To Kill a Mockingbird is undoubtedly an American classic. Heralded by PBS as “America’s Favorite Novel” in 2018, most schools have adopted it as required reading since its publication. To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM) is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression. The story centers on the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongly accused of raping a White woman. Scout, the book's six-year-old narrator, watches her father, Atticus Finch, struggle to defend him, both in and out of court.
However, the adoration Americans have for this classic conveniently ignores the fact that it’s the lesser of other great books that address racism and classism; books like Just Mercy, All American Boys, and The Vanishing Half are all examples of modern novels that would better address those issues. In fact, TKAM fails to give its Black characters agency and a voice. To better reflect the racial reckoning of the past few years, TKAM must go.
The first major issue is the historical accuracy of the novel. By having a child no more than nine years old narrate the story, author Harper Lee is able to gloss over the reality of the Black community in the 1930s. The most prominent scene where this occurs is when Scout witnesses a mob attempting to kill Tom Robinson, the Black defendant. Ultimately, Scout’s adolescent innocence is able to stop the mob. Atticus later argues that the scene proves “that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.”
The key problem in this scene is that the mob’s eventual diplomacy is entirely unrealistic. In reality, Black people were, in every case, lynched and tortured, abhorrently. Whereas, Lee is able to humanize the mob. With a lack of historical accuracy, students aren’t given a true exposure to the Black experience of the early 20th century.
This just goes to show that the Black experience was never the focus of TKAM. Instead, the book centers on White life. The story is quite literally seen through the eyes of a White girl, and the morality of a Black man is quite literally argued by a White man. The richest characters are invariably White. Characters like Tom Robinson and Calpurnia, the Finch family’s Black maid, lack complete histories, personalities, and development.
Accordingly, America’s beloved Atticus Finch is Lee’s white savior. It’s convenient for many Americans to read stories where the kind, white protagonist protects the oppressed. Because of this, the opinions of BIPOC characters are silenced. Students reading this book are constantly reminded of Black characters having to depend on a White man to “save” them.
Duly, David E. Kirkland, the Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, finds that, with its emphasis on whiteness, TKAM is “about the ability for White people to be seen as human, and moral, and good.”
In a way, this makes sense. TKAM was published in 1960, when the civil rights movement was beginning to gain momentum. It’s clear that Lee’s target audience was liberal White people. TKAM was a call to action for them to get involved in the movement.
However, the public school population has become much more racially and ethnically diverse. Not every student identifies with the main, White characters. Some identify with Tom Robinson, or with Calpurnia, or even Mayella Ewell, who lives in the lower class and experiences sexual abuse. Others don’t identify with any but still identify as minorities that face racial and socioeconomic struggles on a daily basis. TKAM pushes these characters to the margins. Students today need characters they can relate to.
To be able to have students relate to more characters, and to have a better discussion about racial injustice, schools can choose from a variety of books. These include The Hate U Give, The Bluest Eye, and Monster, where the narrator is the Black defendant, while the white lawyer plays a lesser part in the plot. In other words, students must learn about racism through the eyes of those who actually experience it. BIPOC authors must be more widely read in America’s schools.
The conversation about racial justice has changed significantly in the past sixty years. The focus can no longer be on the “heroism” of White people. The focus needs to be on the Black stories of the past and present. To Kill a Mockingbird will always remain an American classic. But the America of the 1960s is not the America of today. The books students read in American classrooms must reflect that change.