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Why 'To Kill A Mockingbird' Still Matters

Ignoring What The Classics Can Teach

As an English teacher, I'm often dismayed or utterly angry when I hear about certain grassroots movements to have books banned. Banning books has the equivalent flavor of ignoring history altogether, and we all know how well that works for us.

Once again, two of the great classics of American literature, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are being targeted for their use of the 'n-word'. It's easy to understand why parents are concerned about the use of such a word, if it was used out of context from each of these two books. This is the 21st century, after all, and as such, our society is supposed to be far more enlightened than to use such offensive language.

However, To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn well before that in 1885 in the United States. In each of these two eras, and particularly in the case of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, western society is historically noted as not exactly having an enlightened view of African Americans, having still been in the midst of slavery or segregation at those particular times. As such, very pejorative terms were regularly used to describe those of African American descent.

Both of these novels have nothing to do with the promotion of the 'n-word.' There is nothing at all to suggest in each of these novels that would indicate Lee or Twain had some sort of racially-motivated agenda to include such language.

But there is history, and that can be a very powerful motivator in and of itself.

In addition, both Twain and Lee were products of their generation, though the writing itself is timeless. It would not have made any sense to have their white characters, who were also products of their time, not even hear or use the 'n-word'. Neither writer could have anticipated the wild success of their works, nor could they have imagined that their work would make their way into classrooms for continued use even today.

The lessons that can be learned from To Kill a Mockingbird and from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and novels like them, go far beyond the simple use of the 'n-word.' It's time everyone begin to realize that.

Understanding Is Key

A scene from the movie based on 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

A scene from the movie based on 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

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Lessons Learned

While the language in To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might be viewed as offensive by some in a 21st century audience, it also has to be viewed in context. By understanding context, readers can better understand the themes of tolerance, empathy, and morality that come into play in both novels. Like it or not, the use of the 'n-word' plays into that to a certain extent.

Parents do not want their kids using inappropriate language, and in a 21st century world, the 'n-word' certainly falls into the category of inappropriate. However, in looking at the word in context, given the time periods in which the stories are set for To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, readers are better able to understand the social pressures characters in the stories are under. In the case of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck's rampant use of the word allows us to understand the conflicts he faces as he travels with escaped African American slave Jim and his motivations. One of the main characters of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout's father Atticus Finch, is accused of being a 'n-lover,' which confuses the young Scout, and from that readers are able to see the racism that plagues so many in Scout's small Alabama town and how Atticus is trying to help his children move past that.

Neither novel is an easy read, but they are important reads, and if they are to be banned, parents and school boards are effectively depriving their children of some of the most important and incredible historical lessons that no parent-child conversation could ever adequately teach. While some may question the promotion of Huckleberry Finn as a children's book - I recall reading it at around age 9, if for no other reason than I was a voracious reader - that doesn't mean that the lessons the novel teaches are any less important.

Banning any book promotes lack of understanding, and to ban certain novels due to language that is deemed offensive by 21st century standards is to send a message that teachers can't be trusted to establish appropriate context for their audiences to understand why certain language is used and to simply cut off the lessons about tolerance and acceptance that can be learned from each of these novels.

If we as a society are to continue to work towards improving understanding and acceptance of each other, these novels and others like it need to continue to be taught and to thrive. Perhaps then we can consider ourselves to be truly enlightened.

We Can't Ignore Important Lessons


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