In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking inspiration from her family and an event in her childhood, Lee told a story of racism, injustice, and growing up in 1930s Alabama. The book was an instant classic but became one of the most challenged books in schools around the country. What makes this book so enduring and so controversial? How can readers wrestle with its themes and flaws? Here are five essays about To Kill A Mockingbird:
The author of this essay read To Kill A Mockingbird in 8th grade. He loved it. Later, when he tried teaching the book to his students, the kids didn’t connect to it. This isn’t unusual. Why? Cashmere states that it’s because too many white teachers neglect to discuss how racial justice has changed over the years. This gap in understanding also hurts students of color. Cashmere explores five ideas on how to teach this book today, including decentering whiteness and including Go Set A Watchman, the sequel that shook white readers’ view of Atticus Finch.
DJ Cashmere is a print and audio journalist in New York. He covers urban policy, culture, and education.
Similar in theme to the first essay, “We Shouldn’t Always Feel Comfortable” addresses a recent reason schools aren’t reading Mockingbird: its racial themes cause discomfort. Torres, a middle-school English teacher, believes that discomfort is a sign the novel should still be read. The use of the N-word in the novel should make both students and teachers uncomfortable. Torres writes that it’s important for teachers and students to wrestle with the word. Good education includes facing uncomfortable things. It’s the only way to change. Note: In the comments section, Torres does say she understands that in majority-Black classrooms, the novel may be too problematic. The “good discomfort” she’s describing applies to classrooms where non-Black students wrestle with their own biases and history.
Christina Torres is a teacher and writer. Her work has appeared in Honolulu Civil Beat, Teaching Tolerance, and EdWeek Teacher. She writes about culture, education, race relations, and fitness.
Aaron Sorkin adapted To Kill A Mockingbird for Broadway, where it opened in 2018. It was a huge success. Jeff Daniels played Atticus Finch, who is centered as the main character instead of Scout, the novel’s narrator. E.R. Shipp saw the play, describing Daniels as “magnificent.” There were updates she appreciated, such as Calpurnia having a bigger role. Still, as Shipp watches the stage, she realizes how clear it is that Mockingbird is for white people. They like to imagine themselves as friends of Atticus and fighters for justice. Even adjusted for the times, Mockingbird still centers whiteness.
E.R. Shipp is a journalist. In 1996, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. She’s the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication.
Drawing on the history of Southern politics, this essay compares Atticus Finch to Jim Folsom, the populist Alabama governor in the 1940s and 50s. On the surface, Folsom and Atticus are both progressives. However, even though Atticus stands up to racists, he doesn’t address the racist system. When Tom Robinson is found guilty, Atticus just hangs his head. He isn’t angry with the town’s blatant disregard for justice. While many readers adore Atticus, seeing him compared to a real person – Jim Folsom – reveals the problematic aspects of his character.
Since 1996, Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer for The New Yorker. He’s also a best-selling author, podcaster, and public speaker.
We shouldn’t ignore Lee’s controversial sequel in an article about To Kill A Mockingbird. Announced in 2015, many questioned Lee’s involvement in Go Set a Watchman. Did she give informed consent? Was this just about money? Then the book came out. Many readers were horrified to learn that Atticus Finch is racist. This essay digs into that revelation and asks what this means for To Kill A Mockingbird.
Dara Lind has worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014. She’s one of the US’ leading immigration reporters and also covers stories on federal data, police shootings, and more.