The American Library Association has To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as one of the top 10 most challenged books in 2017. Similar to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the language against black characters is one of the top reasons cited in this book being challenged/banned. Understandably, this language in today’s society isn’t to be tolerated due to it typically being in the context of or seen as a slur but readers of books like Mockingbird and Huck Finn may be unaware that such language was quite commonplace at the time.
Now, in light of our values today, many are offended by this but I think it’s important to look at the context of the time. Yes, we know people were wrong for their actions during that time but by foregoing this book, you miss an opportunity.
Times were obviously different in the South during the 1930s and understanding that is the first step to reading any literature others find offensive. Now “things were different back then” is no excuse for continued behavior today but it does require a reader to give these characters and the author some leeway when it comes to settings where the culture of the time was much different than ours. Writing or reading these uncomfortable things is still dealing in the truth of the time.
While I won’t go into detail about To Kill A Mockingbird since many people may have read it (and if you’ve not, please go do so right now) but I think it’s important to look past these things in a book we may find offensive because this is a fantastic coming-of-age novel that has so much to teach us about race, courage, and simply doing the right thing.
I know why people challenged or even banned this book but I don’t understand it. Sometimes hearing or seeing things that are hard for us to take in or even offend us is important so that we can gain empathy or at least see how things were before we moved forward in our culture. By no means do I want to comment on race in America, but I believe strongly in keeping books like To Kill A Mockingbird available and even as required reading because it has so much to teach about old attitudes and reflect on why we no longer want a culture like that.
Sometimes fighting with a person or group only solidifies their position (as did many in the town where Atticus Finch practices law) but if we can show people why they are of the wrong mind about something (like race in the case of Mockingbird) perhaps we stand a better chance at changing them. At least, for me, that’s the lesson in To Kill A Mockingbird.