The Biloxi, Miss., school board's decision to remove "To Kill a Mockingbird" from eighth grade classes drew strong criticism.
The school board said it took the action because some parents objected to the use of the "N-word" in Harper Lee's novel, which has been required reading for generations of middle school and high school students throughout our home of the brave and land of the free.
Like all good liberals, I feel I should oppose the school board. But much of the vilification of the school board was overblown. The ACLU of Mississippi cried "censorship," although "To Kill a Mockingbird" remains in school libraries. A child can still read the book if he or she wishes. As usual, what constitutes censorship is misunderstood.
I feel I should stand against the removal of books because they bring discomfort to readers. But I can see how black parents could feel about "To Kill a Mockingbird" as they would a Confederate memorial.
The AJC's Bert Roughton condemned the school board's action in a well-crafted Sunday column. Yet, when quoting a passage from "To Kill a Mockingbird," the newspaper eliminated the "N-word." Showing a judgment similar to the school board's, the AJC felt that printing the word would upset readers.
The controversy had me wondering why "To Kill a Mockingbird," written in 1960, is so sacrosanct. Several of those decrying the board's action were aging white males like Roughton, who see "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a safe and acceptable exploration of racism. After 57 years, isn't it time for schools to find fresh new works?
I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the first time last year, and found it a very good book, especially the voice of Scout, the young narrator.
But I thought the book weakened by stereotypical characters, especially the white villain. The novel's culminating final scene smacked of lurid melodrama. I was also surprised at the superficiality of the portrait of the noble white attorney Atticus Finch. Along with the black man falsely accused of rape, the novel's strongest black character is the Finch family's maid, hardly an inspiring calling for today's students.
In summary, I found the book overrated as an American classic. A lot of the book's popularity comes from the Academy Award-winning movie made from it, and Gregory Peck's performance as Finch.
Isn't "To Kill a Mockingbird," written in 1960, dated for young readers in the 21st century? Choosing it for class reading is itself censorship by excluding other books. A number of writers, especially black and women, have risen in the decades since the book's publication.
Admittedly, school boards like Biloxi's are unlikely to approve seriously challenging books, but a range of possibilities exist besides "To Kill a Mockingbird." The Biloxi board is supposed to announce a replacement for "To Kill a Mockingbird," so here are a few options:
Black Mississippi writer Jesmyn Ward's 2011 novel "Salvage the Bones" would give Biloxi students a recognizable view of their home territory's black culture. Ward grew up near Biloxi, and the National Book Award-winning book depicted a black family's travails after Hurricane Katrina. Books like Richard Wright's "A Native Son" would also challenge young readers. White parents might object to books by black authors, but black students for generations have been subjected to Harper Lee's vision of black-white relations.
A book by Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison would broaden the students' perspective. Works by young African writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Zadie Smith would also give them an understanding of a broader world.
Closer to home, Willie Morris' "The Courting of Marcus Dupree" would give young males a strong account of the intersection of sports and race. If the school board wishes to introduce the students to Mississippi's literary heritage, books like William Faulkner's "The Unvanquished" or Eudora Welty's "The Optimist's Daughter" would give the experience of much greater writers than Harper Lee.
While "To Kill the Mockingbird" is a worthy book, I'm uncomfortable with the notion of a school board or any other government entity imposing "acceptable" books on readers. I realize that reading lists and books like "To Kill a Mockingbird" are practical for teaching literature, but such imposed reading limits students' exposure to art and ideas. Beauty and Truth, as Mr. John Keats would have it.
Although I'm sure educators would find the exercise unwieldy, I'd like to see schools allow students to choose their own book or books from a list of say five to 10. That would help them become independent readers. A child would give a report on his or her chosen book, leading a class discussion.
I wouldn't care if the student goes outside of the reading list and chooses a science fiction book or a volume of "Game of Thrones." A nerdy kid discovers Philip K. Dick after watching "Blade Runner 2049?" Fine. Reading is the key.