The Case Against To Kill a Mockingbird

mockingbird down and outOn February 19, news agencies announced the death of the American author Harper Lee. The Toronto Star warmly eulogized a writer “whose child’s-eye view of racial injustice in a small Southern town, To Kill a Mockingbird, became standard reading for millions of young people and an Oscar-winning film.” Published in 1960, it received the Pulitzer Prize and George Bush awarded Lee the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony held at the White House. In 2015, fifty five years later, Robert Murdoch’s HarperCollins published Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, only her second novel but actually written prior to Mockingbird. Watchman sold more than 1 million copies and was described as “the fastest selling” book in HarperCollins’ history. It was called a “fraud” and an “epic money grab” in the New York Times.

In 1996, “intense community pressure” by the African Canadian community in Nova Scotia successfully managed to remove this and two other novels from the Department of Education’s list of recommended, authorized books. They meant that they could no longer be purchased from the provincial government.

In 2002, a committee consisting of parents and educators, seconded by members of the Black Educators’ Association (BEA), recommended that the book “be removed from school use altogether.” Further, the community courageously boycotted a theatrical production in Halifax on the basis that it did not reflect the black experience and falsified historical reality.

A report (by the African Canadian Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Education) “laid out the community’s concerns”:

In this novel, African-Canadian students are presented with language that portrays all the stereotypical generalizations that demean them as a people. While the White student and the White teacher many misconstrue it as language of an ealier era or the way it was, this language is still widely used today and the book serves as tool to reinforce its usage even further. . . .

The terminology in this novel subjects students to humiliating experiences that rob them of their self-respect and the respect of their peers. The word ‘Nigger’ is used 48 times. . . .

There are many available books which reflect the past history of African-Canadians or Americans without subjecting African-Canadian learners to this type of degradation. . . We believe that the English Language Arts curriculum in Nova Scotia must enable all students to feel comfortable with ideas, feelings and experiences presented without fear of humiliation . . . To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly a book that no longer meets these goals and therefore must no longer be used for classroom instruction.

However, pandemonium broke loose all over the printed press, radio and television media, nationally and internationally. In the main Canadian and provincial newspapers, some twenty-eight articles appeared in short order. The book was lauded as a classic, a paragon of anti-racist literature and, therefore, untouchable and sacrosanct. Both the monopoly and alternative media responded by orchestrating a provocation, falsely claiming that the community was demanding that Mockingbird be banned, i.e., censored.

Professor Isaac Saney of Dalhousie University, in an academic article in the journal Race and Class wrote, “The arguments advanced by the Black community were consistently presented in a non-serious, even risible, light so as to give the impression that the Black educators and parents are ignorant of the merits of literature, mere emotional whiners and complainers, belonging to a hot-headed fringe. For example, after the decision was made to keep the books in the curriculum, the Halifax Daily News in an editorial was ‘relieved cooler heads have prevailed’, reproducing the racist notions of inherent Black emotionality versus the rationality of white society.” [2] 

The following article by Prof Saney provides information for readers pertaining to the claims promoting it as an exceptional, anti-racist work, which will help them evaluate the consensus of the media and liberal intelligentsia that Mockingbird is a progressive and morally superior literary work.

Ironically, Lee’s Watchman validates the just stand of African Nova Scotians and others, portraying as it does the fictional figure Atticus Finch heroized by Mockingbird and Hollywood at a younger age, twenty years earlier in his life, as a hidebound racist and a Ku Klux Klan member of a “citizens’ council,” who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” [3] These semi-official agencies were one of the mechanisms for racial brutality in the early 20th century and condemning African Americans to civil death, an era that played its role in shaping the racism of so-called post-racial America today. – TS

* * *

The Case Against To Kill a Mockingbird

There is better literature available that reflects the black experience

BY ISAAC SANEY*

Once again, the media has launched a barrage over a school board refusing to allow its students to see a theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird mounted by the Neptune Theatre in Halifax. The furor and ensuring debate over the African Nova Scotian community’s opposition to the use of this novel has tended to oversimplify and obfuscate the central reasons surrounding the need to remove Harper Lee’s novel from the classroom.

The reasons do not centre solely on the use of racist epithets and the ‘n’ as the media disinforms us. The use of racist slurs or negative and debased imagery is not the only basis upon which to determine the racist or antiracist character of a book.

There are deeper justifications for insisting that the novel not be part of the curriculum.

Central to the view that To Kill a Mockingbird is a solidly an inherently anti-racist work is the role of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer, who defends Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus goes so far as to save Tom from a lynching.

However, this act has no historical foundation. The acclaimed exhibition Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, sponsored by the Roth-Horowitz Gallery and the New York Historical Society, documented more than 600 lynchings.[1]

Lynchers often paraded their victim down the main street, through black neighbourhoods, and in front of "colored schools" that were in session. Jesse Washington, seventeen years old, was the chief suspect in the May 8, 1916, murder of Lucy Fryer of Robinson, Texas, on whose farm he worked as a labourer. After the lynching, Washington's corpse was placed in a burlap bag and dragged around City Hall Plaza, through the main streets of Waco, and seven miles to Robinson, where a large black population resided. His charred corpse was hung for public display in front of a blacksmith shop. The sender of this card, Joe Meyers, an oiler at the Bellmead car department and a Waco resident, marked his photo with a cross (now an ink smudge to left of victim). From the exhibition “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.” Photo courtesy of The New-York Historical Society.

Lynchers often paraded their victim down the main street, through black neighbourhoods, and in front of “colored schools” that were in session.
Jesse Washington, seventeen years old, was the chief suspect in the May 8, 1916, murder of Lucy Fryer of Robinson, Texas, on whose farm he worked as a labourer. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch the attack. After the lynching, Washington’s corpse was placed in a burlap bag and dragged around City Hall Plaza, through the main streets of Waco, and seven miles to Robinson, where a large black population resided. His charred corpse was hung for public display in front of a blacksmith shop.
From the exhibition “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.” Photo courtesy of The New York Historical Society.

As Lyon Litwack, a Berkely professor, observed: “The bulk of the lynchers tended to be ordinary people and respectable people, few of whom had any difficulties justifying their atrocities in the name of maintaining the social and racial order and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race.”

Partisans of the book frequently invoke the lecture Miss Atkinson delivers to Atticus’s daughter, Scout. These lines define the book:

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t rest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Do these lines, as some assert, embody the loftiest ideals and sentiments?

Harper Lee’s motives notwithstanding, they are not a paean to the intrinsic equality and humanity of all people, nor do they acknowledge that blacks are endowed with the same worth and rights as whites.

Those media that dither editorially “on the one hand… on the other …” or whip up campaigns in defence of freedom of speech or against censorship play precisely the waiting game that gives racism and its proponents new life. Let others pontificate about how all that is necessary for Evil to prevail is that good people do nothing. I seriously question how good – and what good – those people are who would sooner rail against the danger of “censorship” than put down the plague right under their nose. Such complacency borders on collaboration, intended or otherwise, with the open racists and fascists.

He who slings mud loses ground, and the media’s muck-hurling against all “censorship” (including censorship of racism) and for freedom of speech (including freedom of speech for racists) just deepens the hole into which their credibility tumbled quite helplessly some time ago.

By foisting this mockingbird image on African Americans, the novel does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior “races”, the notion of those meant to rule versus those meant to be ruled.

What it attacks are the worst – particularly violent – excesses of the racial social order, leaving the racist social order itself intact.

It presents the outlook of the ‘enlightened’ versus the unenlightened slave owner, who wishes to preserve the value of his human property – the beast of burden – to labour for his benefit and enjoyment.

In short, as Malcolm X would have said, it presents the outlook of the “enlightened” versus the unenlightened slave owner, who wishes to preserve the value of his human property – the beast of burden – to labour for his benefit and enjoyment. Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denial of the historical agency of black people.

They are robbed of their role as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive, hapless victims: mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation.

Ah, this is the rub! Black people have been the central actors in their movement for liberation and justice: from widespread African resistance to and revolts against slavery and colonialism to the 20th century’s mass movements challenging segregation, discrimination and imperialism.

Yet, To Kill a Mockingbird confounds the relationship between whites of conscience and the struggles of the black community. It was African North Americans who took up the task of confronting racism and who, through weal and woe, trial and tribulations, carried – and still carry – on the battle for equal rights and dignity. Those whites who did make significant contributions – especially, those of radical ilk, such as members of the Communist Party, as opposed to liberal circles – gave their solidarity in response.

The black community does not want the book banned, but asserts there is much better literature available that reflects the black experience that should be used instead. For example, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Native Son by Richard Wright; Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Huston; The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke; and Consecrated Ground by George Boyd.


*Dr Isaac Saney is Director, Transitional Year Project, Dalhousie University, and on faculty of Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s University, Halifax.

Source: Shunpiking Magazine, Volume 9, No.47, October 2005. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Halifax Daily News, 9 May 2002

TS Endnotes

[1] To learn more about the New York Historical Society’s exhibition, see James Allen, et al., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000) or visit the website. Allen collected some 600 photographs of lynching, many of them postcards. They mainly depict black men with hideously elongated necks, swinging sometimes in threes and fours at the end of ropes tied to light poles, trees or gallows. One of the most frightening pictures shows hundreds of well-dressed men in a field, pressing forward for a better view of a naked man who has just been hanged and is now being mutilated and burned on a pyre. An anti-lynching movement eventually brought this vicious horror to an end; it included such activists as James Weldon Johnson, Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois and the heroine of the movement, Ida Wells-Barnett. However, the past three years demonstrate that the practice of officially-sanctioned, extra-judicial police murders of African-Americans continues in another form to date.

[2] Race & Class, July–September 2003 45 (1), pp. 99–110. (Download PDF Mockingbird)

[3] Reviews in the Anglo-American world such as this one in the Halifax Chronicle Herald performed contortions condemning Go Set A Watchman, while reverently hailing an author “who, in 1960, gave her heart to readers.”

 

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