Today, “computer literacy” has replaced the concept that “reading is fundamental;” unfortunately, the fundamental value of literature hasn’t been reinforced.
Recently, a Minnesota school district dropped Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, from its required reading list (along with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn).
How does a novel get put on a required reading list?
By performing one of the primary functions of literature, a good literary work is like a telescope, it reveals a world impossible to see without the use of that instrument. Harper Lee’s material works the same way. It’s based on a racial injustice that occurred during the author’s childhood. The novel brings the past to the present. This literary function enables students to evaluate time periods and measure social progress from then to now.
Over time, if society has progressed to the point that a novel, on the required reading list, no longer serves the same literary function, then by all means update the material, but that’s not the reason here.
To Kill a Mockingbird was dropped because of the novel’s “liberal use” of racial slurs (The N-word). The Washington Post reported that school officials stated the book is still available in libraries, and students can read them on their own time, but they will look at other novels on the same topic to add to the curriculum.
The director of curriculum and instruction said, “We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs.”
The Washington Post stated school officials said, “The move, which follows similar ones taken by other school districts in Virginia, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania in recent years, was a response to complaints they received in the past.”
Let’s examine an incident in the past.
In 1981, at the Warren, Indiana Township schools, three Black parents on the Warren human relations advisory council attempted to get To Kill a Mockingbird banned from the school district. The Black parents stated two reasons; the novel represented institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature, and “the book does psychological damage to the positive integration process.”
At that time the term “institutionalized racism” was still in its infancy, but it implied the legacy of Jim Crow, and the literary agenda pushed by Black parents at that time was to foster self-esteem by promoting positive images in books. These Black parents viewed the novel as self-defeating, as far as reason one was concerned.
But reason two is shocking.
They thought the novel would hinder the positive effects of integration. It takes intellectual maturity to study the past. These Black parents didn’t believe their generation of Black students was ready to handle Harper Lee’s material without building resentment for Whites or developing an inferiority complex. These Black parents were willing to sacrifice the literary function of the novel for their literary agenda, and they never complained about the novel’s use of the N-word. But they were unsuccessful, they resigned from the human relations advisory council, and the novel remained. And what remains today is the unwillingness to develop intellectual maturity in students so books wouldn’t have to be banned in the first place.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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