By Sathya Siva
Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.– To Kill A Mockingbird, 1960
I first read Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, a couple of months ago. For those who aren’t familiar with the award-winning story, it was first published in 1960 and has since become one of the great classics of American literature.
The novel takes place in a fictional town, Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression. It is narrated by Scout Finch, a six-year-old tomboy who lives with her ten-year-old brother Jem, and her father, a lawyer, Atticus. During the novel Scout, Jem and their friend Dill try to make their reclusive and mysterious neighbour, Boo Radley, leave his house. Boo has not been seen in Maycomb since he was a teenager.
Many residents of Maycomb are, fittingly, racists considering the story takes place in the 1930s. Of the few Black characters, most live in a segregated area on the outskirts of the town. Maycomb’s prevalent racism soon becomes evident when Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
Though everyone knows he has little hope of winning, Atticus takes on the case, the trial documented through the six-year-old eyes of our narrator. In the end, Scout and Jem learn, from the trial and from their father’s defense, valuable life lessons about tolerance, empathy and understanding.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was adapted for film in 1962, itself going on to win many Academy Awards. From then on, the book has been included in school reading lists all over the United States and Canada for students in middle school and up.
However, no matter the many who hold the novel in high moral and education regard, some school districts have begun to corrupt its message. In many instances the book has been removed from reading lists or even banned due to the frequent usage of the N-word.
Schools banning books should not be done lightly. The restriction should be debated exhaustively and we should stop and think about why we should or should not go through with it. We must question whether the ban is warranted or if we’re simply uncomfortable with a story’s controversial subjects.
When it was pulled from the Mississippi School District Reading List, many were shocked. As stated before, the story includes instances of the N-word to reflect the language used at the time and deepen the overall messages in the book and addresses the malevolence of the slur head on. Due to the casual use of the word within the novel’s setting, Scout doesn’t even realise the wrongness of it. Speaking to Scout, Atticus explains, “Don’t say [N-word] Scout. That’s common.” (we can assume that ‘common’ means ‘uneducated and vulgar’.)
Yet in spite of this, it still sits as No. 21 on the American Library Association’s list of the decade’s most banned books.
Many were shocked by the decision of the Mississippi SD, and took to social media to voice their opinions. Arne Duncan, (secretary of education from 2009 to 2015 under President Obama) tweeted, “When school districts remove ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from the reading list, we know we have real problems.”
Another argument for this book being removed or banned is that the themes of inequality are no longer relevant. This is entirely untrue. This book is pertinent not only in discussing the moral injustices of the past, but also the systemic racism still prevalent today. It is also relevant to today’s discourse on race relations in the era of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Sure, the persecution of BIPOC may not be as severe (or blatant) as described in the book, but there remains significant inequality in today’s justice system. An article by the NY Times mentions a new study (as of May 2020) demonstrating a vast racial gap in death penalty cases. Building on data at the heart of a landmark 1987 Supreme Court decision called McCleskey v. Kemp, the study concluded that defendants convicted of killing white victims were executed at a rate 17 times greater than those convicted of killing Black victims.
Despite the surrounding controversy, To Kill A Mockingbird is a must-read. The events described through Harper Lee’s beautiful writing mirror many events still occurring today, and are vital in our understanding and discussion of society’s current injustices.