This week Patti Abbott is dedicating Friday's Forgotten Books to Banned Book Week. Contributors were asked to review a book that has been frequently challenged. My choice for this week is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Of course, anyone who has read this book isn't going to FORGET it, but let's OBSERVE the fact that this book has been challenged and is still challenged today, and then let's CELEBRATE the fact that we are free to read it! This is not only one of my favorite books of all times, but it was also one of my favorite books to teach.
To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged, and even banned, for a variety of "reasons." One of the more common reasons is its use of the word "nigger." The American Library Association also reports that it has been challenged because it's a "filthy, trashy novel," it "contains profanity and racial slurs," and my personal favorite, it "represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature." Wow! All this time I was teaching it as a book that CHALLENGED institutionalized racism. Maybe in my umpteen times reading this Pulitzer Prize winning novel (I reread it every time I taught it) I completely misinterpreted the themes! I guess I'll have to go back and read it again to see if I can figure out what I was missing. In the meantime, let me tell you a little bit about the book at #23 on the list of the 100 most challenged books during the time span of 2000-2007.
Jean Louise Finch, a.k.a. Scout, is the narrator of this "trashy novel," set in Maycomb, Alabama. She's telling the story as an adult looking back at her life during the Great Depression. Her father, Atticus Finch, was the lawyer who agreed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, who was charged with raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman.
Tom Robinson's story is loosely based on the Scottsboro Boys Trial, which took place in the 1960s about the time Harper Lee was ten.
The themes in this novel are incredibly powerful. Harper Lee addresses racism, class distinction, gender differences. One of my favorite scenes in the book deals with a "Morphodite" snowman, highlighting what I think is the most moving theme of the book, Innocence.
I can't deny that To Kill a Mockingbird "contains profanity and racial slurs", and it does contain the words "damn", "nigger" and "whore lady." It absolutely does. But I don't know how Lee could have 1.) written a realistic book with this same plot and themes without those words and 2.) realistically illustrated Scout's adolescent attempts to show her independence ("pass the damn ham, please") without some profanity.
What makes this book so powerful is its realism. It portrays Southern America in the 1930s exactly as it was. Banning a book like To Kill a Mockingbird won't make it any less so. In no way does the book condone profanity or racial slurs, quite the contrary. And no matter how I read the book, I cannot see that it "represents institutionalized racism." What I do see is that it DENOUNCES "institutionalized racism."
We've come a long way since the 1930s. Efforts, like Lee's book, to bring wrongs out in the open...to acknowledge them...show them for what they really are...have helped us move in a direction closer to equality. To hide them, pretend they don't exist, ban them is simply wrong. We still have a ways to go before we reach equality; let's not move BACKWARDS!
Celebrate your right to read, pick up To Kill a Mockingbird. If you've already read it, it's a GREAT book to re-read!