Biloxi pulls “To Kill A Mockingbird” from eighth-grade readings

From the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, we hear of a new example of book-banning in the Biloxi school district of that state. As is often the case, the book is To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a wonderful novel by Harper Lee that won the Pulitzer Prize and was, of course, made into a superb movie.  I suspect most of us have read it and know the plot, which involves a lawyer of honor (Atticus Finch) defending a black man falsely accused of rape (he’s convicted). It’s a strong indictment of racism. But it also uses the word “nigger” 48 times, and that’s the main reason people complain. (How are children going to learn what the “n-word” means unless they ever hear the full word?) There are also other grounds for complaint, some of them credible, but none of them even remotely bad enough to warrant keeping this book away from children. To Kill a Mockingbird, according to the American Library Association, ranks as the 21st book most often banned or challenged in America. (If you want to get really depressed, go look at the list of the top 100, with the Harry Potter series being the most banned or challenged and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou holding down the #6 spot.)

At any rate, the Clarion Ledger reports that reason for removing this book from the eight-grade curriculum (those are children about 14 years old) was clearly the “n-word”, not any other reason. Note, though, that the school district is too cowardly to give the reason:

The Biloxi School District got complaints about the wording in “To Kill A Mockingbird” — an American classic being taught in 8th grade English Language Arts classes — and pulled it from the curriculum.

It was an administrative and department decision, a member of the school board said, and not something that the school board voted on. It happened Wednesday or Thursday.

Kenny Holloway, vice president of the Biloxi School Board said, “There were complaints about it. There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.

“It’s still in our library. But they’re going to use another book in the 8th grade course.”

When asked Thursday morning if the book had been pulled from the course, Superintendent Arthur McMillan issued a statement five hours later that said: “There are many resources and materials that are available to teach state academic standards to our students. These resources may change periodically. We always strive to do what is best for our students and staff to continue to perform at the highest level.”

McMillan did not answer any questions on the issue.

What a ridiculous bit of dissimulation! Here’s the real reason:

Sun Herald received a email from a concerned reader who said the decision was made “mid-lesson plan, the students will not be allowed to finish the reading of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …. due to the use of the ‘N’ word.”

The reader said, “I think it is one of the most disturbing examples of censorship I have ever heard, in that the themes in the story humanize all people regardless of their social status, education level, intellect, and of course, race. It would be difficult to find a time when it was more relevant than in days like these.”

The book, praised by a teacher, and obviously previously approved by the school for its thematic reading program, was simply yanked because of a single epithet:

The current themes for 2nd term language arts classes in Biloxi this year are the Golden Rule and taking a stand. With “To Kill A Mockingbird” specifically, the teens were slated to learn that compassion and empathy are not dependent upon race or education, according to the school’s website.

The book is listed on the curriculum as core text for 8th grade ELA, the Common Core state standards for English Language Arts.

One 8th grade teacher on the school website described it as: “Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, “To Kill A Mockingbird” takes readers to the roots of human behavior — to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into 10 languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.”

It’s ludicrous to keep this excellent book, which fits right into the curriculum, out of the students’ hands because of one word: a word that was historically an offensive word used to convey bigotry. But the theme of the book is the hurtfulness of bigotry, and I cannot believe that a teacher can’t teach that book without sensitively defusing that word for the students. (The teachers could have a seminar on how to do it.) None of us use the word, but we all have seen it or heard it and know exactly what it means and that it’s deeply offensive. And surely most African Americans have heard it, as it’s used by many of them as an term of comity.

Likewise, I know all the equally offensive words used for “Jews”: kike, Hebe, sheeny, Yid, Christ-killer, Hymie, and many more. I learned most of those well before I was 14; I either heard them or saw them in books.

But if the books containing those words are banned, then how will you learn? Are are students so tender of psyche that they can’t even be exposed to a word (with proper teaching) without turning off completely? It’s too bad if they are, because they’ll also miss books like Huckleberry Finn (#14 on the banned list). And it is the sheer vitriol of the “n word” that makes it important to read—to see how it was used historically as an expression of hatred and bigotry. Are we now to wipe out of American history that there was bigotry and how it was used? How else will you know, without instruction, that the word is now verboten precisely because things are getting better? What a shame to miss that lesson.

You can find the contact information for officials of the Biloxi Public Schools here.

44 Comments

  1. Posted October 15, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Actually, I am in favor of this local form of self determination. I think people should be as ignorant as they want to be. They should also ban the teaching of anything implying the world is over 6000 years old, so paleontology, geology, genetics, astronomy, botany, etc. Also, anything that could call into question the Truth of the Bible, so no philosophy, history, archeology, comparative religion, etc.

    Let’s see, what do we have left? Ah, P.E. The boys and football fans will be happy. Oh, and home economics, to train the next generation of brood mares.

    • Posted October 15, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      People can be as ignorant as they want to be but they have no right to impose that ignorance on others.

      That’s what’s happening when you deny children an education.

  2. busterggi
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    You can’t have children read a book that shows racism & bigotry as ugly, that’s discrimination/

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    If you could find a 14 year old in Mississippi that was not well familiar with the word, I would be more than surprised. The cultural stupidity here is really something. I think Alabama will be next.

    • Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:06 am | Permalink

      Anyone else remember the brief furor when Roots, the TV version of Alex Haley’s history of slavery was broadcast? Many black school children were outraged to learn about their own history.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 4:04 am | Permalink

      “If you could find a 14 year old in Mississippi that was not well familiar with the word, I would be more than surprised. ”

      Exactly! So why bar a work that reveals the hate and damage such terms have caused?

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Pusillanimous teachers and administrators who would rather avoid the issue than justify the use of the text.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 3:55 am | Permalink

      Note that this action was taken once the school had gotten complaints about the book, presumably from parents. While I’d be delighted to learn of a school that overruled such complaints for the sake of the curriculum, parental demands can be difficult and time-consuming for schools to deal with given all the other demands on their resources.

      You don’t have to have kids in school (public or private) for long to realize just how much of a problem some of the parents can be to deal with. Teachers and administrators have to decide whether they have the time to spend on such matters in light of all their other duties.

      • BJ
        Posted October 16, 2017 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        You clearly know more about this than me, so I’m not asking this rhetorically, but why can’t they just say “no” when parents ask for a book to be banned, and leave it at that? The parents can keep calling and whining all they want, but what further action would be needed on the part of the administrators? I would imagine once the parent makes three separate calls in which they’re firmly told ‘no” and that the decision won’t be changed, the complaint over this particular would would stop. But I’m interested in being enlightened on the issue.

  5. dabertini
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Yes let’s remove a compassionate book from the syllabus to improve education. I aways thought education was supposed to cause discomfort; idoctrination comfort. Which do you prefer? We know which biloxi prefers.

  6. Mark R.
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    What a shame. It was required reading at my high school in the 80’s…9th grade iirc. I hope it still is.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 4:00 am | Permalink

      Yes and no…

      I encouraged both my kids to read it before it was required at school so that the pedantic analysis and discussions that accompany required reading in school wouldn’t ruin their appreciation of it.

      (But mostly yes. Because I don’t think a lot of Americans are going to see that their children are exposed to such literature on their own.)

  7. pablo
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    The kids know what the n-word means because they listen to rap music.

  8. davidintoronto
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Tempting to dismiss this a just grade school or just Mississippi. But are we sure the novel is safe at the university level? Based on the stuff that Prof. C has been sharing, I’m not so sure…

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    How long, o lord, how long, until we as a people grow out of treating words as incantations with magical powers over us?

    It is well-nigh impossible to write a novel set in the Jim Crow south without using that word. It can be found in Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, and certainly in Faulkner. To ban such books is to foreclose kids from the whole of Southern Gothic literature.

    • David C.
      Posted October 15, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention the musical Showboat and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The opening stevedores chorus in Showboat was written to shock people and Ira Gershwin used language that he heard when he and George visited Charleston to do research for their opera.

      Bowdlerizing is a violation of copyright if the work is still covered. Harper Lee’s estate still owns the copyright for To Kill a Mockingbird. Lyrics in both the works mentioned above were altered with the permission of the authors.
      Ray Bradbury pitched a fit when he found out that the title of one of his best known novels was changed to Celsius 233 without his permission.

  10. alexander
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I have the strong suspicion that the real reason lies deeper, the n-word is just an excuse. Certain people have an interest in that young people grow up without developing a critical sense, without a critical attitude to society. For example, I flunked French in the final exam of high school at a Catholic school because I said I had read “La Religieuse” by Diderot (the book was banned from the school). Fortunately, I passed the required state exam for French and could go on to University.

  11. Posted October 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I can understand how, in a class with white and black children, the black children might be upset or uncomfortable even though they are familiar with the word nigger. Would it hurt to bowdlerize the book and use the less-offensive “negro”? Better than not reading it at all.

    • Craw
      Posted October 15, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      It would, because it would falsify the aspect of society the book was written to condemn. Hiding the word whitewashes the attitudes it expressed.

      • Posted October 15, 2017 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

        For adults, I agree with you. For an eighth grade mixed race class in the deep south there are other considerations. Kids can snicker, bullies can feel empowered to whisper nigger in the schoolyard, and young kids can focus the word rather than the larger message.

        It is ironic that some posters here who see no problem resort to euphemisms like “the N-word.” If adults on a website find the word nigger troubling, why not an eighth grade class?

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Someone had a good point in this tweet.

    • Posted October 15, 2017 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      Wow. I’m amazed I was unaware of what the Mississippi state flag looks like, considering.

      So was the book banned because it contains language offensive to blacks or because it was too sympathetic to blacks?

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 16, 2017 at 4:10 am | Permalink

        IIANM, a few other former confederacy states also had/have some version of the stars and bars on their state flags as well. There have recently been well-publicized battles between those who want the flags changed and those who think it ‘honors their heritage’ or some such crap.

  13. David Coxill
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Just started reading “Obscene In The Extreme “about the banning of the “Grapes Of Wrath “in California in 1939.
    Times haven’t changed much.

  14. Craw
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    The 100 list is books banned or “challenged”. One such is Judy Blume’s Are you there god? It’s me, Margaret. I confess I suspect many here would challenge the suitability of that book for use in a compulsory curriculum.

  15. Posted October 15, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    It seems that a new rigorousness of virtuous speech has given way to a path where, in the past, the right religious moral attitude was concerned.
    If it was formerly a matter of godly speech, it is in today’s virtue performances to soothe the PC language guards

    I’ve read the book in the time I went to school, ( in German the title is a little bit different:
    “Wer die Nachtigall stört” in English: Who the nightingale disturbs) and I saw the fantastic movie with Gregory Peck.

    • Posted October 15, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      Considering why the German title of the novel (which everybody knows in Germany) a completely different bird emerges – nightingale -, I look at wiki and learn: they had to choose another bird, because the mockingbird is a bird species which exists only in North America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

      • Posted October 15, 2017 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        There are no mockingbirds in Britain either, but they didn’t change the title for the UK market.

        • Posted October 15, 2017 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          Okay, after all, you share the same language, and both with “mocking” and with “bird” you can start something. It is probably a similar ratio as Swiss German to German, there are also a few unfamiliar words, which can be but somehow piece together

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 16, 2017 at 4:17 am | Permalink

        Umm…given that it’s a book set in the US South, wouldn’t it be more logical to just expose the European kids to the fact that there are different birds in the US? Please tell me the translation didn’t include moving the entire story to Germany.

  16. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    “But it also uses the word “nigger” 48 times,”

    – and some obsessive person went through the whole book and *counted* them?

    Your mention of ‘Hebes’ etc reminds me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which would surely be banned these days for innumerable crimes against PC (in addition to the alleged blasphemy) –
    “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!”

    cr

    • alexander
      Posted October 15, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      “Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which would surely be banned these days for innumerable crimes against PC (in addition to the alleged blasphemy)”

      Yes these times are gone, even in the UK!

      Read the comment by MK.

  17. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    That list PCC linked (the Racial Slur Database) is quite exhausting, if not exhaustive. Just a few of them are quite clever.

    It seems to have been written from a mostly US point of view, since it misses out a number of very common ones that are current in Oz and NZ, e.g. Pommie for Englishman (origin unknown), Dally for Dalmatian – there were a lot of Dalmation immigrants in North Auckland. (Those two are not always used as an insult, more often just used as a casual description). Coconut for Pacific Islander (a term some of them use themselves in a self-deprecatory way).

    The significance of many of those terms in the ‘database’ varies with context and location, what might be offensive in some areas could be just a harmless nickname in others. Some of them appear to be a bit contrived or one-offs.

    cr

    • Posted October 15, 2017 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      Pommie is there under “British”, but spelled wrongly twice.

  18. David Evans
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    “Are we now to wipe out of American history that there was bigotry and how it was used?”

    Some people would be happy to do that. “He who controls the past controls the future.” (Orwell, “1984”).

  19. Posted October 15, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    My family from the midwest (moving westward from the south) was racist. I heard such words at home frequently. I once decided to write a “poem” using all those words I’d heard at home. It disgusted me too much to ever complete it. I’d prefer that such disparaging words for “other” people not be used at all, but the way to achieve that is through education, not through wiping such references out as though they never existed. We must learn our history, however painful, and overcome it.

    I taught my children that they could use any word they knew the meaning of. But, if they chose to use any such word in a setting in which it was offensive to the group, they must be willing to accept the consequences of their choice and action. All in my family love words and keep dictionaries close at hand (books before smart phones) for immediate research as to meanings and pronunciations. Just recently my son and I had a discussion about his understanding of the meaning of “lavatory” vs. mine. Makes quite a difference.

  20. Posted October 15, 2017 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Always sad irony to find Fahrenheit 451 on a list of banned books.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2017 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      And fitting to the content of the book.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 16, 2017 at 4:21 am | Permalink

        Probably what Matt meant by irony. 😉

  21. eratosignis
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    At age 10-13 I remember enjoying books that were actually banned, or naughty, or that teachers thought we should not read. Sons and Lovers, The Group, James Bond… People who worry about local education authorities banning books should take heart, and be aware that the best inducement to ensure our kids read a novel is to ban it! I know that the same was true in Soviet times in Russia.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      I remember from my schooldays how sought-after was the well-worn copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. If held loosely, facing upwards, spine down, it tended to fall open at the magic 11 pages.

      cr

  22. Bob Barber
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    In 2011, I appeared as The King in William Hauptman and Roger Williams Big River, a musical based on Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. The play was produced by the local community college here in southeast Alabama and won seven Tony awards when it appeared on Broadway in 1985. The n-word is used in the play several times. This caused some of the young actors in the play a great deal of stress and one flat refused to use the word. The producer, a Black man who is now the head of the fine arts department there, could not convince the young people that in the context of the play the n-word, while offensive, was necessary to the plot and the historical time of the play about a runaway slave, Jim, and his friend Huck Finn. The producer wrote William Hauptman and told him of the dilemma. Mr. Hauptman wrote back the he had edited the play and the word now only appears seven times and that these seven times were necessary.

    We kept the seven words and performed the play before several sold out, racially mixed audiences here and there was not one word of complaint.

  23. Posted November 15, 2017 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.” Atticus Finch to his son Jem in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I bring that quote up because the school says, as your article points out, that there is language in the book that makes people uncomfortable. Well, that language is one of the ugly things about the world. Parents or the administration can’t expect their children or their students to be protected from that king of ugliness in the world just because they remove a book from the curriculum. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has all sorts of ugliness about the world in it, ugliness that’s important for the students to learn about. Likewise, it also has lots of beauty to the book. Harper Lee’s book teaches about how to find beauty and good in a world full of ugliness. It’s a book that everyone should read.


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