The Mockingbird Still Sings: Why Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is Still Relevant for Our Generation
There is no shortage to the list of accomplishments that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has obtained. Since its publication in 1960, it has sold over 40 million copies and has been translated into over 40 languages. A year after it was published, Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel depicting the rural south in the 1930s. The book that was to become a part of the American canon of great literature then went on to become a movie starring the legendary Gregory Peck and would be become famous as well. It would rank 25 out of 100 films listed by the American Film Institute as the greatest movies of all time. In many law schools, the book has become the topic of legal essays and debates. And in many classrooms, it has become the quintessential example of a coming of age story set in a time where social prejudice was as common as seeing a mockingbird sing in a tree.
For many, the story is familiar. Taking place over three years (1933-1935), the reader sees the town of Maycomb Alabama through the eyes of six-year-old Jean Louse Finch, better known as Scout. Scout and her brother, Jeremy (Jem) live with their father, a widower named Atticus. The siblings befriend a boy named Dill who visits Maycomb to stay with his aunt each summer. The three children become intrigued by the neighborhood recluse, a man by the name of Arthur Radley, but better known as “Boo,” Radley is a man that most residents of Maycomb are hesitant to talk about, but still quick to judge. His reclusive nature and the gossip surrounding him allows the children to create fantastical ideas about why he remains in his house and to try and concoct a way to get him to come out.
Further into the story, Judge Taylor, the presiding magistrate of the town, requests that Atticus, who is a lawyer, take on the case of Tom Robinson. Robinson is an African American man who has been accused of the rape of a young woman by the name of Mayella Ewell. Despite the opposition of the townspeople, Atticus agrees to defend Robinson. His children are teased and taunted at school and Atticus faces repeated hostility including a town mob intent on lynching Robinson.
Still, he defends Robinson, arguing that the accusers – Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell – are not to be trusted. He believes that Mayella was the one to make sexual advances toward Robinson and that her father, the town drunk, caught her in the act and beat her. Even though the entire town knows the Ewells are not to be trusted, they still convict Robinson. Atticus hopes that he can get the verdict overturned. But before he can, Robinson is shot while trying to flee from prison.
Although Robinson is convicted, Bob Ewell is humiliated and retaliates by going after Atticus and his children. He spits in Atticus’ face at the trial, tries to break into the judge’s house, and threatens Robinson’s widow. After a school Halloween pageant, he follows Jem and Scout home and attacks them. Scout breaks her arm in the struggle, but they are rescued by Boo Radley. Ewell is discovered dead from a knife wound and while Atticus believes it was his son who killed him, the judge believes it was Radley. They decide to say Ewell fell on his knife to protect the privacy of Radley. Scout ends up walking Radley home. She never sees him again after he leaves her standing on his front porch. As she turns to leave, she realizes how much he has given her and her family… and how little they have done in return. “He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we gave him nothing, and it made me sad” (Lee, 320). In a sense, this quote echoes the overall theme that Harper Lee was trying to convey in her novel. That those we judge based on what we think of them are often those that have the most to give us.
Despite the number of books sold, despite To Kill a Mockingbird’s recognition as a book worthy of a Pulitzer prize, despite being turned into one of the greatest films of all time, Harper Lee’s book has fallen under much controversy due to the weighty subject matter within the plot. Originally written in a time when social and racial upheaval ran rampant within the South and across the United States, To Kill a Mockingbird exemplified those same issues and struggles that were happening in the time it was written and the time in which it was set. Therefore, it is no wonder that this novel has continuously been at the forefront of debate. As recently as 2017, the book was facing opposition in southern school districts. One of the main arguments according to Michael Macaluso in “Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird Today: Coming to Terms with Race, Racism, and America’s Novel,” is that the book makes a hero out of the white man and a victim out of the black man. “In considering Atticus and multiculturism, TKAM, it seems, marginalizes its black characters to validate and tell a story by, about, and for its white protagonists and intended readers” (Macaluso, 280).
There is also the argument that the book makes its readers feel uncomfortable due to its use of the “n” word and other racial connotations. In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird has become a hotbed for discussion within school districts because faculty and students alike believe the material within the novel to be too uncomfortable for students to read. It has repeatedly made The American Library Association’s list of books banned by certain organizations. Though also on the list have been other literary greats such as Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twainand Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
So why teach To Kill a Mockingbird? Why allow students to be exposed to issues like race, rape, and prejudice? Why create a situation where they might feel uncomfortable? To answer this question, we have simply to turn on the television or open our newsfeed to see that much has remained the same in our perceptions. By not teaching it, we also surmise that students are incapable of facing the realities of things they confront daily. As Macaluso says it becomes an argument of “We would never do that, so, therefore, we are not racist” and “Of course, we would do what Atticus did and stand up for someone like Tom” (281). Is it then, that we, the parents and educators – those responsible for educating our students, are afraid to teach To Kill a Mockingbird because we are afraid to confront reality?
Jan Susina writes in “Alabama Bound: Reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird While Southern” that “While To Kill a Mockingbird appears to some contemporary readers and literary critics as dated and less progressive in its racial politics when viewed in light of contemporary attitudes toward racial justice, it was – and remains – an influential and enduring first step” (Susina, 64). Although the book’s racial slurs, swearing, and incredibly blatant discussion of rape may make individuals uncomfortable, the reality is that these are things students in most schools deal with daily. While some may see the fact that Lee created characters within her novel that were unsympathetic toward Tom Robinson (i.e. most of the townspeople) or viewed him as a black victim (i.e. some views of Atticus), the reality is Lee’s depiction serve as a reminder that social and racial injustice exists everywhere and does limit itself to large cities or distasteful individuals. It is no accident that she depicts the black community as having admirable qualities but living in squalor and being socially placed even below Bob and Mayella Ewell. By saying that this book should be banned, people are denying the truth that racism is still rampant today and must be recognized not only in the Bob Ewell’s of the world, but also the Atticus Finches.
This leads to another argument in favor of teaching this novel within schools. Many arguments stem from the belief that Atticus, the white moralistic hero of the novel, is a racist. One of their main points stems from a quote found in chapter 9 of To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus responds to Scout asking why he is taking on a case he knows he will lose. Atticus states, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win” (Lee, 87). Critics argue that by admitting defeat before Robinson is convicted, Atticus is judging the outcome of the trial on the basis that his plaintiff is a man of color and therefore is racist. However, one could also argue that Atticus believes so firmly in justice and the unalienable rights of Robinson that he is willing to sacrifice his place in the town by defending him. That is what the message should be that is taught in public schools. That Atticus Finch was willing to try even though society said he would fail. And that he was willing to try because he believed in justice. That is a lesson that every individual, student, faculty, and parent alike, should learn.
Another issue that many people have with this book is the discussion of rape. Admittedly, this is a difficult topic to discuss, regardless of ethnicity or age. However, to say that this is the only way in which a student is exposed to the topic of rape is absurd. As of last year, 1 in 5 female high students reported being raped or sexually assaulted. Popular shows like 13 Reasons Why graphically depict not only females but males being raped. If one wants to argue that this is not a show which teenagers are watching, then one only has to look at the Nielson ratings. It boasted 6 million viewers, a majority of them ranging in age from 16-21. It was Netflix’s top show, passing other crowd-pleasers like The Crown. This means that while a student is not permitted to read To Kill a Mockingbird, they are watching a teenage girl being brutally raped and ultimately commit suicide. How can one argue that the book in question makes students uncomfortable when they are watching far more graphic and disturbing images on their television?
Injustice exists in our world, as do uncomfortable circumstances. But to save ourselves from racism and other social prejudices we must find ways in which to embrace integrity and morality. Students must learn what evil is and then learn from it. To say we are protecting them by sheltering them is, in truth, enabling evil, not prohibiting it. Indeed, the very reason education exists is to move people away from ignorance and toward tolerance and understanding. If we cannot confront the atrocities of life in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s, then how can we expect our students to deal with the racism of 2019? Macaluso points out that “the rate at which African Americans are killed (whether by police or gangs, whether in Chicago or any other city and much in the same that Tom is killed in the novel) is staggering” (Macaluso, 282). How can we condemn a book that depicts our current circumstances in an environment that has improved little?
If one needs still more reason as to why To Kill a Mockingbird should be taught in schools then consider the words of Barack Obama, the first African American president. In his farewell address Obama stated that “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters of fiction, Atticus Finch: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’” If the first African American president, and probably one of the most powerful black men in the world, quotes To Kill a Mockingbird in his farewell address, how can there even be an argument as to whether this book should be taught in public schools?
To Kill a Mockingbird is an enduring testament to goodness, justice, and the bittersweet journey of growing up. It is a commentary on social inequality and the devastating effects of racism. In “The Long Life of a Mockingbird” author Chelsey Philpot writes that To Kill a Mockingbird “has become a part of the public subconscious, a literary and cultural touchstone” (Philpot, 52). It has withstood the trials of criticism and the changing times and, whether individuals like it or not, it has become a recognizable piece of American heritage. One could argue against the racism, the rape, or the way the book might make one feel uncomfortable, but that argument has one major flaw. For in arguing against this book is to deny that humanity is imperfect. It is to deny that Harper Lee’s only echoes everything that surrounds us and screams at us from the daily headlines.
In chapter 10 of the book, Atticus tells Jem, “Remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (Lee, 103). A few lines down Scout asks their neighbor, Miss Maudie, what Atticus had meant. She replies, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy… they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (103). Later, in Chapter 30, Scout tells Atticus that to hurt Boo Radley would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.” Perhaps this book is Harper Lee’s mockingbird. Perhaps she wrote it to be full of truth – with a message that calls us to see the good amid evil. Perhaps she wrote it as a song to call this country to moral integrity and to be like Atticus and to “try to win” even though we may end up being licked. To ban To Kill a Mockingbird is like refusing to stand up for the Tom Robinsons and Boo Radleys of this world. Refusing to let it be taught only enables the Bob Ewells of this world and is much like being the one who shoots the mockingbird. Perhaps if we would all climb into the skin of Harper Lee and walk around in it for a bit, we would realize that the mockingbird that is this book only sings the lessons we are afraid to learn – but that this country so desperately needs.
A little bit of Dickens and a whole lot of Austen.