To kill 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
Ninth-graders aren't reading To Kill a Mockingbird this year in Mukilteo, Washington, an affluent, mostly white town north of Seattle. Four teachers got the classic 1960 novel kicked off the required-reading list because the story of racial injustice is told from a white girl's point of view.
Black students, who make up 5 percent of students, disliked the book, says Shanta Freeman-Miller, a Kamiak High School teacher. At a meeting of the Union for Students of African Ancestry, one student "complained the novel did not move her, because it wasn't written about her -- or for her," writes Hannah Natanson in the Washington Post. Another complained that racists in the small, Depression-era Southern town, used the "n-word," encouraging classmates to repeat the word.
“To Kill A Mockingbird centers on whiteness,” wrote Freeman-Miller and three white colleagues in asking the district to remove the novel from the classroom. Lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends a black man falsely accused of rape, is a "white savior."
"Teachers and librarians, especially those at nearby Mariner High School, saw the Kamiak foursome as book banners," writes Natanson.
Ann Freemon, who taught high school English for 34 years, said students didn't know about Jim Crow laws or racism in Depression-era America until they read Mockingbird. “So then they would understand, and they were appalled every time,” she said. “It’s just so valuable to have that history and have that literature. And it’s good literature.”
At a meeting of the Instructional Materials Committee in late 2021, teachers argued for hours about the book.
“We profoundly question why we should read a book by a White author, in which Black characters are secondary, voiceless, meek, and two-dimensional,” (Verena) Kuzmany of Kamiak said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks.
“I am standing against taking books out of the hands of our students for any reason,” Freemon of Mariner said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks. “There is not one novel that we teach at the high school that is not offensive to someone, in some capacity.”
The committee voted to removed it from the required-reading list, but keep it on a longer "district-approved" list of novels that teachers could choose to assign. But only Freemon continued to do so, and she's now retired. As far as she knows, she told Natanson, no teacher is assigning To Kill a Mockingbird this year.
The Kamiak teachers have urged colleagues to teach Young Adult titles on 21st-century racism such as The Hate U Give (2017), which has a black author, or All American Boys (2015), which has two authors, one black and one white, so nobody has to write from the point of view of a different race.
These easy-to-read books will be careful to avoid disturbing racial slurs by racist characters, overly helpful whites and confusing historical references. They will be perfectly PC on race. Will they have Boo Radley? I doubt it. Of course, I'm waiting for YA books written more than five years ago to be canceled for lack of transgender or non-binary characters.
If teachers want a novel about racial injustice by a black author told from a black character's point of view, I suggest Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, set in rural Louisiana in the 1940's. It's literature.