Broadway’s introduction to Aaron Sorkin’s 2019 adaptation of Harper Lee’s literary classic cites a survey “on books that have most affected people’s lives [in which] To Kill a Mockingbird was second only to the Bible.” In May of this year, that same blockbuster became “the top-grossing American play in Broadway history” to date.
The story’s collective renown is indisputable: it has earned a Pulitzer Prize, some Oscars, a Broadway play, and the minds and hearts of America. Charming, tender, and inspirational, To Kill a Mockingbird is a seminal American classic with virtually no rival in modern national literature.
Up to this point, I’m on board with the rest of sentimental America.
But my concern with the book has less to do with its entertainment or cultural value and more to do with its exaltation as a profound and serious examination of American racism, for to suggest that Mockingbird is an introspective exegesis of America’s Original Sin is not only misleading, but quite dangerous.
Despite its reputation, Mockingbird fails to adequately address institutional racism in America.
I realize that to some, I may be blaspheming against literary gospel. But I invite my respected critics to set aside their musings of idyllic childhood storybooks and to come to terms with the fact that despite its reputation, Mockingbird fails to adequately address institutional racism in America.
Its popularity aside, it has some serious shortcomings. First, it’s preachy, and its moral isn’t exactly electrifying. The novel’s conclusion doesn’t celebrate America’s imminent conquest over racism, but instead, solemnly accepts the fact that in such an unjust and bigoted society, you can still find a handful of good white folk.
That’s not much to celebrate, and it shouldn’t make us feel very good. Especially not in 2019, when the very same race dynamics of that novel’s era continue to the present day. It should alarm us that this book’s relevance has endured for so long; evidently, little has changed since 1960.
It should alarm us that this book’s relevance has endured for so long; evidently, little has changed since 1960.
Second, its oversimplification of the complexities of racism is insulting, even childish. The triviality of its imagery—from a white rabid dog sniped John Wayne-style by the Maycomb-Christ Atticus Finch, to an Alabama daughter-raping redneck named Robert E. Lee—undermines the seriousness of the subject at hand. Superficial caricatures can do wonders in Aesop’s Fables and The Three Little Pigs, but American racism requires a bit more seriousness than that.
It’s easy to hail the Finches, despise the Ewells, and pity Tom Robinson because the novel’s portrayal of these non-dimensional archetypes is so stereotypical that the reader is left with no choice. Even an admitted bigot could not openly condone the likes of “Robert E. Lee” Ewell over the poor, pitiful invalid Tom Robinson.
The unrelenting applause over Mockingbird only serves to reflect the absence—indeed evasion—of genuine race dialogue in America.
Which brings me to my third point: Mockingbird‘s characters are so oversimplified that it comes off as racist in its own right. It’s just plain wrong to suggest that racist America can be summed up as simply “The Ewells.” Sure, the Trump-supporting “deplorable” could be one stereotype of racism, but so can the professor who won’t be bothered with Mexican male students because “research suggests” that they’re least likely to earn a college degree; so is the concerned father who won’t have his daughter driving anywhere near “Detroit;” so is the uncanny correlation between insurance rates and the agency’s statistical determination of “risk;” and so is the continuous surge of suburban communities in hyper-flight.
Conversely, the African American experience is more complex than that of Maycomb’s blacks. Racism isn’t just po’ ole’ Tom Robinson; it’s also Ellison’s invisibility. It’s also Frederick Douglass’s forewarning that true slavery isn’t the denial of mother, name, and birthday, but of an adequate education and functional literacy. It’s the despair in Harriet Jacobs’ words (“There are wrongs which even the grave does not bury”) reflected in Dr. Cheryl Neely’s research on “media and law enforcement bias in reporting and investigating homicides of African American women compared with their white counterparts.”
By only attacking the skin surface of racism, Mockingbird misses the real inner workings of an institution which has endured until this very day.
The unrelenting applause over Mockingbird only serves to reflect the absence—indeed evasion—of genuine race dialogue in America. By attacking only the skin surface of racism, Mockingbird entirely misses the real inner workings of an institution which has endured until the present day.
At best, Mockingbird is a simplistic moral allegory which introduces children to some of the “big people” problems they might encounter and reminds them to do the right thing. But it concerns me as an educator that for decades, this book has continued to be presented as a testament of literary brilliance. It’s time to shelve this nostalgic and dated gem up high next to Gone with the Wind, Anne of Green Gables, and Little House on the Prairie.