We disrupted To Kill a Mockingbird the week of 5/21. Check out the Twitter moment below (click on image).
Our #DisruptTexts chat of To Kill a Mockingbird surfaced some great points for conversation and discussion. It led me (Lorena Germán) to reflect on the following points:
- Tom and Calpurnia and the other African American characters are mistreated, misunderstood, underrepresented. The story is about a horrible court case centered around Tom, but we only hear from him as he responds when called upon. We don’t hear the real Tom. We never meet him. Lula, the one African American woman that actually expresses rage at the social and political context, is presented in a negative light. Her anger is misunderstood and therefore misrepresented. She is “just” the angry black woman, fulfilling a stereotype. This is how she is mistreated and women like Lula are allowed to exist this way in the imagination of the reader. My white students often read her and immediately think: reverse racism. If you’ve done any work on equity and racial identity, then you know that doesn’t exist. In a literary sense, she is a missed opportunity.
- This book is loved by so many white Americans. It’s so popular. So many have a deep relationship to it and it lives in a general cloud of nostalgia in schools. Challenging the teaching of it strikes some deep emotional chords for them. This disruption of its position on the pedestal is perceived as a threat to many because it forces them to have to reconsider their own moral compass as well as question their own teaching approach. That shouldn’t stop this work. We are not called to teach texts we love, but to teach skills so our students can be critical thinkers. If we are skilled teachers, we can do that with any text. There are better texts.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, if taught well, for the right audience, can surface some necessary and critical learning opportunities. The resources shared in the chat are a great starting point for that. Using the book to collaborate with a Humanities or Social Studies colleague is a great opportunity to fill in educational gaps in history that students experience. Using this narrative to teach about the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, and other real-life cases that connect to Tom is a good idea. Using this narrative to discuss the post-Reconstruction south’s racial context is also critical. Teaching this book and only focusing on its narrative elements is irresponsible. Without interrogating it, its flaws, or digging deeper teachers uphold the racism it presents.
- Atticus has been and continues to be problematic and so many white people don’t want to admit it. His advocacy has limits. He’s not willing to question the very system that has allowed Tom to end up in this racist situation. In the face of pure racism and bigotry he doesn’t see the need to publicly disrupt the legal system. Yes, he defends Tom. Yes he questions Mayella. No, he doesn’t go beyond that. He doesn’t protest. He doesn’t say he’s going to take on the court system. He doesn’t say he’s going to make structural changes so this stops happening. He doesn’t use his privilege to bring about change. He lets Tom die. He is a part of the very system that let Tom die. I was encouraged by how many white folks in our chat mentioned it, though, so there’s hope in progress.
Part of being a teacher that designs curriculum and lessons from a student-driven approach means that in addition to offering them choice, I select texts based on who is sitting in front of me. My job is not to teach my favorite novels or the novels I read with my mother when I was young. My job is to prepare an educational experience to meet the needs of the learner. Depending on the classroom, it may be a terrible idea to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. In my current context, I do teach it. I do so because I have a predominantly white group of students who have often already heard of it, some who have read it, and many whose parents have idolized it. I use it as an entry point to engage them in critical anti-racism dialogue. It’s an entry point because it’s familiar, it doesn’t feel intimidating for them, and it connotes comfort and nostalgia. It’s overall presumed to be a positive reading experience. So, I use the feelings it engenders for them and then introduce anti-racist ideas and critical race theory to help them see the racism in the text and in their own lives. The unit I teach asks students to dig deep into Lee’s book in a way that unveils some of our own biases and presents us with a mirror. While students may enjoy moments of the book or certain characters, this isn’t a text they necessarily end up loving when it’s all over. In my classroom, the book is not placed or kept on a book pedestal. We lift it up, look under its pages, between its characters, and expose its gaps.