Last winter, I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time in my life. (I've been meaning to write about it since then, but pregnancy and a toddler have certainly slowed my posting pace.) It was a fantastic book, and I do feel like I missed out a bit by not having read it sooner. At its core, To Kill a Mockingbird shows an authentic picture of what life is like in small, Southern towns--what it was like then, and what it is like for many people even now. I think what struck me most about To Kill a Mockingbird is that while it is certainly a book about the cruelty of racism, that aspect is just one component of a larger tapestry of what it means to be a southern girl growing up in a small town in Alabama. I think what interests me most is that in many places, we are still using this novel to teach about race. My father, who hated everything about education growing up in Alabama loved To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think what he loved about it most was what it revealed about the problems with public education in the South for he knew all too well the flaws in the system. Anyway, my point is to say that he loved that book when he read it in the 1960s.
Here's what I want to know: Today, in 2016, is To Kill a Mockingbird still the best novel that we can use to teach about race?
For better or worse, I'm always reluctant to post controversial things. While I'm quite opinionated and not particularly "centrist" with my ideas, I prefer to keep things neutral when possible. I know I'm talking about a novel that many revere as sacred here, and I'm hesitant to say anything to rock the boat. But with white police killing black boys on a weekly basis and presidential candidates clearly promoting white superiority, I cannot help but think we have to do more to better educate our youth about race relations. Black lives matter, and black lives (as well as the lives of other people of color) need to be more of a focus in the literature that we teach. I have to question whether a southern novel written by a white woman in the 1960s is the best way we have to foster those discussions about race and the Other. I am not suggesting that we abandon the classics or stop teaching this novel, but I would like for us to take a long look at WHY we're teaching it and whether it truly meets all of our goals. What I don't want to see happen is for teachers to feel that they can check "race and racism" off on their list simply because they taught this novel.
I'd like to consider some other texts that might work better for us to talk about the complexities of race in today's society.
All American Boys (Jayson Reynolds and Brendan Kiely): This is a phenomenal read that highlights the complexity of race relations, particularly related to the issues we're seeing in our country today between police and the black community. Reynolds and Kiely write the novel from two perspectives, that of a black boy who is wrongly attacked by a police officer in a convenience store, and that of a white boy from the same school who witnesses the attack and knows the police officer well. While Reynolds and Kiely do an amazing job of layering and showing complexity, they write in a way that is very approachable for high school readers.
“Had our hearts really become so numb that we needed dead bodies in order to feel the beat of compassion in our chests? Who am I if I need to be shocked back into my best self?”
Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine): This poetry collection addresses the experiences of a black woman in America. It has images and art throughout that enhance the reader's experience. I love that it's poetry, and I was amazed by the way Rankine could evoke such powerful responses with so few words. This text would be hard for some students, but it would definitely work nicely paired with other texts, and excerpts could easily be used to complement other texts in class. The quote below--alone on a page in the collection--resonates so loudly as we face the news today.
“because white men can't
police their imagination
black men are dying”
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
Beautiful, gracious, and enlightening, Woodson's longer work in verse reflects on her youth leading into her adulthood. It's a captivating story that weaves together her family experiences, her own desires, and the pathway that led to her current life. Even better--it's poetry! Like Citizen, it would make a great work for excerpts, and it would expose the students to some stunning (but also accessible) poetry. Woodson comments on race and gender as a part of her life experiences, but the story simply tells of a girl's coming of age.
“I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now."