Of mice, men, mockingbirds and caged birds

A picture of three stacks of three different editions of "To Kill a Mockingbird", of which one has a sticker advertising Harper Lee's other book, "Go Set a Watchman", to be released July 2015.
Various editions of To Kill a Mockingbird

Today I saw a piece in the Globe and Mail, a Toronto-based newspaper, in which a professor at York University (the one in Toronto) called for schools to change the way they teach the novel To Kill a Mockingbird or to stop teaching it. This is because the novel uses the ‘N-word’ very liberally, which according to Professor Carl James “lends legitimacy to the word particularly in the absence of critical analysis in terms of the historical context, who is using the word and its effect on learners”. The article also quotes Poleen Grewal, the associate director of instruction and equity support services at Peel school board, which serves a district west of Toronto, as saying that the frequent use of the word was “hurting and harming black kids” and that the book’s sole major Black character, Tom Robinson, was “one-dimensional”. The board has started to recommend other texts which discuss issues of race and are more relevant, including books by Rohinton Mistry, Malorie Blackman, Richard Wagamese and Lawrence Hill. (The Star, another Canadian newspaper, published this article last November, arguing that it was time to “move on” from To Kill A Mockingbird. Hat tip to sis. Taqwa who tweeted both these articles.)

I grew up and live in England and have never read Mockingbird, but as a teenager I did English at A-level and studied Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which was about a brutal quadruple murder in 1950s rural Kansas whose perpetrators were ultimately hanged. My sister studied Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at school and my mother studied a selection of American literature which included Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. In Cold Blood is not really about race but about American justice, and demonstrated that judges and politicians were willing to sacrifice human life for power, using legal doctrines to discount evidence of a defendant’s insanity, for example. But the others were set in mid-20th century southern America and used racial slurs, especially the N-word, very liberally. Some of the authors were Black and some were White, but we all got to read out passages of it.

The overuse of the N-word is only one criticism of these books; another is that Mockingbird in particular focusses on a “white hero” who saves a Black person from injustice rather than on the lives of Black people themselves. The problem of one-dimensional characters is not confined to Mockingbird; it is noticeable that all the characters in The Color Purple other than the Black women are either vicious or stupid, or both. However, their biggest weakness as set texts for our time is that they teach racism through the prism of another place and time and a specific regime — segregation — which is no longer in place. It’s possible to grow up white in a diverse city nowadays and not realise racism exists, especially if you do not live in a diverse area yourself, so reading a book about small-town Arkansas in the 1940s where there was segregation and obvious, violent racism backed by officialdom, where a dentist will openly racially abuse a little girl to her grandmother, will not teach you anything about your own time. Young people in London need to know about the experiences of different people in their own city or one a lot like it, but in practice will not be expected to read a book set in their own country in modern times. (I also studied Jane Eyre, Hamlet, The Knight’s Tale and the Post-Romantic poets such as Tennyson and Browning; for GCSE, at an all-boys boarding school, I did not study a single whole novel by a woman.)

I am not suggesting that school pupils never study texts set in 20th century America; it’s an important body of literature by a diverse group of authors in terms of race and gender. They cover other important subjects besides race (sexual abuse and trauma in the case of Caged Bird). But race in modern Britain and Canada is not Black and White and the books our children study at school should reflect the realities of the world they grow up in, not a bygone era.

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