Joseph Brean, National Post, October 18, 2108
English literature teachers in a large Ontario school board have been urged not to teach the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird because it is harmful, violent and oppressive to black students, and its trope of a “white saviour” makes its black characters seem “less than human.”
“The use of racist texts as entry points into discussions about racism is hardly for the benefit of black students who already experience racism,” reads a directive to teachers in Peel, a suburban region northwest of Toronto. “This should give us pause — who does the use of these texts centre? Who does it serve? Why do we continue to teach them?”
The memo notes that the racist slur known as the n-word appears 19 times in the book. “Though this is not the only way that the novel is harmful, it does add to the violence of the book,” reads the memo, written by a senior school board administrator.
Black parents “detest the idea of their children having to read this novel,” it says. “The idea that banning books is about censorship and that censorship limits free speech is often decried as a poor reason to keep the novel on schools’ reading lists as its racist themes make it violent and oppressive for black students.”
The board denies that the memo constitutes either a ban or an argument to not teach the book.
“That’s not its intent at all,” said Adrian Graham, Peel’s superintendent of curriculum and instruction support services. “We’re definitely not about banning books. We don’t have any English texts that are banned.”
One Peel District School Board English teacher of long standing, however, called the memo “intimidating,” and a “de facto book ban” that tells teachers who dare to assign the book that they will not be supported by the school board if anyone complains.
The teacher was particularly bothered by the suggestion of white supremacy.
“White writers write from their own schemas, their own perspectives and white supremacist frameworks that reflect the specificity of their culture and history on racialized peoples,” the document says.
“That’s a dangerous thing, to refer to a white writer as a white supremacist,” the teacher said.
The teacher said the novel is typically read in Grade 9, and that it is always taught with a critical eye to racism and the story’s historical and political context, and author Harper Lee’s own orientation, as a white woman, to the racism of 1930s Alabama, where the story is set, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when it was published.
The teacher said, for example, that there is typically a discussion of the true story of racially motivated false accusations on which the book is partly based.
“Mentioning the history of racism, to me, isn’t racism itself,” the teacher said. “We’re not promoting racism, we’re referring to the reality of it.”
The teacher asked to be anonymous for fear of reprisal. The teacher said English teachers in Peel already seek out new and diverse authors, and teach more familiar canonical books through a critical lens, as the memo suggests.
The memo went out in June, but it was not until the school year started last month that English teachers were told the memo was to be taken seriously, that teachers who wanted to teach the book must first discuss their lesson plan with their principal, and that their names would be registered with the board to ensure compliance with guidelines, the teacher said.
“The memo kind of pretends that that’s our choice,” the teacher said. “If my board thinks that this book is racist, and if my principal agrees with it, and if the public has access to this information, then I don’t have a leg to stand on if a black parent comes to me and says, ‘The board thinks it’s racist, the principal thinks it’s racist, why are you teaching it?’ I think that constitutes pressure to not teach the book.”
Graham denied that the board is keeping a list, but said principals have been asked to speak to their English departments about the memo, and to perhaps bring in a literacy coordinator to support teachers in teaching the book from an anti-oppressive standpoint. He said the book is being taught this year in seven of Peel’s 37 schools.
The memo recommends a list of other books that deal with racism, by authors such as Lawrence Hill, Austin Clarke and David Chariandy, calling them “more rigorous, realistic and layered.”
It was written by Poleen Grewal, associate director of instructional and equity support services.
It also includes a list of factors teachers should consider before deciding to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, such as whether teachers have “experienced or studied race/racism,” and whether they know that it “ensures power and privilege for white folks.”
“Do I possess critical consciousness?” the document urges teachers to ask themselves. “Have I done the work or engaged in activities to reveal/interrogate my biases?”
“I worry about other books,” the teacher said. The memo also negatively mentions Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men.
The American Library Association lists To Kill a Mockingbird as among the Top 10 books targeted by banning efforts.
Earlier this year, a Minnesota school board dropped the book and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its required reading list, mainly for their use of racial slurs. The year before, a Mississippi board did the same. It is a common occurrence. Harper Lee herself fought back against banning campaigns. In 1966 she wrote a letter to a newspaper after a Virginia school board banned the book.
“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners,” she wrote. “To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of double-think. I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism.”