The Biloxi County School District in Mississippi removed Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its eighth grade curriculum, a school board official told the Sun Herald on Oct. 12. According to the Library of Congress’s “Books that Shaped America,” one of the most challenged books in American schools today is “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The decision to ban the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel came two weeks after the American Library Association’s “Banned Book Week” and is not the first time Lee’s novel has been banned by a school district. The novel was first challenged in Hanover County, Virginia six years after its release. In this instance, the school board removed the book because of the use of rape as a plot device. The ban was later retracted after even more complaints about the removal of the book.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a story follows lawyer Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, an African American man, falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama. The trial puts the town on the edge of chaos, pitting the racist white citizens against Finch’s moral righteousness.
The work liberally uses racial slurs to accurately portray the time and setting of the work. Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” during the 1950s at the heart of the civil rights movement as a critique of the South she grew up in. The book borrows autobiographical elements from Lee’s childhood. Lee’s father unsuccessfully defended a pair of African American men who were charged with murder, serving as partial inspiration for the character of Finch.
Individuals raising concerns about a specific work and that are seeking to remove it from a library or a curriculum are considered to be “challenging” the work. A book becomes banned or removed if the governing committee accepts that the challenge has a substantiated claim. Only 10% of challenges become bans according to the American Library Association.
“There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable,” Kenny Holloway, vice president of the school board, said. The concern was raised specifically over the use of the n-word in the book by multiple parents to the school board. The complaints ultimately led to the book being taken out of the eighth grade’s required readings. The decision was made because “we can teach the same lessons with other books,” Holloway said.
“I used to teach the book when I was a high school teacher, but I don’t know if I would anymore,” Patricia A. Dunn, Stony Brook English department graduate director, said. “The language used is very insulting to some students within a class.”
The n-word is used 50 times in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” For perspective, Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” another frequently-banned book, has 200 such uses of the word.
“It shouldn’t be a district level thing, if a teacher wants to teach the book they should present it to their class and have a vote,” Dunn said. “It’s one thing to say ‘you have to read this book’ in high school; a student has to be there. It isn’t like college.”
Even though the district has removed the book from the required readings list for eighth graders, interested students can still check the novel out from the district’s multiple libraries. The district’s description of lessons to take away from the novel is “compassion and empathy are not dependent upon race or education.”