Don't Kill the Mockingbird
Thursday, May 9, 2002    
The Halifax Herald Limited
By Brian Bauld
A STARLING makes its nest on the window ledge and the catkins on the red maple on my
neighbour's lawn are ready to introduce earth's long-awaited "immeasurable surprise," but all that's in
my mind is the news that race activists want to ban the teaching of
To Kill a Mockingbird in Nova
Scotia schools.
I have been teaching English to Nova Scotian students from Grade 7 to Grade 12 for 28 years.
Without doubt, the book that has gained the most favour with my students has been
To Kill a
Mockingbird
. From the thousands of students who have had the privilege to read Harper Lee's
one-book-wonder, I would be hard pressed to think of any but the most obtuse and inane who could
interpret it as racist.
George Orwell's 1984 includes a "memory hole" where concepts, individuals and words are sent to
oblivion, in allegiance to an idea that human beings are solely the product of their environment.
Change the environment and you change the citizen. Period. Send the word "nigger" down the
memory hole and, presto, we are that much closer to an anti-racist society. The sad irony is that both
To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984, in an ongoing campaign for mediocrity, were long ago removed
from the list of approved reading materials for Nova Scotia schools. For any teacher to continue
teaching this book beyond the life of her present stocks would require filing a multi-page anti-bias
report with the Education Department. That the book is still being taught, despite ongoing resistance, is
a credit to those principals and teachers who have placed quality above quackery.
Why are those who oppose the reading of To Kill a Mockingbird wrong? Not just because Chicago, a
city with a robust black population, chose it last year as the book for the entire city to read; not just
because Los Angeles has this year chosen
Fahrenheit 451, a book about burning and censorship of
books by the addle-brained and soul-impoverished; but because it is a fine book. Generations of
students have read this book in Grade 10 classes throughout Nova Scotia. Compared to the steady diet
of insipid schlock that has appeared on the booklist for the past decade, it is a masterpiece. Although it
is reading that challenges the average Grade 10 student, over and over I have seen students drawn by
the power of this story into a reading experience beyond their ability.
It is not primarily a book about race. It is a book of two children who pass from the fantasy world of
childhood into the ambiguities of adulthood. The girl, Scout, passes into adulthood on the wings of one
of the novel's two mockingbirds (a bird that sings a sweet tune and hurts no one); the boy, Jem,
passes into adulthood on the wings of the novel's other innocent, Tom, a black man, pure of spirit,
who has been falsely accused of raping the local "white trash," Mayella Ewell, who is terrified to
reveal that the only one who beats (and rapes) her is her father. Jem is outraged, with the idealism of
youth, when he hears Tom pronounced guilty despite all evidence to the contrary. He is provoked to
the brink of radical action when he hears that Tom has been shot 19 times while trying to escape.
How one could consider To Kill a Mockingbird harmful to blacks is a mystery; but to think that the
department has already succumbed to this argument, by a few against the many, is, sadly, less of a
mystery.
When I last taught this novel, two years ago with well-beaten copies, I found it necessary to provide
historical background. Thus, we read grim accounts of the "middle passage" from Africa to the
Spanish and American colonies on English boats that often packed slaves spoon-fashion in the hope of
good weather (quick trip, little loss). The book led me to introduce Maya Angelou's moving account of
her youth in a segregated South. There was time, too, to pass over the Civil War in the U.S., the
carpetbaggers' descent on the South, the Jim Crow laws which followed; and view the inspiring
Eyes
on the Prize
series, which detailed the heroics of the Little Rock Seven and the significance of the
1954
Brown vs. The Board of Education decision which ended segregation.
This was a preview of the book, and not the point of studying the book, since no work of art should
be seen as a polemic, written merely to promote a social cause. Literature promotes ambiguity. Is
Atticus Finch, the lawyer who brilliantly defends the accused black man, Tom Robinson, the most
pure, Christ-like character in all fiction? Or is Atticus a grand failure because he advocates a gradualist
approach to social change, and tolerates a society riddled with evil, thus condemning a generation or
two to continuing suffering? Is Calpurnia, the Finches' black housekeeper/mother, with her
Roman-style slave name and heart as large as Maycomb, a negative stereotype? Perhaps critics of the
novel have seen themselves in the few who object to Calpurnia bringing Jem and Scout to the Black
Church?
The best story I have ever read on the idea of race in the South is William Faulkner's "That Evening
Sun." In it is the moving line from Nancy who says, "I ain't nothin' but a nigger, God knows, God
knows. It ain't none of it my fault." This story was once on the Nova Scotia reading list, too. So was
The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks, Black Boy by Richard Wright, and Black like Me by John
Howard Griffin. All contained the offending "N" word and all are gone from the list.
My experience is that students are drawn naturally to stories of justice, mercy, fairness, selflessness
and honour, especially when handled by great artists. That some students may be embarrassed by
such stories is the issue that needs sympathetic address, not wholesale repression, whether the "issue"
is race, abortion, divorce, suicide, drug use, social class, teen mothers, terrorism, or whatever might be
felt more strongly by certain students than others in an engaged classroom.
Far from "banning" To Kill a Mockingbird from schools, the semi-ban that already exists should be
lifted and the book returned to Nova Scotia's list of approved reading. It should not be there because it
is so clearly sympathetic and insightful to the powerless condition of blacks in the American South of
the Great Depression. It should be there because it is literature.
Brian Bauld teaches in Amherst.