Forget Atticus: Why We Should Stop Teaching ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

flickr/Jose Sa
What we see today among white liberals is a mimicry of Atticus Finch’s exact posture and message.

I blame Atticus Finch for the failure of white liberals to face racism today. Atticus, as most people know, is tasked in To Kill A Mockingbird with heroically defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man who has been falsely accused of rape. Scout Finch, Atticus’s daughter, is our narrator who provides commentary on the turmoil caused by the trial, as well as her general impressions of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s as she pursues the everyday adventures of being a child.

Last October, the school board in Biloxi, Mississippi, voted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird because, they say, “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable.” Of course, the literary world rallied to the defense of its darling. Most fans of To Kill a Mockingbird read the book as children and continue to champion it throughout adulthood, never rereading it or re-examining it through a critical, modern lens. Aaron Sorkin (perhaps the living embodiment of white liberalism) has adapted the story for a Broadway debut in 2018, and it will most likely be a hit. President Obama quoted Atticus in his farewell address. The book is, by all measures, an enduring and beloved “classic.”

It’s also a fixture of school reading lists. As a high school English teacher, I have the chore of rereading the book annually, becoming more aware with each rereading of the damaging narrative it offers in dealing with present-day racism.

Do we need to ban it? Of course not — but I do not believe it has any place in today’s classrooms.

I blame Atticus Finch for the failure of white liberals to face racism today.

Many articles discussing the ban focused on the repeated use of the n-word, but this dialogue echoes the problems inherent to the text itself. What’s troubling is not necessarily the existence of the n-word in the text itself, but how the book teaches us to respond to it, and the greater lessons imparted about grappling with racial tension. Atticus is very clear about how his children should react to racial slurs, and when Scout learns, we learn. Atticus directly addresses the issue in response to his daughter’s questions about the n-word:

“‘Scout,’ said Atticus, ‘n*****-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything — like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain — ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.’”

Here we have a middle-aged, white, male lawyer telling his daughter that this heinous word doesn’t “mean anything.” Words obviously have power, and it is the height of white privilege to exist in a context in which there is no single word specifically constructed and used to deny your humanity. In America today, this hateful word exists to deny black people their personhood. Of course it is meaningless to Atticus. He is fully insulated against its power and significance. There is no threat that can touch him. The law is on his side. He is friends with judges and police officers alike. He is a state representative. He is every middle-class white male today who fails to understand the dangers of simply being black. Please note as well his cultured elitism: Atticus uses the word “common” with such disdain.

What we see today among white liberals is a mimicry of this exact posture and message. White liberals (and fans of the book) don’t use that word, but also deny its power. In doing so, they create a vacuum for people (“common people”) to use the word with abandon and instead silence those who would speak out against its usage. To be unaffected by the power of the word has somehow been conflated with intellectual rigor. Without any hint of irony, we perpetuate the cognitive dissonance of recognizing the power of the past without acknowledging its impact on the present.

Atticus’s limited awareness is particularly clear when Jem asks him about the Ku Klux Klan. He dismisses his son’s concerns:

“Besides, they couldn’t find anybody to scare. They paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass, he’d sold ’em the very sheets on their backs. Sam made ’em so ashamed of themselves they went away.”

Here is the great dream of every white liberal — that he or she could simply face down a mob and with the sheer power of our presence as strong role models, shame would-be assailants to return to the shadows from whence they came. Sam Levy turns away the Klan with ironic humor. Atticus cows a lynch mob with the help of young Scout. According to the NAACP, from 1882–1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States, and nearly three-quarters of those lynched were black. All of those people were brutally murdered, often by their neighbors, by the very police force that should have protected them, by the ministers who should have spoken for them, by the judges who surely knew the law. Yet To Kill A Mockingbird suggests that somehow, all that was needed was one person to simply stand in their three-piece suit and frown. It is a mockery of the terror and pain that lynchings visited upon the black community. Their cries of pain weren’t enough? No, if only there had been an Atticus Finch. I know of no instance of a lynch mob being turned away with a word. Perhaps this fantasy did occur once. Maybe more. I do know of 4,743 instances when this fantasy failed.

Let us look a bit more closely at Atticus Finch’s great stand against the lynch mob. When a man tries to restrain Jem, Scout cries out, “Don’t you touch him!” and she kicks him. She is surprised when he “falls back in real pain,” and observes that although she “intended to kick his shin,” she “aimed too high.” Because we surely couldn’t let the gravity of a lynch mob get in the way of a good kick-to-the-nuts joke. Such wry Southern humor. So delightful. Scout then calls out to the men of the mob, and they come to their senses, return to their cars, and drive home.

I know of no instance of a lynch mob being turned away with a word.

If you want to understand the true terror of a lynch mob, consider reading “Between the World and Me” by Richard Wright. I was taught this poem in high school, but I was not permitted to teach it to my 8th graders last year due to concerns about the graphic violence. That being said, this poem has been far more instructive than my many readings of To Kill A Mockingbird. In the poem, the speaker encounters the scene of a lynching the day after. There are bones piled in ash, but more brutally — there is the detritus of the crowd of onlookers who treated the murder like entertainment. The speaker, contemplating the scene, becomes the victim:

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.

The assault begins with a brutal silencing followed by binding. It is “they” against “me,” and we feel the terror of being stripped, beaten, and bound. That is what we cannot face. When we read those words, we have to imagine what it would be like to face a crowd of violent, white faces — our faces. And we cannot face ourselves.

The fear that Richard Wright speaks to is a fear shared by all people of color in the U.S. today, and this fear is particularly acute in our current political landscape. The n-word has such power because it is intrinsically linked to the psychological terror of the lynch mob. To Kill A Mockingbird absolves us of this history. Atticus saves Tom Robinson, after all.

Or does he? Because that is one of the sadder facts of the novel. This great text, this book that is meant to show us all how wrong racism truly is, is an exhibition of the failure to enact change. Our great white savior’s only feat is delaying a certain verdict. Still, we celebrate this as a victory and view his struggle as heroic. It is Atticus whom we consider with the most empathy and compassion. The toll on Atticus is made clear repeatedly. Consider Aunt Alexandra’s concern that she shares in the kitchen at one of her tea parties:

“I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want him to know when this will ever end. It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him to pieces.”

While Atticus is figuratively torn to pieces somewhere in a prison morgue, Tom Robinson lies shredded by bullets. We see so much white pain firsthand, but never the toll racism exacts on black families. We see the pain of the savior, but we see none of the true victim’s agony. When Atticus goes to tell Helen Robinson that her husband has been killed in prison, we have access to that scene second-hand and from a distance. Little Dill watches as Atticus delivers the news and reports back to Scout:

“‘Scout,’ said Dill, ‘she just fell down in the dirt. Just fell down in the dirt, like a giant with a big foot just came along and stepped on her. Just ump — ’ Dill’s fat foot hit the ground. ‘Like you’d step on an ant.’ Dill said Calpurnia and Atticus lifted Helen to her feet and half carried, half walked her to the cabin. They stayed inside a long time, and Atticus came out alone.”

Here is perhaps the greatest obstacle that Atticus Finch has created for conversations about race today. Atticus’s great maxim — “Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stand in his shoes” — is a hypothetical thought exercise that we employ in place of simply listening. Moreover, we have come to believe that is enough.

Of course, when Atticus shares his view of the importance of empathy and shoes, he is encouraging his children to consider the perspectives of white characters. He encourages his children to consider the feelings of their new teacher, Miss Caroline, and after they face the mob together, Atticus tells Scout “you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute.” Atticus even asks his son, Jem, to consider Bob Ewell’s perspective — Bob being the man who has falsely accused Tom Robinson of raping his daughter, Mayella. It is Bob who savagely beats his daughter because he can’t tolerate her affection for Tom. But Atticus calls for compassion.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and James Anderson as Bob Ewell in the movie version of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Atticus calls for compassion for Mrs. Dubose — the old neighbor who repeatedly insults Jem and Scout and claims their “father’s no better than the n****** and trash he works for” — too. When Jem lashes out and attacks Mrs. Dubose’s garden, Atticus forces him to read to her every day as penance. Mrs. Dubose’s vitriol is dismissed by Atticus as an opinion she has: “She was a lady. She had her own view about things, a lot different from mine, maybe.”

Atticus wants his children to mentally “climb into [another person’s] skin and walk around in it,” but he only encourages them to climb into white skin. His children never specifically consider what it feels like to be Tom Robinson or his wife, Helen. More importantly still, at no point does anyone turn to Calpurnia, Jem and Scout’s surrogate mother and caretaker, and ask, “What do you think? What do you feel?” She never gets a chance to speak. Meanwhile, Helen grieves in silence. We do not hear her cries. We only imagine them.

Which brings us back to the word that makes people “uncomfortable.” Using the n-word is not an opinion that you are entitled to express. It causes too much pain and that is the only purpose it serves.

At no point does anyone turn to Calpurnia, Jem and Scout’s surrogate mother and caretaker, and ask, ‘What do you think?’

When we teach a book in class, that book is given a voice. It is the loudest voice in the room, and it becomes an even higher authority than the teacher. Teachers are the guides leading students through a text, but it is the text that defines the space of the lesson. The n-word is not just written on the page. As students read passages out loud, they say it to each other. They speak Atticus’s words, and they internalize his lessons. To call that experience “uncomfortable” is to disguise the pain of racial violence beneath a mask of euphemism. Consider one teacher’s experience with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the n-word. Debora Baker seeks to impart the importance of historical accuracy and contextual understanding to her students, but she also seems to be committed to listening to the voices in her classroom. She reflects on one exchange in particular:

“I am not a 14-year-old African-American girl, like Jordan.
Jordan does not often offer opinions in class discussion, but in an online forum she boldly stated, ‘Yes, I do agree with the choice to remove the n-word, because that word makes me feel uncomfortable and makes me want to throw the book in a pit of fire and dance on the ashes!’
I don’t want Jordan to dance on the ashes. I want her to love literature, to feel empowered by it. I want her to read the n-word and understand why the writer used it, to put it in context. But ultimately, I doubt that I will be able to convince Jordan of anything. I suspect that she will feel what she feels — angry and disenfranchised.”

I don’t think Jordan should feel anything other than angry and disenfranchised by Huckleberry Finn and most high school English curricula. In most English classes, minority authors are woefully underrepresented, and the topic of race is often allotted a mere one book per year. I have heard teachers at conferences refer with excitement to their new “diversity book,” as if they were checking a box and their work was finished. In my experience, texts that promote diversity often need a champion within the English department, and when they leave, the text they promoted is phased out. From a utilitarian perspective, it is a matter of effort and resources. Newer books have fewer resources available, and so teachers have to do more work to prepare lesson plans and assessments. By comparison, the classics and the perennial favorites have entire units available, complete with resources for scaffolding exercises, assessments with answer keys, powerpoint presentations, and more.

The cost of convenience is too high. In teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, we listen to the voice of a white woman, Harper Lee, instead of a person of color. If we want to convey the lesson that “racism is bad,” there are thousands of books that we could use to make that point. Go to your library and talk to a librarian. All those books with the shiny stickers? Those are award-winning books, often recently published, that have been vetted by experts and praised for their ability to tackle tough issues with delicacy and nuance. Those are the books we need. We need The Hate U Give. We need Brown Girl Dreaming. We need Monster. We need One Crazy Summer. We need to teach books written by people of color about the experience of being a person of color from their perspective on history and the world today.

To Kill A Mockingbird was revolutionary for its time, but its usefulness in our secondary school curricula has passed. The racism students face today is different than the historical fiction of To Kill A Mockingbird. To continue to teach that text suggests to our students that racism only existed in the past. But turn on your news. Nazis and white supremacists are marching, and white commentators everywhere are crying for “unity” and “understanding,” and that’s no coincidence — compassion for oppressors and the silencing of victims is everything that Atticus Finch represents.

America is Maycomb, the fictional town where To Kill a Mockingbird is set. We tell the victims of oppression agitating for justice that progress takes time. We demand sympathy for racists and Nazis. To the chant of “Black Lives Matter,” we seek to silence those voices with a chorus of “All Lives Matter.” If Atticus Finch is our father-figure, then we are all Scout. We have all learned to serve tea and cookies to racists in our parlors while people of color suffer in our kitchens in silence.

To Kill A Mockingbird finishes with Atticus reading a children’s story to Scout as she falls asleep, and that is what To Kill A Mockingbird is for white readers: a fairy tale we tell ourselves about ourselves as we drift off to sleep.

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