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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 ’s place in our culture and classrooms. 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 adored the book ever since my eighth-grade civics class; that was at an impressionable age for sorting ideals of manhood.
In 1961, the book won Lee the Pulitzer Prize and the next year was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. 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.
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.
“Our” in this case refers mainly to White readers, like me.
And I completely understood where those teachers were coming from.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.(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.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 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. Attempts to ban it from schools began in Ohio in 1963 and continue today.When author Malcom Gladwell published a critique of Atticus’ limited liberalism in Thein 2009, I sent him a self-righteous rebuttal, 2,500 words long and with no fewer than 19 pieces of textual evidence. “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 , 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.As a child, she said, she’d wanted Atticus Finch to be her father. At another moment in the workshop, when I noted some of his flaws, a teacher responded, “Not Atticus. I’ve tried to keep him as a good thing in my head.” “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.