To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic work by Harper Lee depicting race relations in a segregated Alabama town in the Great Depression, is a book that routinely makes it onto required reading lists across the country. The story of standing up for what is right, defending the innocent against allegations made out of bigotry and prejudice is a powerful one. Yet, TKAM is also one of the most contested books out there.
In its brief list of books challenged in 2008-2009, the ALA gives a brief reason for why a book was challenged in a particular county, city, or school. The one selected to explain the request to remove TKAM from the shelves is as follows:
A resident had objected to the novel’s depiction of how blacks are treated by members of a racist white community in an Alabama town during the Depression. The resident feared the book would upset black children reading it.
The intent is not sinister like many attempts to ban books are, but that doesn’t make the rationale any better. TKAM depicts the realities of life in the Deep South in terms of race relations. Blacks were not afforded equal status as whites, they were routinely denied their basic rights, they did live in a world where they could be accused of a crime simply for looking at a white woman the wrong way, and they did suffer. It’s not a particularly glorious moment of American history, but it did happen. To call for the removal of such a book now because it depicts a historical moment in American life that does not fit with our ideas of racial tolerance today (however flawed those may be), is absurd.
It is equally absurd that the resident felt concerned that black students reading the book would feel upset by the depiction of black people in the book. So what? The power of literature is that it provokes feelings within us, both good and bad. We are still dealing with race issues today, and to my mind, there is absolutely no harm in exposing students to something that might upset them, because it can be turned into a great teaching moment. Kids might feel compelled to talk about racial injustices they’ve observed in their own lives, they might want to know more about what life used to be like for African-Americans, and they might even take away a reminder about the importance of standing up in the face of bigotry. None of these are bad things. They might get none of this from the book, but that does not matter. What matters is that we should not be deciding to restrict access to books on the off-chance that something in there might offend someone.