A High School in Edinburgh, Scotland has decided to stop teaching the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in an attempt to “decolonize the curriculum” after teachers complained that the novel promoted the “white savior” narrative. This effort to remove To Kill a Mockingbird from curriculums is not exclusive to Scotland. School boards across the United States have been removing this book from their curriculums for the past few years.
This effort not only reveals these teachers’ ignorance of the subject matter that they were teaching, but also exposes their own racial prejudices. Instead of judging the morals and lessons Atticus Finch teaches his children based on their own merits, these people judge the merits of what he taught based on the color of his skin.
Early in the novel, Atticus tells his daughter that “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Is that lesson immoral or inappropriate? Should that lesson be barred from schools? No, that lesson should be taught to all kids, and all adults for that matter. It is a universal truth. A truth about the importance of understanding the humanity of others, and realizing that other people have feelings, emotions, and sensibilities just like you, and the only way we can see another’s humanity is to see their life perspective.
But that message has become problematic to teach in 2021 not because it is inherently wrong or evil, but solely because, in this novel, a white man is teaching it. Making decisions of what can and can’t be taught not on the substance of the lessons, but based on skin color of the teacher is blatantly racist, and hypocritical to the arguments used to remove the book in the first place. The very reason why a novel that teaches a lesson like that is being barred because the “woke” school boards barring it have not learned that lesson.
Do the teachers and board members barring this book realize that the author who wrote those very words in 1960, who wanted the messages of anti-prejudice and inclusion which permeates her novel to be taught to the world was a white woman, Harper Lee, born in Monroeville, Alabama in 1926? Do they realize that the racist south where the novel is set, happened to produce a white person with the same anti-prejudice beliefs that they argue is antithetical to Atticus Finch because he is a southern white man? Do they want this book barred because it challenges their own prejudices which believe all white people from the south are racist, and they cannot conceive of even of one southern white person who could not be racist?
This book is art emulating life. But those who disparage To Kill a Mockingbird cannot understand and embrace its true and essential meaning because they cannot see beyond their own racial biases. This novel was not simply a story about a racist incident in the 1930’s South, and Atticus Finch was not the savior. This was a novel about prejudice in all its forms. The racial incident was the backdrop of a deeper introspection into the pervasive prejudices that we all harbor. For example, Scout’s quick uniformed judgement of her teacher, the biases she shows toward her classmate, Walter Cunningham, her and Jem’s judgement and mistreatment of Mrs. DuBose, and most importantly their fear and harassment of Bo Radley based solely on rumor and inuendo. All of these judgements were derived from their shallow and superficial understanding of the person being judged.
In the end, Bo Radley, not Atticus Finch was the savior. The ostracized, much maligned and feared introvert, the person who Scout and Jem terrorized every summer, saved them from being murdered by Bob Ewell. Bo Radley was the hero, not the prominent white lawyer or the sheriff or the judge. No, the mocked and ridiculed recluse, the pariah to decent society was the savior, and it was he who taught Scout that valuable lesson of perspective when she stood on his porch at the end, looking at the town from his point of view.
But this type of attack on To Kill a Mockingbird, is not new. After the novel first came out, many racist segregationists called for the book to be banned. In 1966, during the aftermath of the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, a school board in Richmond, Virginia banned the book claiming it was "immoral literature". Apparently, only racists want to ban this book which promotes anti-prejudice and inclusive messages.
Harper Lee responded to the Richmond School Board by writing them a letter stating, “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.” And James J. Kilpatrick, editor of The Richmond News Leader, wrote an editorial defending To Kill a Mockingbird saying, "A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined." The School Boards in Edinburgh, Scotland, and throughout the United States should take heart that they share the same beliefs regarding a colorblind society as segregationists from the 1960’s.
In today’s highly polarized society where harsh judgements are passed recklessly, where if you believe something different than the mob, or have a different perspective, you’re labeled as evil, and cancelled, the message of To Kill a Mockingbird is needed more than ever. It is as necessary today as it was at any other time to try to see life from another’s point of view, to climb in their skin and walk around. We have become a society completely lacking in the ability to understand anything beyond ourselves. We judge and judge and judge without knowing or caring to see all the facts or all the different perspectives. We would all do well to hold our judgments of other people until we can see the world from their perspective. Instead, our society is continually searching for the thinnest reasons to hate people, clamoring to cancel others, for even the meagerest offenses without context, without the benefit of perspective. The lessons that Atticus Finch taught his children if embraced and put into practice would go a long way in unifying and healing our divided nation, and maybe that is the reason why so many who profit from our division want this book banned.
After giving Scout and Jem air-rifles, Atticus tells them, “remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” And Miss Maudie later explained to Scout what he meant, “Your father’s right. Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Ironically, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird has become the mockingbird that Atticus warned it was a sin to kill. This novel has done nothing for the last 60 years but bring us enjoyable stories, heart-wrenching drama, challenging perspectives, and valuable lessons we can all benefit from. It has expanded our minds and opened our hearts. And therefore, it would truly be a sin to kill To Kill a Mockingbird.
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He has been a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.