Of the many books that seek to expose the harms of racial prejudice, it has been said that there are few more influential or insightful than To Kill A Mockingbird.
The novel, published in 1960, is a classic of modern literature, regularly cited as one of the most touching books of all time, its reputation further bolstered by the Oscar-winning film that followed shortly thereafter.
In a small town in Alabama, white lawyer Atticus Finch agrees to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
Not only does Finch fail in his mission, but his children are in mortal danger from threats of white racist violence.
I have a particular interest in the novel, not only because it is a powerful denunciation of racial prejudice, but because To Kill A Mockingbird was written by my aunt, Harper Lee, known in our family as Nelle. or Nelle Harper.
So I am all the more disappointed to learn that a leading school in Scotland has banned the use of the book in its classrooms.
We have to remember that in many cases, and especially for young white children, To Kill A Mockingbird might be their first exposure to the idea that racism exists beyond a world of news broadcasts.
According to Edinburgh’s James Gillespie High School, To Kill A Mockingbird is “dated and problematic” and plays on an outdated idea of the “white savior”.
My aunt would have considered such notions as absurd and, at best, irrelevant.
These are the children who will be deprived of Mockingbird and who will suffer from it.
We have to remember that in many cases, and especially for young white children, To Kill A Mockingbird might be their first exposure to the idea that racism exists beyond a world of news broadcasts, and they may be completely oblivious to the depth to which it can infiltrate. the fabric of everyday life, even those of children such as the narrator of the book – Finch’s daughter, Scout.
Yes, it takes place in the 1930s, but the novel asks the question: how much has it really changed?
My aunt, Harper Lee, not only wrote primarily for an adult audience, but for a white audience, the audience that most needed – and still needs – to hear what she had to say.
Today we live with the terrible illusion that, because racial integration is now more common, racism is a thing of the past. It’s not.
There is historical context to this and other attempts to outlaw the book, of course.
Politicians have ignited dormant and not-so-dormant prejudices, especially in the United States.
The words we use – which we are allowed to use – come under scrutiny, largely aggressive.
Some critics seem to say, for example, that Harper Lee portrayed the southern United States of the 1930s too faithfully simply because its characters use language that people like those in his novel would have used to talk about African Americans.
Yet the language, which is now an understandable taboo to us, is exactly what my aunt – and I – heard growing up in small town Alabama.
I would say that the novel shows us, like Atticus the Scout teaches, that there is power in language. And that often reveals who people are in ways they don’t intend to.
He is telling the truth about these people. One can hardly fault my aunt for writing honestly and sincerely as a novelist about the world she knew.
Life in a small southern town in the 1930s was dominated by whites, for whom To Kill A Mockingbird was primarily intended.
The English program manager at James Gillespie High School (pictured) in Edinburgh said the department wanted to cut classes on literary classics for its third-graders
My aunt not only wrote primarily for an adult audience, but for a white audience, the audience that most needed – and still needs – to hear what she had to say. She didn’t pretend to write from an African American point of view.
And what about the recent charge in Scotland and elsewhere? I’m afraid he won’t wash.
Atticus Finch is not a white savior. Far from there.
Instead, the novel is about the failure of a white community to overcome its racism. There is immense sadness in this.
In the book, Tom Robinson, wrongly accused and wrongly convicted, is shot dead in prison. Atticus not only fails to get Tom acquitted, but in this failure, he delivers him to his death. Not really a savior.
Harper Lee would have respected, like me, the prerogative of teachers to decide what is taught in their classes.
She was clear that she was writing her books – both – for adults, not for children.
But she was thrilled whenever teachers chose to teach Mockingbird in their classes.
However, she didn’t like the idea of banning books or leaving decisions to often politically motivated bureaucracies, whether right-wing or left-wing.
She realized that her book could have political implications, of course, and she was happy that it contributed to the successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but she was squarely aiming for a timeless impact that would sink in. deeper than a political message.
And she would have been shocked to have her book withdrawn by any school in Britain. From early childhood and all her life she was an Anglophile and spent months in a row in the UK.
We loved hearing him talk about his glorious summer in Oxford and cycling across the UK. She felt a sense of freedom and acceptance there, as if it were her spiritual home.
This is not the first time that Mockingbird has been targeted, but to my knowledge it is the first time in the UK.
It was banned by school boards and libraries, such as in Richmond, Virginia, in 1963, just three years after its publication. Now we have gone 180 degrees and it is not the right but the left that has the book in sight.
My aunt was not surprised by the condemnation of the southern racist right. However, I think she was taken a bit off guard by critics from the left.
To Kill A Mockingbird was deeply personal in its inspiration.
Its hero, Atticus, was inspired by my grandfather, Amasa Coleman Lee, who died in 1962 when I was almost 15 years old. He was a good man.
As a child, my aunt idolized her father and, in part, the novel is about the love between father and daughter.
Yet from the South, Nelle has faced the challenge that all white Southerners who want to be honest about this face – how to recognize and deal with racism in their heritage, and most often in their families and themselves.
AC Lee’s own father was a Civil War veteran. He fought in Gettysburg for the Southern Confederacy, a cause dedicated to keeping black people in slavery.
If you grow up in a loving family, if you love your parents and grandparents, how do you deal with such an inheritance?
Today, the novel speaks as loud as ever. And this is needed more than ever, especially in America, where the past five years have demonstrated how deep and pervasive racism and bigotry are here.
Part of Harper Lee’s personal response was to write a great novel about the failure to overcome the evils of racism and bigotry in a Southern community.
It was a book that she said she felt “compelled” to write and which is deeply imbued with the power of love as the potential to overcome all ailments of the human heart.
There came a time around 1964 – and I’m not sure exactly what triggered her decision – where she decided that she would no longer be giving interviews and had nothing more to say publicly unless she chose. to do so in the print media.
She was becoming a center of attention diminishing as well as adding to her book, and that didn’t interest her. The book, she said, spoke for itself. Plus, she was introverted, like me. She just had no interest and didn’t enjoy the limelight.
Today, the novel speaks as loud as ever. And this is needed more than ever, especially in America, where the past five years have demonstrated how deep and pervasive racism and bigotry are.
The Black Lives Matter movement had already started when my aunt passed away five years ago, although it had not yet gained global coverage.
I have no doubt that she would have said, “Of course black lives matter.” She would have had no problem with the movement’s core message or its initial application to police brutality and the murder of blacks.
But Nelle disliked attempts to judge her novel by the criteria of a particular political ideology, whether right-wing or left-wing. And To Kill A Mockingbird is not a political novel.
My aunt spent most of her working life in New York City, but returned to Alabama for her final years.
At first there was almost nothing in the Spartan room she occupied. Before too long, however, he was overflowing with books.
She had little use for the money she had earned from the novel, other than scholarships for young people, charitable donations – and the purchase of additional books.
This is one of the reasons why she would have found the attempts to ban her novel so disturbing. Books were his life.
Books have something to say. And we need to read Mockingbird today as much as ever.
We live in a world where there is still racism and bigotry. And until those human heart ailments are gone, To Kill A Mockingbird should be read – and taught.