Should Novels Like “To Kill a Mockingbird” Be Censored in Schools?

Noor Majid, Staff Writer

Notable classic novels To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men seem to have become a literary staple for most American public schools. Students across the nation, most typically eighth and ninth graders, have read, analyzed, and discussed these books in order to gain a deeper insight into the political and moral themes explored by the novels — and, of course, to get a good grade. Our very own Manchester High School requires ninth graders to read these books — so why are some schools censoring them?

Photo: Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ are no longer required reading for students in Duluth, Minnesota.

In early February of this year, a school district in northern Minnesota banned Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its schools. The books had previously been taught to ninth and eleventh grade English classes.

When justifying this change, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction Michael Cary argued that the classic novels’ use of racial slurs risked students being “humiliated or marginalised,” and that there were other literary options which could “teach the same lesson” without using such language. The N-word is used frequently in both titles — more than 200 times in Mark Twain’s 19th-century novel — but the novels are widely considered anti-racist texts.

The district’s move was supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, with president of the local chapter Stephan Witherspoon saying the books were “just hurtful” and use “hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years.”

“It’s wrong. There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I’m glad that they’re making the decision and it’s long overdue, like 20 years overdue,” Witherspoon continued. “Let’s move forward and work together to make school work for all of our kids, not just some, all of them.”

But the ban was strongly criticised by the National Coalition Against Censorship, which said it was “deeply disturbed” by the decision, and urged the district to reconsider. While the NCAC said it was “understandable that a novel that repeatedly uses a highly offensive racial slur would generate discomfort among some parents and students”, the anti-censorship organisation also stated that “the problems of living in a society where racial tensions persist will not be resolved by banishing literary classics from the classroom.

“Rather than ignore difficult speech,” it said, “educators should create spaces for open dialogue that teaches students to confront the vestiges of racism and the oppression of people of colour.”

The decision in Duluth is not the first time that US schools have wrestled with how to teach two classic novels that nonetheless regularly feature on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged titles. Following a complaint from a parent in 2016, schools in Virginia pulled both novels from their curriculum, although they were later reinstated. And in 2017, schools in Mississippi removed Mockingbird over its “uncomfortable” and racially sensitive subject matter, although it was later returned to an “optional” reading list.

While novels such as Mockingbird and Huck Finn expose an uncomfortable reality about race in America, it is also notable that they may be conveying undesirable messages to young, impressionable adolescents.

For example, as posed by Alice Randall of the NBC, “[I]magine instead that you are an African-American eighth-grade boy in Mississippi today, and are asked to read Mockingbird Perhaps it reinforces your growing suspicion that you are unlikely to get a fair trial should you stand accused of something like Tom Robinson. Or imagine instead that you are an impoverished, white eighth-grade girl in New York today, asked read “Mockingbird.” Perhaps it fuels your growing suspicion that people don’t believe girls who say they have been raped — and that, should you be raped and try to tell people about it, people will have reason to doubt you”.

The implications of this are staggering, and go on to show that the teaching of these texts may actually be more detrimental than beneficial for the wellbeing of American youths. Instead, scholars have proposed

Photo: Walter Dean Meyers
Award-winning Monster by Walter Dean Meyer – proposed as alternative to ‘TKAM’.

the integration of novels such as 1999’s Monster by award-winning African-American novelist Walter Dean Myers that also takes place in a courtroom. In this novel, however, the focus is on the young black defendant and narrator, Steve Harmon; the white lawyer, on the other hand, plays a lesser (but still complex) part. 

Monster is a complex and powerful modern classic that does much of the same work — providing a portrait of a young artist budding ethical integrity while confronting racism — as Mockingbird but does it with arguably more complexity,” said Randall.

As of now, novels such as Mockingbird and Huck Finn continue to be an integral part in the English curriculum of most American schools, and their removal by some districts has been met with swift and fiery backlash. It cannot be said for certain if there are any immediately forthcoming changes regarding the presence of these books within curriculums — but the discussion is in the open, and educators have become increasingly conscious of the messages actually conveyed by the books. All that can be done now is to wait, and watch.

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