At WCI To Kill a Mockingbird used to be a reading requirement for grade 9 English class. In many classes it was taught as an eyeopener into racial injustices from the past. Many students who aren’t familiar with the history might not think twice about this characterization of the book, but for some it has proven to be harmful.
Ms. Crowell, the Head of the English Department at WCI said, “The fact that as a student I liked the story is an indicator that I was not aware of the problematic nature of the story as I am now as a teacher.”
Some have pointed out that the story is written from the point of view of a white child. How is the reader supposed to understand the real African American experience of the time from the point of view of a privileged child?
As someone who is biracial and was the only Black person in my class when I read it, it put me and my classmates in an extremely uncomfortable position.
The book uses the N-word very often throughout in a demeaning way against Black people. When reading aloud some teachers and students would say the full word and others would skip over it. When the word is said it can strike quite hard with some people, especially in the context of the book.
To put students in the position to possibly offend others or be offended is not worth it, especially when students are not taught the severity and meaning of the language used.
Ms. Doelman, the Assistant English Department Head at WCI explained, “It’s now such a historical book even just in the nature of its language and its context, which is American, that there’s so much supporting work a teacher would have to do in a really sensitive and careful way for students to access the meaning and understand the bigger picture so you can actually talk about anti-racism and how to be anti racist.”
“It just doesn’t get you there fast enough. There’s too many layers and too many ways to misstep yourself. I don’t think it helps address racial injustice; in fact my fear is that it actually perpetuates racial injustice.”
Although there are many layers to the story, Crowell believes it only offers one point of view and doesn’t “offer enough opportunity for really digging into current or modern context and conversation.”
The one perspective of the book “isn’t written from the perspective of lived experience” so she and the rest of the English Department thought, “What other novels can we talk about that we can have really powerful conversations with that aren’t necessarily what we’d call a ‘white saviour’ story?”
She also described how many students complained about the stereotypes and language represented and said was a harmful and traumatic experience to read the book.
The English Department has had to find replacements now for each grade. There are always a collection of 10-12 books to choose from that go with new themes they have appointed in each grade. The novels offered follow a range of world problems and complexities.
Crowell said, “Through the summer we worked with our department team to do a book club and pull books to read.” They worked to figure out which books would work well with different grades in an effort to “de-centre white voices and bring richness of lived experience and also reconfigure and dismantle that white cannon that we had here at WCI with a range of other offerings.”
Some of the novels now offered in grade 9 are The Hate you Give, The Marrow Thieves, and Frying Plantain Stories.
I think other schools that still teach To Kill a Mockingbird should follow WCI in choosing other titles to teach in grade 9, books that are less harmful to the students who read them.FOLLOW FJORD: