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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

Mississippi students allowed to read To Kill a Mockingbird – with a parent’s note

Biloxi officials had pulled Harper Lee’s classic novel from lesson plan for junior high students after a complaint that language in the book ‘makes people uncomfortable’.

books Updated: Oct 30, 2017 10:06 IST

The Guardian
Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in a still from the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.
Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in a still from the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.(Imdb)

Junior high school students in Biloxi, Mississippi, will be allowed after all to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic novel of race and racism in the American south as part of their regular study – but only with permission from a parent.

Earlier this month, the Sun Herald reported that administrators pulled the novel from the eighth-grade lesson plan because language in the book “makes people uncomfortable”.

An email to the newspaper from a reader said the use of the word “nigger” was the reason for the book being pulled. The parent who complained about the book told a school board meeting students “were laughing out loud” at the word.

“Is there not a better way to teach about that era and the horrors of that era, other than having kids laughing in class when the N-word is said?” Yolanda Williams asked . “It should not be required reading for all students. My child shouldn’t have to sit in that class like that.”


Biloxi public schools superintendent Arthur McMillan subsequently said that though the book was no longer required reading, it remained available to students.

“This book has not been banned,” he said, “this book has not been taken away from students, no school policy has been violated and students continue to be afforded the opportunity to read and study this book.”

The Sun Herald reported this week that Biloxi Junior High principal Scott Powell wrote to parents of eighth-graders to say teachers would now “offer the opportunity for interested students to participate in an in-depth book study of the novel during regularly scheduled classes as well as the optional after school sessions”.

Students interested in studying the Pulitzer prize-winning 1960 book – and the Oscar-winning 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in depression-era Alabama – were required to have a permission slip signed by a parent and a teacher, the paper said. Students who did not wish to read the book would be assigned an alternative title.

Lee died last year at 89 after the publication of another novel, Go Set a Watchman , that describes events after those depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird and also contains depictions of issues of race that many modern readers have found uncomfortable.

The Biloxi decision to withdraw To Kill a Mockingbird from class study – following similar cases in the US – caused national outcry and made headlines around the world.

Jennifer Riley Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said in a statement: “In a state like Mississippi, where we continue to deal with racial injustices and discrimination even today, it is critical that our students have the opportunity to engage on the themes presented in To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In a letter to the Biloxi school board, the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut offered help in teaching great books that deal with difficult language and subjects in manners now considered outdated.

Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, has been the subject of similar controversy over its attitudes and language and the presence of a character named Nigger Jim.

“Great literature makes us uncomfortable,” the letter read. “It changes how we think, forcing us to analyse our established points of view.”

First Published: Oct 30, 2017 10:05 IST

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