Banned: To Kill a Mockingbird

Cover of the book showing title in white letters against a black background in a banner above a painting of a portion of a tree against a red backgroundIn honor of Banned Books Week, we are repurposing some reflections from one of our team members. Though not exactly bringing fiction into the everyday, we think that celebrating banned books is an important way to honor the value of all kinds of books in our lives. Even–and especially– if we disagree with them.


To Kill a Mockingbird
Now here is a book that deserves to be banned. To Kill a Mockingbird has it all–bad language, rape, racial discrimination, violence against children, and the list goes on. When most groups have challenged this book, they cite all these factors, and say that the book promotes them.

Now, I get why parents object to the “profanity and racial slurs” in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I turn the channel on TV at home when language gets harsh and my five-year-old daughter is sitting next to me. I want her to have virtues to aspire to, not vices to hold her back. The real question about depicting discrimination and vulgarity in literature is what affect it has on us or on our children. We don’t want the book to stand up these behaviors as exemplars. The N-word is not okay to come out of our mouths, and we want our children to know that.

To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t set that behavior as an example, however. Author Harper Lee merely paints the picture of a small Alabama town as it was in the earlier part of the 20th Century. Lean close now, and I’ll whisper you a secret: White people in the South didn’t always treat African-American people properly or with respect. Shew. I’m glad I got that off my chest. Don’t you feel better too? Hiding the negative potential common to all people doesn’t change historical fact, and it doesn’t prepare our children for facing these dangers when they arrive.

Readers and especially challengers need to keep in mind that just because a behavior is in print, that behavior isn’t necessarily being set forth as a role model. The truth is that we learn a lot about people from choices they make, and we learn more from their bad choices, bad words, and bad behaviors than we do from their good ones.

Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird is not given ‘prescriptively’. It’s not telling us how things ought to be. Rather, the racial divisions are given ‘descriptively’, simply telling us how things were at the time. It is a regrettable fact that racism, incest, and violence against children did happen. However, banning the book for discussing these topics is like banning The Killer Angels because its depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg shows our country in a state of division.

To Kill a Mockingbird presents very accessible, likable characters (I’m looking at you Jem, Scout, and Dill) who help readers to explore the depth of humanity that can be encountered even in the most common life, the life of a child. I think Harper Lee’s master stroke, though, is in the last page. As the events of the book wind down, and Atticus tucks Scout into bed, she recounts a story he had been reading to her of a group of boys who set off after someone who had been vandalizing their clubhouse.

“Yeah, an’ they all thought it was Stoner’s Boy messin’ up their clubhouse and throwing ink all over it an’… they chased him ‘n’ never could catch him… an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things… Atticus, he was real nice.” His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Most people are nice when you finally truly see them. That’s the book’s lasting message; that’s why I still read To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s why I’ll read it with my kids whether it’s allowed in their school or not.

How to Commemorate:

  • Read a banned book.
  • Follow #BannedBooksWeek or @BannedBooksWeek on twitter. 


Works Cited
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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