shouldn't have been in the eighth grade at all, in my opinion, because it talks about rape, lies about rape, to me that's more of a college level, that way they can dive more and actually talk more about it. Eighth grade they don't understand that. They're not mature. They're not ready.”
There are always going to be kids that are emotionally immature, that will make conversations about race, religion, gender and sexual orientation difficult but these conversations still need to happen. I can’t think of any better place to start having these conversations than in an English class.
Do you know the old phrase, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes?” That is precisely what literature allows us to do. In the pages of Catcher in the Rye, not only can I follow Holden Caulfield through New York City but follow his loneliness.
I can read The Great Gatsby, and feel Jay’s longing every time he looks out towards the unattainable green light, and later, understand Nick’s disillusionment with wealth and those that have it. Above all, I can understand the confusion with which Scout and Jem exist in the town of Maycomb, Alabama.
In a book that, yes, according to The New York Times uses the n-word at least 50 times, I can fully understand how it feels to be a child learning for the first time that the world isn’t always just and fair and how sometimes, that needs to change. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird and heard the n-word at 14 years old it did indeed shake me and I believe it should’ve.
When I open a novel, I want my view of the world to be challenged—in fact; I need it to be challenged. I need to understand my world, and the people and the rules that govern it. I need to know why things are the way they are.
At 14, I could’ve read a chapter out of a history book about segregation and the Civil Rights movement.
Like literature, history books are comprised of words that create a comprehensive narrative. However, one of the most powerful things that language can provide us is the ability to express a feeling. When I read a history book, I get context behind an event or time. When I read a novel, I get the feelings associated with it.
When I read a sentence like: “[…] Ignorant, trashy people use n****r lover 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;” I can understand the feeling behind the racism, and realize that the word Negro and the word n****r come from exactly the same hate-filled place.
So, what’s the real aim here? Are we trying to sugarcoat the past? We can’t. Our past will always be embarrassing and the truth is, our present isn’t that much better, just quieter.
Yet we have the opportunity to change it. By allowing important stories to be told and allowing those stories to find audiences, we open our world to greater interpretation. We are educating the next generation, the people that can continue allowing our country to grow and to mature, itself.