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Thread: To Kill a Mockingbird and that which makes us “uncomfortable”

  1. #1
    MacAllister's Official Minion & Greeter AW Moderator Ari Meermans's Avatar
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    To Kill a Mockingbird and that which makes us “uncomfortable”

    Few can have missed the on-going furor over the Biloxi Mississippi School District’s decision to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its eighth-grade curriculum because “it makes people uncomfortable”. The news has hit almost all the major news outlets: CBS (as cited by cornflake in Novels); The LA Times, which Lisa just pointed me to; and The Washington Post. There are many other articles, of course, covering different takes on the book’s removal by the district and if you want to cite and discuss any of those, please do.

    I’m still distilling my thoughts on the “real” underlying reasons we so often avoid that which makes us uncomfortable—in our reading choices, in our conversations, and in our own writing. If you agree with Mandy Shunnarah in her blog “off the beaten shelf”, as I do, that “Ignorance is bliss only to those in power”, why do we embrace avoidance and so often choose ignorance and comfort over knowledge and power?
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    I think the short answer is that it's easy. It's plain easy to ignore the grey areas and just stick with what we know. In the end, though, not unpacking why some subject matter makes us uncomfortable will only stunt our growth as writers, as readers, and as members of society.
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    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    There is a fine line between challenging my world view in a way that enriches my perspective, and a needless drag through intentionally unpleasant territory. For me, it's as simple as asking "Who wants to be uncomfortable?" I don't watch slasher horror movies anymore, and I avoid certain genres of graphic novels because I don't like feeling like everyone is bent on evil. Besides, it's not fun for me to be tense for two hours. I avoid bars after mid-evening because I don't like the atmosphere. I avoid Subway sandwiches because they're nasty.

    There are plenty of Southerners here who can speak for themselves, but from my years in Mississippi I think I understand where the school district might be coming from, even if I disagree. All but the most hateful Southerners are embarrassed by Jim Crow and everything that went on. Mississippi is by no means a shining light of progressivism, but they would tell you that a 60 year old book describing what things were like 80 years ago does not tell the story of the modern South, or describe modern Southerners. To many of the Southerners I knew, they've endured (been the victims of) 150 years of constantly having their nose rubbed in how wrong they were. They feel they've been gaslighted and bullied by the North, as exemplified by Hollywood and the media. In today's racially charged environment, it's not beyond consideration that they would want to avoid stirring people up. I can totally hear them saying "Really? We're going to rehash this AGAIN? Get over it; we have." They don't want to be the target, yet again, of backlash against a time that no longer exists. Confederacy monuments aside, they probably feel they have indeed gotten over it and are moving on.
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    practical experience, FTW Twick's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris P View Post
    Confederacy monuments aside, they probably feel they have indeed gotten over it and are moving on.
    Well, that does bring up the classic Civil War joke - "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"

    What next? Banning works that show that the colonization of Indian territory was violent and predatory because it makes white folks feel uncomfortable? Banning The Diary of Anne Frank because it makes Germans (particularly those who are starting to hum about "blood and soil" again) feel uncomfortable?

    Mockingbird is a story where everyone, heroes and villains, are southerners. If it makes people uncomfortable to admit that racism ever existed in the south, that innocent men were lynched because of the colour of their skin, they haven't "gotten over it."

  5. #5
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris P View Post
    There is a fine line between challenging my world view in a way that enriches my perspective, and a needless drag through intentionally unpleasant territory. For me, it's as simple as asking "Who wants to be uncomfortable?" I don't watch slasher horror movies anymore, and I avoid certain genres of graphic novels because I don't like feeling like everyone is bent on evil. Besides, it's not fun for me to be tense for two hours. I avoid bars after mid-evening because I don't like the atmosphere. I avoid Subway sandwiches because they're nasty.

    There are plenty of Southerners here who can speak for themselves, but from my years in Mississippi I think I understand where the school district might be coming from, even if I disagree. All but the most hateful Southerners are embarrassed by Jim Crow and everything that went on. Mississippi is by no means a shining light of progressivism, but they would tell you that a 60 year old book describing what things were like 80 years ago does not tell the story of the modern South, or describe modern Southerners. To many of the Southerners I knew, they've endured (been the victims of) 150 years of constantly having their nose rubbed in how wrong they were. They feel they've been gaslighted and bullied by the North, as exemplified by Hollywood and the media. In today's racially charged environment, it's not beyond consideration that they would want to avoid stirring people up. I can totally hear them saying "Really? We're going to rehash this AGAIN? Get over it; we have." They don't want to be the target, yet again, of backlash against a time that no longer exists. Confederacy monuments aside, they probably feel they have indeed gotten over it and are moving on.
    Except we really, really, clearly haven't gotten over it, as a nation, as exemplified by the heinous, ridiculous outright racism that surrounded Obama's presidency and has only bloomed since. That is IS a racially-charged environment is evidence they haven't gotten over it.

    Besides that, since when does English class focus on literature that tells the story of the modern place and time? That wasn't the goal of any English class I was ever in in school. The kids in school are living in the modern place and time. Aside from the literary value of great literature for its own sake (which often deals with 'uncomfortable' topics for someone), literature is a view of another time, of people's attitudes, etc. That's the point, no?

    Also, they're kids. They don't get to just not be made uncomfortable by anything they choose. They have to get up for school, and take geometry, and read Shakespeare and Chaucer and Hawthorne and Miller and Lee and learn things they think they're not interested in. You, an adult, get to say you're not interested in learning about X; that's not how it works with kids, otherwise a LOT of people would not be able to do basic math.

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    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Twick View Post
    What next? Banning works that show that the colonization of Indian territory was violent and predatory because it makes white folks feel uncomfortable? Banning The Diary of Anne Frank because it makes Germans (particularly those who are starting to hum about "blood and soil" again) feel uncomfortable?

    Mockingbird is a story where everyone, heroes and villains, are southerners. If it makes people uncomfortable to admit that racism ever existed in the south, that innocent men were lynched because of the colour of their skin, they haven't "gotten over it."
    Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee was indeed banned by a school district in Wisconsin in order to avoid controversy. As has Diary of Anne Frank. I doubt either ban comes as a surprise to anyone.

    I never said the Biloxi school board, or anyone, was right in banning TKAM, or that either of the examples above are justified. Understanding the logic behind such bans, to me at least, gives an insight into how such stuff happens. Hopefully such an understanding can frame the discussion and lead to progress. Understanding why Southerners are so sensitive on the subject moves the discussion away from "you're all a bunch of racists"/"no we're not" to "you feel your progress is not being recognized"/"thank you, let's show you how we've changed."

    I agree they are not totally over it, otherwise they would have nothing to fear from open discussion of the past. This is part of the reason I left the Deep South. But growth is a process, and not everyone is in the same place in the process.
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    practical experience, FTW autumnleaf's Avatar
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    From my reading of the linked articles, it's the black and mixed-race kids who are feeling uncomfortable because of racial slurs in the novel. IMHO, that's not a reason to take the book off the curriculum, but it might impact the way the book is discussed in class -- discussion about how using slurs in fiction doesn't mean you agree with those slurs, how language has different meanings depending on context, etc.
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    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris P View Post
    Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee was indeed banned by a school district in Wisconsin in order to avoid controversy. As has Diary of Anne Frank. I doubt either ban comes as a surprise to anyone.

    I never said the Biloxi school board, or anyone, was right in banning TKAM, or that either of the examples above are justified. Understanding the logic behind such bans, to me at least, gives an insight into how such stuff happens. Hopefully such an understanding can frame the discussion and lead to progress. Understanding why Southerners are so sensitive on the subject moves the discussion away from "you're all a bunch of racists"/"no we're not" to "you feel your progress is not being recognized"/"thank you, let's show you how we've changed."

    I agree they are not totally over it, otherwise they would have nothing to fear from open discussion of the past. This is part of the reason I left the Deep South. But growth is a process, and not everyone is in the same place in the process.
    If we waited for everyone to get to the same place in the process on their own, the south might still have slavery, or legally segregated schools, or pools that ban black people.

    At some point, we force the process, because otherwise, nothing happens. We sit in, we march, we change the laws and send in the National Guard to enforce them. I don't mean only in regards to racism; there were some very scary charts last year showing the numbers of people who would, today, like to see women stripped of the vote. There were strikes aplenty before unions took hold.

    Not making people uncomfortable isn't, in my view, even remotely a way to help them move forward at any pace. Again, we're talking about kids. They, more than anyone, need to read these things, need to learn what happened, what is happening, how it all relates.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris P View Post
    In today's racially charged environment, it's not beyond consideration that they would want to avoid stirring people up. I can totally hear them saying "Really? We're going to rehash this AGAIN? Get over it; we have." They don't want to be the target, yet again, of backlash against a time that no longer exists. Confederacy monuments aside, they probably feel they have indeed gotten over it and are moving on.
    The thing is, even if adults feel like they've gotten over it (which is something I would question considering the continuing problems with racism in our country), children/teens don't always have that context. For some of them, books like these might be their first real exposure to how things used to be.

    If the problem is that the material isn't being handled well (making POC students uncomfortable), that might be a bigger issue to address and not something that can be solved just by removing the book.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris P View Post
    There is a fine line between challenging my world view in a way that enriches my perspective, and a needless drag through intentionally unpleasant territory. For me, it's as simple as asking "Who wants to be uncomfortable?" I don't watch slasher horror movies anymore, and I avoid certain genres of graphic novels because I don't like feeling like everyone is bent on evil. Besides, it's not fun for me to be tense for two hours. I avoid bars after mid-evening because I don't like the atmosphere. I avoid Subway sandwiches because they're nasty.

    There are plenty of Southerners here who can speak for themselves, but from my years in Mississippi I think I understand where the school district might be coming from, even if I disagree. All but the most hateful Southerners are embarrassed by Jim Crow and everything that went on. Mississippi is by no means a shining light of progressivism, but they would tell you that a 60 year old book describing what things were like 80 years ago does not tell the story of the modern South, or describe modern Southerners. To many of the Southerners I knew, they've endured (been the victims of) 150 years of constantly having their nose rubbed in how wrong they were. They feel they've been gaslighted and bullied by the North, as exemplified by Hollywood and the media. In today's racially charged environment, it's not beyond consideration that they would want to avoid stirring people up. I can totally hear them saying "Really? We're going to rehash this AGAIN? Get over it; we have." They don't want to be the target, yet again, of backlash against a time that no longer exists. Confederacy monuments aside, they probably feel they have indeed gotten over it and are moving on.
    I think I understand what you're saying, but do southerners who aren't bigots themselves really think their past is misrepresented and that racism isn't still an issue today? How can society "get over" something that still resonates and hurts people today?

    Is the portrayal of the South's racist past by the media really gaslighting? Did they not really have slavery and segregation and Jim Crow? Were the freedom marchers not abused? Did the national guard not have to accompany the Montgomery Six to school? For that matter, is racism not alive and well in the South today? What about all the anger over the removal of Confederate flags and monuments from public spaces that aren't specifically set up to educate the public about the past?

    Some things are left out of the narrative, though. For instance, not all segregated schools were south of the old Mason Dixon line. And there was and is plenty of racism in the north, and all kinds of de-facto segregation that survives today.

    I also understand that books that are snapshots of the past can be very uncomforable. Many, possibly most, of the books that were assigned reading in school when I was growing up made me uncomfortable in certain ways that the authors may not have even intended. Often this discomfort stemmed from the fact that certain things--disregard for the intelligence or character of women, racism, a rigid class system, cruelty or disregard for animals as feeling creatures, etc. etc.--were presented as unexamined truths in their narratives. I didn't always feel good about myself after reading classics. Even novels that embraced rather progressive themes for the times they were written (like the Scarlet Letter's examination of the sexual double standard) were not comfortable reads.

    But should we purge everything from our literary past because they are uncomfortable reminders of attitudes we're trying to lay to rest nowadays or a history we'd rather forget?

    I agree that reading lists need to be revises and room needs to be made for newer work (not to mention work from more diverse voices). Given the finite amount of time available to study them, some of the classics will be culled. Hopefully, some of these newer books will contrast with and offer different perspectives than some of the older classics that remain.

    The question really is which of the traditional classics should be retained? Given what's playing out in the South (and elsewhere in the country) and the voting patterns in the last election, and all the white backlash over the BLM movement, I don't think TKaM is "old, dead history" at all. My only question is whether or not there's an "own voices" work that might better address the issue.
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    practical experience, FTW EmilyEmily's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cornflake View Post
    Except we really, really, clearly haven't gotten over it, as a nation, as exemplified by the heinous, ridiculous outright racism that surrounded Obama's presidency and has only bloomed since. That is IS a racially-charged environment is evidence they haven't gotten over it.

    Besides that, since when does English class focus on literature that tells the story of the modern place and time? That wasn't the goal of any English class I was ever in in school. The kids in school are living in the modern place and time. Aside from the literary value of great literature for its own sake (which often deals with 'uncomfortable' topics for someone), literature is a view of another time, of people's attitudes, etc. That's the point, no?

    Also, they're kids. They don't get to just not be made uncomfortable by anything they choose. They have to get up for school, and take geometry, and read Shakespeare and Chaucer and Hawthorne and Miller and Lee and learn things they think they're not interested in. You, an adult, get to say you're not interested in learning about X; that's not how it works with kids, otherwise a LOT of people would not be able to do basic math.
    1. The English teacher in me demands that I point out you are confusing "modern" and "contemporary." These terms aren't interchangeable when discussing eras/genres in literature. To Kill A Mockingbird IS modern.

    2. "Besides that, since when does English class focus on literature that tells the story of the modern place and time? That wasn't the goal of any English class I was ever in in school." I'm sorry your high school English teachers did this. Students should read literature across a variety of times/cultures, including our own, and class discussion should involve examination of the cultural phenomena and issues that produced (or embraced, or vilified) a text. This is not just the wacky belief of one single English teacher: I don't know anybody who would shun contemporary literature when forming curriculum. Each year on the AP English Lit exam, the novel suggestions for the Q3 composition include contemporary titles as well as "classics." Your high school English teachers dropped the ball, and they did you a disservice.

    One of my classes is currently reading Great Expectations, but they will read Middlesex later this year. Another class is currently reading The Tempest, but they are going to read The Goldfinch later. I have a small group of students who are reading We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and I encourage the rampant John Green fanbase, all of whom are currently reading Turles All the Way Down "for fun" (I'll consider allowing some of them to write about this novel for a later composition project).

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    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EmilyEmily View Post
    1. The English teacher in me demands that I point out you are confusing "modern" and "contemporary." These terms aren't interchangeable when discussing eras/genres in literature. To Kill A Mockingbird IS modern.

    2. "Besides that, since when does English class focus on literature that tells the story of the modern place and time? That wasn't the goal of any English class I was ever in in school." I'm sorry your high school English teachers did this. Students should read literature across a variety of times/cultures, including our own, and class discussion should involve examination of the cultural phenomena and issues that produced (or embraced, or vilified) a text. This is not just the wacky belief of one single English teacher: I don't know anybody who would shun contemporary literature when forming curriculum. Each year on the AP English Lit exam, the novel suggestions for the Q3 composition include contemporary titles as well as "classics." Your high school English teachers dropped the ball, and they did you a disservice.

    One of my classes is currently reading Great Expectations, but they will read Middlesex later this year. Another class is currently reading The Tempest, but they are going to read The Goldfinch later. I have a small group of students who are reading We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and I encourage the rampant John Green fanbase, all of whom are currently reading Turles All the Way Down "for fun" (I'll consider allowing some of them to write about this novel for a later composition project).
    Hence ... 'focus' and 'goal.' I was assigned some modern and some contemporary lit but that was not the focus or goal of any class I've been in.

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    Quote Originally Posted by autumnleaf View Post
    From my reading of the linked articles, it's the black and mixed-race kids who are feeling uncomfortable because of racial slurs in the novel. IMHO, that's not a reason to take the book off the curriculum, but it might impact the way the book is discussed in class -- discussion about how using slurs in fiction doesn't mean you agree with those slurs, how language has different meanings depending on context, etc.
    Yeah, that was my impression too. It sounds like the school did this in response to a specific student's protest.

    And I think that student missed the point. Wearing a shirt with slurs on it is obviously different from those slurs appearing in context within a work of fiction, and I don't believe that books should be censored for containing uncomfortable language. But I also suspect that the school was in an awkward position here, and if they had ignored the protest, that could have reflected negatively on them as well.
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    Quote Originally Posted by cornflake View Post
    Hence ... 'focus' and 'goal.' I was assigned some modern and some contemporary lit but that was not the focus or goal of any class I've been in.
    Hence...your English teachers dropped the ball, and they did you a disservice.

    I can't imagine any English teacher who considers neither contemporary nor modern literature a "focus" or "goal." I don't think such a teacher's class pass rate for AP (or any other higher level exam) could be very good.

    Did they just stop at the Victorian era?

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    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EmilyEmily View Post
    Hence...your English teachers dropped the ball, and they did you a disservice.

    I can't imagine any English teacher who considers neither contemporary nor modern literature a "focus" or "goal." I don't think such a teacher's class pass rate for AP (or any other higher level exam) could be very good.

    Did they just stop at the Victorian era?
    No, again, it was included, but neither the focus or goal of classes was literature that tells the story of the modern place and time. Our pass rate -- I'm not sure what you'd consider a 'pass rate' for an AP class? Getting under 4 was fairly scandalous in my school. Sometimes people got 3s in some subject but rarely English iirc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ari Meermans View Post

    I’m still distilling my thoughts on the “real” underlying reasons we so often avoid that which makes us uncomfortable—in our reading choices, in our conversations, and in our own writing. ?
    This is the big question, not just in life, but more importantly, in writing. ()

    but seriously, it's a real issue, and I've no idea how to address it. Someone (any one know who?) said 'write so that you embarrass your parents' - or words to that affect - was it Philip Larkin?) and 'a real writer will lose all friends' or similar.

    I suppose the answer is to be an honest as one possibly can.

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    Quote Originally Posted by autumnleaf View Post
    From my reading of the linked articles, it's the black and mixed-race kids who are feeling uncomfortable because of racial slurs in the novel. IMHO, that's not a reason to take the book off the curriculum, but it might impact the way the book is discussed in class -- discussion about how using slurs in fiction doesn't mean you agree with those slurs, how language has different meanings depending on context, etc.
    You're close to what is going on. It's often the case that when this is a problem, that the teacher doesn't have that strong of a grasp of what using these words in the classroom results in. And that can be either a case of not understanding what the results can be or it can be a case of not having control of the classroom. The major issue appears to be the students using these new words without proper education on the context and ramifications of these words.

    In my school, TKAM appeared in Grade 10, not in grade 8. And perhaps that is fair as TKAM does require a bit of more mature mind to read.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris P View Post
    "Who wants to be uncomfortable?"
    said Comfortable Guy

    (Not you, Chris P, unless you're yanno, agreeing with the statement.) But comfortable isn't something that should be an assumed right by people whose comfort depends on injustice.

    I say that as an extremely uncomfortable white Australian.
    Last edited by mccardey; 10-23-2017 at 07:37 AM.

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    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    The NYT has a collection of letters to the editor from teens, including this --

    We live in a tense and fraught time. Racial tensions are rising with police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Alternative right groups are spreading, and so are neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Our president prefers angry tweets to press conferences. Among this turmoil, seeing the article “Biloxi, Where Late the ‘Mockingbird’ Sang” (Arts, Briefly, Oct. 18) is no surprise. A Mississippi school district removed the book after parents complained of feeling uncomfortable. But the point of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is to make the reader uncomfortable. Reading it should make people uncomfortable, because it tells of a time not too long ago when someone with the wrong skin color could be killed for a glance or a whistle. The purpose of this book isn’t to soothe readers. Books are here to remind you of injustices and to push you to action. Don’t hide away from unpleasantness; act on it.

    AMELIA HITCHINGHAM, 15

    10th Grade, Jackson High School, Jackson, Mich.
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    If this country is to have a future, it'll be up to the young people like Amelia and the other teens who wrote those letters. They give me hope.
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    Revolutionize the World kuwisdelu's Avatar
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    I wouldn’t mind To Kill a Mockingbird being removed from the curriculum if it were being replaced by an #ownvoices book that gives kids of color an alternative to yet another white savior narrative written by a white person. But I know that’s not going to happen. The problem with To Kill a Mockingbird is that it doesn’t make white people more uncomfortable.

    I remember being a kid in school, feeling viscerally uncomfortable by the reading list in a way I didn’t yet have words to describe, because I kept wondering why all the books we read about racism were written by white people, about white people.

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    I have been thinking about this (and fun reminiscing with friends about books we read in high school--I sure as shit hope Ethan Frome is off the lists, although I did like the Buccaneers, both Wharton's and the posthumous part!)

    I agree with both Cornflake and Kuwi here, that yes, TKAM, as with so many others, is still, at it's core, about the white experience. No surprise, it's written by a white person. I read this in 7th grade, was Miss Maudie in the play, and have read it over the years. My opinion about it has changed a LOT. To some degree, it's the same one I have for The Help--phew! Thank God for white people! And you know, it's really all about them anyway! The purpose of the help is so we can see the white people change! And they do! So, sure, they may have run over your kid, dumped him off for inadequate health care, fired you, abused you, killed your family but see, the white people GET IT at the end, so...it's all good, right? < ----massive sarcasm alert. Certainly, for me, TKAM is NOT that stark, but I can see people seeing that way.

    I hate to see TKAM taken from the required list, although I hope the discussions about it have changed (I think there was a really good New Yorker article on it some years back, about how Atticus works IN and doesn't challenge a corrupt system) And I very much agree with Kuwi that of course they should also be having kids read books by and about people of color/a range of experiences that don't hinge/somehow revolve around the white experience.

    And absolutely go Amelia! We should be uncomfortable by stuff (and perhaps motivated to do something about it!) I got The Jungle in 8th grade (too young, but still, had a huge impression on me) I agree that 7th is likely too young for TKAM--10th m ight be more appropriate. Thinking back, not sure what some of my HS teachers goals' were--read romeo and Juliet in 9th AND I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (and I Head the Owl Call My Name) OTOH, also in 7th grade we got Catcher in the Rye. I dunno, that's another one I loved then, but have reread and really wonder about 7th grade teaching that. But...NOT an English teacher so just things I wonder about.

    Interesting, but hate to see TKAM removed.
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    Quote Originally Posted by kuwisdelu View Post
    I wouldn’t mind To Kill a Mockingbird being removed from the curriculum if it were being replaced by an #ownvoices book that gives kids of color an alternative to yet another white savior narrative written by a white person. But I know that’s not going to happen. The problem with To Kill a Mockingbird is that it doesn’t make white people more uncomfortable.

    I remember being a kid in school, feeling viscerally uncomfortable by the reading list in a way I didn’t yet have words to describe, because I kept wondering why all the books we read about racism were written by white people, about white people.
    Thank you for that link. I agree wholeheartedly that #ownvoices books need to be in the curriculum. More #ownvoices books need to be published and more #ownvoices movies need to be made. Children need to see themselves in books as heroes, as smart and of worth in the world. I can't know what it's like for a child to not be able to see themselves as those characters, but I imagine it can feel diminishing over time.

    It's disheartening to know that almost 60 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was written and published it still has currency. Because it does, though, I don't think it should be replaced; instead, it should have #ownvoices companions in the curriculum. I grew up in the rural South of the 1950s and '60s when Jim Crow laws and segregation were still in effect, and I needed to know my thinking wasn't wrong. That it was, though out of step, in fact right. Though it's been a long time since I first read TKAM, the gist of one passage validated my thinking and has never left me. Can't tell you exactly where in the book it is, but it's when Atticus sits down with Scout and tells her that only "nasty, ignorant people" use the n-word. That was deeply meaningful to me in the environment I grew up in and helped me to internalize better the rightness of all that I was thinking and feeling.
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    "Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance." Lyndon B. Johnson

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