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How Do We Teach “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Honestly Confront Racism?

Harper Lee’s novel is the closest thing America’s had to required reading. But the book’s failings in confronting racism are more apparent than ever to White educators—and Black ones wonder what took so long.
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I am sitting in my eighth-grade civics class learning what it is to be an American. Around me, the cool kids wear Abercrombie & Fitch, and I do too, ever since I persuaded my parents to buy me some. (I cycle relentlessly through my three precious items; one is a dark olive-green “muscle T” whose purpose is entirely lost on my slight frame.) Our textbook cover bears the rippling glory of the stars and stripes. In it, we learn about the three branches of government and major Supreme Court cases. We read and discuss novels like Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. We watch movies. An adaptation of Mockingbird and High Noon, black-and-white movies about White (not Black) heroes.

On this day, on a boxy television screen, Gregory Peck, tall and handsome in his button-down vest, grapples with his sense of duty—to community, to loved ones, to the ideals of law and nation. Peck stands up to an angry mob and offers a vision of who I might become: a movie star.

Or, failing that, Atticus Finch.

A little less than a decade earlier and a thousand miles from where I grew up, David E. Kirkland was also introduced to Mockingbird in a classroom. While I read it as a White eighth-grader in the Northern Virginia suburbs, he read it as a Black ninth-grader in Detroit. Our real-life civic lessons were different. While I had been aware of the recent Bill Clinton scandal involving Monica Lewinsky and the mass shooting at Columbine High, he had been aware of rioting in L.A. and the death of unarmed Malice Green at the hands of his city’s police.

“So I had a lot of questions,” said Kirkland, who would later become an English professor, an activist, and executive director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. “I was glad to begin to explore issues of racism, and racial injustice, as they existed in my reality, through a text that would talk about it.”

Instead, he and his classmates “got a chance to romanticize Atticus Finch.”

“We had an opportunity to see a young girl live in her innocence. We had an opportunity to feel sorry when that innocence was disrupted by this reality that racism existed. Well, I lived in a community where young kids didn’t get to enjoy innocence.”

Ultimately, he said, the discussion of the book was more harmful than if “the text had not been talked about in the class in the first place.”

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the closest thing America has to required reading. Oprah Winfrey has called it “our national novel.” The story follows Scout Finch, a young White girl in Depression-era Alabama, as her attorney father, Atticus, defends a Black man, Tom Robinson, who has been wrongfully accused of rape. In 1961, the book won Lee the Pulitzer Prize and the next year was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. It has since sold more than 40 million copies.

The book has been as controversial as popular. Attempts to ban it from schools began in Ohio in 1963 and continue today. When that happens, defenders and detractors alike rise up to debate its place in our classrooms. Meanwhile, the book is called on as a source of moral authority for specious causes, such as when Sen. John Cornyn compared the Republican defense of Supreme Court then-candidate Brett Kavanaugh to Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson.

Amid this swirl of adoration, vitriol, and confusion, educators across the country continue to teach Mockingbird.

That includes me. I’ve adored the book ever since my eighth-grade civics class; that was at an impressionable age for sorting ideals of manhood. I read it again in college and several times since. The relationship between Scout and her brother, Jem, is richly observed, and for a long time I saw Atticus Finch as a model for how to be an upstanding White man in an unjust world. But when I tried teaching Mockingbird to my own students, I wasn’t particularly successful at engaging them in the story or having meaningful discussions about its contemporary relevance.

This is a struggle I have heard echoed repeatedly over the last year and a half as I’ve spoken with dozens of educators, parents, students, experts, and writers, trying to understand Mockingbird’s place in our culture and classrooms. It’s become a literary infatuation. I’ve traveled to Lee’s Alabama hometown, Monroeville. I’ve reported in Biloxi, Mississippi, one of the many places where the book has been pulled from school curricula. I’ve reflected on my own relationship with the book and analyzed both the new “biography” of Atticus by historian Joseph Crespino and the new Broadway adaptation of Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin. I’ve spoken with teachers from Chicago to Hawai‘i and collected a nearly teetering pile of books about the book.

We live in an America in which the majority of public school students are people of color and about 80 percent of public school teachers are White. We assign our students this novel by a White author about a White girl whose White father tries (and fails) to save a Black man. Meanwhile, our students are living in Trump’s America. They are worrying about their parents’ immigration status and their physical safety on the streets of their neighborhoods and whether the state has control over their bodies. They are scrolling through Instagram and soaking up the stories and images of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo—and Make America Great Again.

Too many White teachers, including me, fail to make Mockingbird resonate because we ignore the ways in which discussions about racial justice have changed since we ourselves were taught Mockingbird. And as Kirkland attests, we are damaging too many students of color in the process—and have been for a long time. The book never worked for them at all.

So how do we teach To Kill a Mockingbird today?

1. Take Atticus Off His Pedestal

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves hosted a two-day workshop, “Teaching Mockingbird,” designed to provide resources for teaching the book in a more historically informed and culturally relevant way. The Facing History folks allowed me to report on the training on the condition that I actively participate. And so I found myself in snowy Chicago, sitting in a bright conference room alongside some of the hardest-working people in America: a dozen or so middle and high school teachers.

The educators there were predominantly White women. One 35-year classroom veteran estimated she had taught the book 20 to 25 times. As a child, she said, she’d wanted Atticus Finch to be her father. As a grown-up, she’d wanted him to be her husband. “Don’t mess with him!” she implored, punctuating her point by jabbing her index finger.

This was a common refrain. Driven in no small part by the chiseled features and pacifying nobility of actor Gregory Peck’s portrayal, people talk about Finch in tones not only of reverence, but of attraction—and protectiveness. At another moment in the workshop, when I noted some of his flaws, a teacher responded, “Not Atticus. Not my Atticus! I’ve tried to keep him as a good thing in my head.”

Teachers who want to prepare young people for texts like this need to be trained in leading healthy discussions about race and identity.

“When I read this book in high school, I was guided to think that Atticus is the savior,” noted another teacher the next day. Someone else offered that this was perhaps a result of “our misreading of the text itself, and our need to lionize” our heroes.

“Our” in this case refers mainly to White readers, like me. And I completely understood where those teachers were coming from. When author Malcom Gladwell published a critique of Atticus’ limited liberalism in The New Yorker in 2009, I sent him a self-righteous rebuttal, 2,500 words long and with no fewer than 19 pieces of textual evidence. Gladwell, to his credit, did not respond.

“You want to believe in the Gregory Peck version of him,” a facilitator explained at one point during our workshop, but as you’re reading you will realize “he’s a man of his time.”

Specifically, a White man of his time and far from revolutionary. In Chapter 15 of Mockingbird, Atticus assures his son that the local Ku Klux Klan was “a political organization more than anything,” one that “couldn’t find anybody to scare” and would “never come back.” In Chapter 27, when asked whether he’s a radical, Atticus replies, “I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin.” I looked it up: Heflin was an Alabama politician and White supremacist.

But “I don’t want to hate Atticus,” said yet another teacher.

Someone suggested that Atticus can be both admirable in certain ways and reprehensible in others. “It makes people we admire more accessible when we recognize their humanity.”

2. Decenter Whiteness

One of our tasks during the workshop was to act out the chapter in which a lynch mob arrives with the intention of kidnapping and killing Tom Robinson. Its climax is the moment in which Scout accidentally (and ahistorically) turns the mob away.

I offered the suggestion that one of us play Tom Robinson, even though he had no dialogue at all on the pages we’d been assigned. He is rendered a virtual footnote in this scene in which his life nearly ends, speaking only at the very end of the chapter to ask Atticus whether the mob has left. As we discussed Tom’s silence, one of the teachers admitted that, while she knew the men of this “strange assembly” wanted to hurt him, she had never explicitly understood that the scene was about a lynch mob. This was a symptom of the book’s greatest flaw: its centering of Whiteness.

Readers see the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, solely through the eyes of a White, privileged little girl, and that’s part of why we focused on this scene. We were to ask ourselves what problems with reliability this perspective causes. Scout is charming, sure. But she’s also limited. Her blind spots swallow whole worlds. She never uses the word “lynch,” perhaps because she doesn’t know it.

Hence Kirkland’s ninth-grade alienation when he encountered Scout. While my eighth-grade self slowly lost my innocence alongside her, he was left to wonder what such innocence might have felt like in the first place.

During Kirkland’s years as a high school teacher, he was required to teach the book. So he approached it through a Black critical lens with his students. What they found together was that in Mockingbird, “there is no space for Black humanity. There is no value for Blackness. In a sense, in that book, Black lives don’t necessarily matter.

“The event of a White man defending a Black man was not about the Black man’s life, but, in fact, it was about the White man, and about Whiteness, and about the ability for White people to be seen as human, and moral, and good.”

Echoing that is Angela Shaw-Thornburg, a Black writer and former professor of American and African literature. In her 2010 essay “On Reading To Kill a Mockingbird: 50 Years Later,” she describes her reluctance to teach Mockingbird because it “represents African Americans as peripheral, incapable of self-representation, monumentally passive, and positively grateful for the small compensation of White guilt over injustices done to African Americans.” What gets to her “are those moments of struggle or, even worse, dreadful silence when … students who are people of color try to figure out why they feel unvoiced by the literature they are reading.”

Film still from Universal International Pictures.

One way to counteract this phenomenon is to offer a balance of authors. Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, and many others—works such as March, The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, Dear Martin, All American Boys, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom—wrestle with some of the same themes as Mockingbird while centering Black and Latino perspectives.

And when considering Mockingbird, ask whose voices, thoughts, and emotions are and aren’t being heard. Who gets to be three-dimensional? Why, for example, at the end of the trial scene, do we learn nothing of Tom’s reaction to the verdict? (The Broadway adaptation of Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin adds scenes to flesh out the perspectives of Tom Robinson and Calpurnia. In each of them, Atticus Finch is not the wisest person on the stage.)

3. Explore Identity

Facing History’s Mockingbird curriculum is comprehensive, asking students to explore their own identities before they even begin reading the novel. The exercises push students to consider stereotypes and the labels they’ve been given, “in” groups and “out” groups, and key moments in their own moral development.

The exercises are important for teachers as well, because they need to be able to navigate conversations about identity honestly and with emotional intelligence. Some of the most divisive fights have occurred, for example, when White teachers are unsure how to handle the N-word with students when it comes up in the text. That’s what caused the Biloxi, Mississippi, school district to stop teaching the book in 2017.

I met with Yolanda Williams, the Black mother whose complaint set the events in motion. Williams said that when her daughter’s eighth-grade classmates reached the N-word in their texts, both the young White teacher and her students read the word aloud. Students reacted in a rowdy manner, she said, openly laughing and using the word outside of the text.

Williams decided to speak up. She scheduled a parent–teacher conference with the principal. “My grandfather marched with Martin Luther King Jr.,” she explained. “My uncle was one of the first to attend all-White Biloxi High School. My parents had crosses burned in their yard. Just from my history, I think, is where a little bit of the fire in me comes from.”

The controversy was oversimplified in the national press as a case of censorship. (Biloxi Public Schools administration declined to comment for this article.)

Teachers who want to prepare young people for texts like Mockingbird need to be trained in leading healthy discussions about race and identity. According to Biloxi Junior High’s online curriculum resources, teaching Mockingbird was intended to raise important questions such as “What does it mean to be racist?” and “What does it mean to take a stand?” It’s worth remembering that because many students will never actually read Mockingbird (or any book they’ve been assigned) cover to cover, the stands we take in class will stick with them the most.

4. Include Go Set a Watchman

In 2015, Lee shocked the literary world with a sequel; she hadn’t published a novel since Mockingbird. She hadn’t even given a substantial interview in a half-century. Go Set a Watchman, about an older Scout reassessing her father, sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week, a mark against which today’s bestsellers still measure themselves. Critics were largely negative, deriding the book as didactic and clunky, and some were distracted by intrigue over its authenticity as well as whether Lee consented to its publication. The new work painted Atticus as an NAACP-opposing racist, and many simply refused to read it.

Author Charles J. Shields, who published an unauthorized biography of Lee in 2006, says he was changed by Watchman. He realized he needed to update the Lee biography to contend not only with Atticus’ more evident racism in Watchman, but also the lawyer’s racism in Mockingbird. This was a point that had actually been made for years, Shields noted, often by Black scholars. Shields, who is White, was frustrated with himself for missing this the first time around. “I was relieved that I had the opportunity to revise the book.”

Author and Auburn University professor Wayne Flynt is considered a scholar of Southern history and culture, particularly the civil rights movement. A longtime friend of Lee, he said he was inspired to move back home to Alabama as a young man by the example of Atticus Finch. When Lee died in 2016, he eulogized her at her funeral, at her request, by describing Atticus and the values he espoused in Mockingbird.

We—White people—don’t really have to deal with racial stress very much. As a result, we aren’t very good at it.

Yet he too appreciates the more complicated man of Watchman. “I really like the new Atticus better than the old Atticus,” said Flynt, who is White, “because the new Atticus is more like me, more like my father, more like the world, more like reality. It’s To Kill a Mockingbird that is unbelievable, not Watchman.”

Kirkland, for one, believes there may be a simpler, subtler reason for what seemed to be a collective rejection of Watchman: It made people uncomfortable.

Mockingbird has been given to so many of us as our dose of Americana. It has been the elixir that made us aspire to the Dream. To remain in our slumber. To remain asleep. Mockingbird was that book that was our sedative. Watchman was the book that would wake us up.”

The timing of that wake-up couldn’t have been more urgent. Watchman was released on the same day as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. A month earlier, Donald Trump descended a golden escalator and formally declared his candidacy for president. The next day, a White terrorist murdered nine Black worshipers at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“And as we can see right now, there isn’t much conversation about Watchman,” Kirkland said. “There wasn’t much conversation six months after it was published! They succeeded in putting it to bed, and the way that they put it to bed was to discredit its literary merit. Which I think was the most unfortunate, and most anti-intellectual, circumstance surrounding this book.”

Author Harper Lee on the film set with Mary Badham, 10, who played Scout. Photo from Universal International Pictures.

Robin DiAngelo, author of the 2018 bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, has a theory that goes like this: White people in North America get to be racially comfortable. We—White people—don’t really have to deal with racial stress very much. As a result, we aren’t very good at it. So we develop “White fragility.”

This leads us to do whatever it takes to avoid racial stress. We get angry. We get scared. We feel guilty.

(Or some of us write an unsolicited essay to Malcolm Gladwell—“not defending Southern liberalism,” as I wrote in a footnote, “just Atticus.”)

Or we refuse to read Watchman.

And we say it’s because it’s “not a good-enough book,” “not legitimate.” Even if it’s actually because we can’t take it.

5. Have a Reason

Christina Torres is an eighth-grade English teacher in Hawai‘i. She has taught Mockingbird six times in her seven years in the classroom. Each time, her process evolves.

At first, she said, her approach was “Isn’t this such a great story that proves how racism is bad?” But over time, the novel became more of an entry point for talking about social justice. As her teaching of it continued to evolve, she began to see the book as a way to talk about privilege—racial, class, and gender. Now she is pushing her students to discuss privilege both within the story and outside of it: Is Atticus a ‘White savior’? What does it mean for this White author to tell this story through a White lens? What would it mean if the story were told through the eyes of Calpurnia, the maid?

I asked Kirkland how he would teach the book today—if he were forced. He said he’d create a three-book unit: To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, and Between the World and Me. “I’d put all three in conversation. And then we’d begin to grapple with what those three texts in conversation might mean.” Kirkland said he’d push his students to compare the two versions of Atticus and to ask the tough questions such a comparison provokes: “How did [Lee] originally see race relations in the United States? And when did she happen upon the type of colorblind, kumbaya, To Kill a Mockingbird statement that later gets made?”

After all, Kirkland noted, “Harper Lee wanted to tell the truth [in Watchman], before her editors pushed her to write a more fairy-tale version of that narrative [in Mockingbird].”

These two teachings of Mockingbird—in Torres’ actual classroom and in Kirkland’s hypothetical one—are both driven by a purpose deeper and smarter than my own. When I taught Mockingbird, I was doing so nostalgically. I loved it and wanted my students to love it, too.

During the Chicago Facing History and Ourselves workshop, we reread a passage from after the trial. Miss Maudie, one of the Finch family’s White neighbors, tells Scout, “Well, we’re making a step—It’s just a baby step, but it’s a step.” The line is chillingly euphemistic, given Tom Robinson’s ultimate fate.

Not too long after that rereading of Miss Maudie’s musing, one of the participants reflected on how she hoped to teach Mockingbird in the future. “At least we’re looking at this book differently,” she said. We may not have it all figured out, but this was “a little baby step.”

True. But it’s time to stride.

“You want to believe in the Gregory Peck version of him,” a facilitator explained at one point during our workshop, but as you’re reading you will realize “he’s a man of his time.”

DJ Cashmere wrote this article for the Travel Issue, the summer 2019 edition of YES! Magazine. DJ is a print and audio journalist in New York who covers education, urban policy, and culture. He worked as a teacher in Chicago for eight years.

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