Earlier this month, the Biloxi Public Schools district of Mississippi publicly announced that they would be pulling Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird from their required reading list.
Kenny Holloway, the vice president of the Biloxi School Board, said that the decision to remove the book was made after complaints about the prize-winning novel.
“There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books,” he said. “It’s still in our library. But they’re going to use another book in the eighth-grade course.”
What Holloway has failed to realize, along with the complainers out there who rallied for the book's removal, is that the language and subject matter is supposed to make you feel "uncomfortable." That's one point of many that Lee was trying to make. The book was published in 1960 during the Civil Rights Movement and she wanted readers to get just a taste of the life she experienced in the South watching people of color endure injustices at the hands of hooded racists that corrupt courts.
To Kill a Mockingbird might be a fictional account of lawyer and single father Atticus Finch raising a rambunctious six-year-old daughter Scout and her brother Jeb in Alabama in the 1930s, but the story is based on Lee's childhood. She grew up in Maybomb, Alabama and witnessed racial inequality at her doorstep, so she turned one of those stories into a plot line of To Kill a Mockingbird.
In the book, a married black man, Tom Robinson, stood accused of raping a poor young white woman, Mayella Ewell. The townspeople know that Mayella's father is an abusive drunk and that the family is down on their luck, but instead of considering that Robinson is innocent, they see his skin color and vilify him before due process. Atticus is the only person who agrees to defend Robinson and during the trial is made clear that the one-armed man isn't at fault for Mayella's assault, but all anyone could see is a Black man who violated a white woman.
With the deep-seeded racist history that the South is swimming in, it isn't surprising that a county in Mississippi would find language and subject matter of To Kill a Mockingbird to be unbearable. But what does banning the book, or at least removing it from required reading, teach our students? To ignore racism? That if you don't know about something, it doesn't exist? If people, parents included, are antsy about seeing the word "n*gger" in a novel that has helped mold minds and open the eyes of young people who don't understand it's cultural and historical importance, then maybe they shouldn't say the word in jest. It could be said that quite possibly, they could learn something from reading, or rereading, To Kill a Mockingbird a few more times.
Let's not pass over the sexual assault aspect of this novel, either. Mayella was assaulted in some manner, and it's implied that it was by her father, Bob Ewell. Instead, the abusive father makes her falsely accuse Tom Robinson, including testifying against him. He was found guilty but Robinson wasn't in the jail more than an hour before a he was murdered. What I learned as a girl studying this book in school was just how much I had allowed men in my life to keep me silenced about my sexual assault as a child because of fear. As an adult, I understood Mayella's position while I didn't agree with it at all. She was motherless and abused with no one in her life to help her as a young woman and that taught me then that women aren't my enemies. You want to talk about solidarity in feminism? Among women? There are millions of Mayellas out there trying to navigate life without a captain or a crew and we need to teach young girls to come together, not separate.
Yet, the subject matter makes Biloxi, Mississippi uncomfortable. They just can't handle some of the language, and they're doing their students a disservice in the process. Where our schools fail, we as a community needs to pick up the pieces and make sure the next generation isn't being barred from learning about the realities of the past that shape the current political protest culture of our present.